Based on the musical by Akiko Kodama
Original summary courtesy of Takarazuka Wikipedia; Pictures from Youtube, Enak Sumire Style Graph, TCA Pictures, and Asahi First Night Event and Revue Articles; Translation of ‘Eres Mi Amor’ from My Takarazuka Journal
Performed in 2007 by Takarazuka Star Troupe
Eres Mi Amor as sung by Aran Kei
The museum was closing up. They had done brisk business all day, for there was a special exhibit on display. The Crown Jewels. Not the crown jewels of England, or of one of the great monarchies, but rather those of a small, independent, charming country in southern Europe that has since been swallowed up by the whims and wiles of politics.
Pallas Athena was located close enough to Italy to be blessed with lovely weather and fine architecture, yet small enough to be rarely troubled with wars and other great events that shook the foundations of the neighboring great powers. It was still a monarchy, only slightly limited in power by a small group of landed advisors to the king. The King at this time was a very good king, and he was very old in this year of Our Lord 1948. His name was Guillame Georges VI, and he looked like no one so much as Santa Claus. He had a granddaughter named Jennifer who was next in line to the throne, and the people loved her very much because she was very pretty and charming.
Part of the reason that the crown jewels were on display in the museum was that Princess Jennifer, accompanied by her grandfather the king, was visiting the island that the museum was built on for the first time. It was a fairly small island, as islands go, and it was sticking up out of the water in a pleasant corner of the Caribbean where even the biggest hurricanes rarely venture. Some great power, for some reason or other, had given it to the kingdom of Pallas Athena in return for a favor of some kind, and it had been a favorite vacation spot for King Guillame Georges and his late wife, Queen Maria Augusta Theresa.
But now the museum was closing up for the night. Security was tight, of course, because it wouldn’t do to have the crown jewels stolen. The guards locked everything up carefully and set the numerous burglar alarms. Then they went away to a clambake hosted by the head guardsman and enjoyed the fresh seafood and the music that some local musicians played on their many-toned steel drums.
Inside the museum, all was quiet.
A cricket, who had strayed into the museum during the heat of the day, squeaked his hind legs together. The stone floor was cold, and he didn’t like it. He cocked his antennae and listened. What was that slight scuffing sound? Was there a snake loose in the dark museum? He scuttled away and hid in a corner, just in case.
A long, slender rope with knots tied at even intervals along its length slipped slowly down from the ceiling in a spot where there were no burglar alarms. The end hit the floor with a soft thump and coiled a few times. The rope stopped moving, and there came a little more soft scuffing from up near the ceiling. The rope jerked, and swung slightly from side to side. There was a little louder scuffing, like a ceiling panel being slid back into place, then just the faint creaking of the rope and the soft sounds of controlled breathing as a dark figure climbed nimbly down the rope and crouched on the floor at the bottom, listening for any watchmen that still might be in the museum. Satisfied that no one had observed his entrance, the dark figure stood up, and as he did, the soft glow given off by one of the burglar alarms passed over his face.
He was a young man, with brownish blond hair that had been bleached on the top by the Caribbean sunshine and big dark eyes that suggested that somewhere in his ancestry there was a lovely Spanish señorita. He must have gotten his smile from her too, because it was a nice smile, with a hint of naughtiness in it and a way of quirking up one corner of his mouth. His body was tough and wiry, but not particularly tall, rather more on the short side. He surveyed the pulsing burglar alarms and adjusted his black gloves, which were missing the ends of the fingers.
“So – the crown jewels,” he mused. His eyes twinkled, and he shook his head. “Gonna be interesting.”
He stretched, leaning over one way, then the other, griping softly under his breath. He rolled his head from side to side, loosening up his neck. “Okay,” he told himself, limbering up his wrists and bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet. He put his arms over his head and tried to touch his toes. He couldn’t.
“Yikes.” He stood up again and adjusted his black leather jacket, humming a catchy little tune under his breath, and faced the burglar alarms.
“Careful now,” he muttered. “There may be nothing in the world you can’t steal, but these fellows are a different kettle of fish.” He bent backwards, trying to ease himself under the mesh of alarms, and had to give up. “Gotta be an easier way.”
He knelt down and peered under. “Here we go.” He slipped under on his stomach and stood up inside the cage of sensitive wires, chuckling softly to himself. He bowed grandly to the crown jewels on their red velvet pillow inside yet another burglar alarm.
“Mucho gusto, how do you do?”
His slender, sensitive fingers felt quickly along the sides of the pedestal where the jewels rested and found what they were looking for – a small maintenance opening. He popped it open, spilling out a tangle of colored wires. “Ah-ha!” He scooped up a handful and stood up, holding them close to the light that displayed the crown jewels. From his back pocket he produced a wire cutter with insulated handles and quickly snipped all the wires. The alarms winked out.
“Here we go.” He put his hand on the ornate golden crown, and instantly sirens and alarms wailed. “Hey, what the…?”
Island policemen in dungarees and caps, brandishing their sticks, came running in, blowing their whistles. The thief turned his back on the crown jewels, waving his hands at the policemen.
“Hey, it’s all right, I missed the regular hours and…”
“What are you doing here?” The policemen looked stern – and uncertain.
The thief flashed them a cheeky grin through the defunct burglar alarms. “Dusting.” He put his hands in his pockets. “These lovely jewels were sitting here all alone, and they were afraid of the dark, so…”
The thief rolled his eyes at a woman in a yellow floral pantsuit who had just come in. She had red sunglasses pushed up on the top of her head, holding back her straight blond hair, and was swinging a pair of handcuffs.
“Anna Maria,” he complained, “you never let me have any fun and…”
“The crown jewels are not for you,” she retorted.
Dagobert pulled a sweetly innocent face at her. “What makes you think I was trying to steal them? They’re still sitting right there in the case behind me, and…”
“Enough talking,” Anna Maria cried. “Arrest him!”
The thief snatched the jewels and ducked under the burglar alarms, waving the crown over his head.
“See, here they are!” he laughed. The policemen had to come up on the platform to get at him, and he swung his foot, kicking them down, and darted for the exit.
“Ignacio!” Anna Maria yelled. “Stop him!” Her assistant brought up his gun and started shooting blindly. The policemen and the thief dove for cover, and when the woman detective finally got her assistant under control, the thief jumped up and loped off into the darkness.
“Adios, Anna Maria!” he called back mockingly. He did so enjoy teasing her. He heard the woman detective and the policemen go running off in the wrong direction, and he laughed quietly from his hiding place. He tucked the jewels under his black jacket and sauntered calmly out of the museum, picking an old lock on a window to let himself out. It was a good night’s work.
In the cozy seacoast town of La Prada, an island away, a tall young man with jet black hair and a swarthy complexion sauntered along the quay. There was an almost feline grace to his movements, suggesting an accomplished dancer, and he wore a crisp cream linen suit and a matching hat at a jaunty angle to set off a cheerful orange shirt. He took a table with a blue and white umbrella at an outdoor café and picked up the morning newspaper.
“Ah, the crown jewels have been stolen – such a calamity!” he chuckled. He refolded the paper with a smug grin and reached for his coffee.
“Sergio!” The unattended paper was snatched neatly out of his hand. “Don’t shout like that.”
Sergio laughed. “Dag! I see it went well.” He thrust out his hand in congratulation. “You’re all over the headlines.”
Dagobert, known as Dag to his friends and contacts, glanced at the paper.
“Yeah, so what?” He lightly smacked Sergio’s lean stomach with the paper. “Cut it out.” Sergio’s hands closed over the paper.
“Cut it out? Why? No need to be touchy.”
The young thief sat down. He was wearing a white suit and hat, with a pale green shirt. “Look, I don’t need to do jobs for you.” He set a dark briefcase beside his chair, and as he bent over a silver medal flashed at his throat.
Sergio sat back down across from him and smirked. Dag knew the smirk. Sergio was probably his best friend, but sometimes he reminded Dag of a big friendly brown and black cat. “But I do have another one lined up – a good one.”
“This time it should be interesting – the thing you have to make away with is a woman.”
Dag nearly fell out of his chair. “A woman?” he squawked. He made a face at his friend. “No!”
Sergio crossed his leg over his knee. “What’s the matter? I don’t see why a woman is so different than anything else. If you’re the greatest thief in the Caribbean…”
Dag stood up and walked away from the table, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Women are nothing but trouble.”
Sergio followed him and draped his arm around his shoulders persuasively. “Think of it this way – a woman is like a jewel; another pretty thing to steal because someone wants it who it doesn’t belong to.” He shrugged his shoulders. “There’s no difference, really. And the job is expensive…” he hinted, looking his friend sideways under the brim of his hat. Big friendly cat thinking about a fat mouse.
Dag reluctantly sat back down at the table, then sat up straighter and handed him the briefcase, glad to have a new topic.
“Here they are – the crown jewels,” he announced grandly. He leaned back and coolly crossed his leg over his knee. It had been a slick job, after all.
Sergio peeked inside the briefcase.
“Fantastico!” he beamed. He delved into the inner breast pocket of his suit and produced a thick wad of bills with a flourish. “Here you are, Señor Dagoberto!”
Dag took them and tucked them into the same pocket on his own suit. He took off his hat and turned it in his hands.
“So you’ll take the job?”
Dag scowled at him over the hat. Back to it already.
Sergio threw back his head and laughed. “I knew you would. Why so hesitant? You afraid of women?”
Dag squirmed. “I don’t want to get involved with them.”
“I knew it!” Sergio crowed. “The great Dagoberto is afraid of women!” He reached over and patted the thief patronizingly on the head, ruffling his light hair. “You still haven’t grown up, is that it? You’re afraid of falling in love,” he cooed.
Dag shoved him away and stood up. “Stop it.” Sergio was only a few years older than he was, but he was the type who always seemed to have at least one girl hanging around, and he never seemed to lack sweet nothings to say to them.
“Well anyway,” Sergio went on cheerfully, following him, “the woman will be at the party tonight, for the Princess of Pallas Athena. It’s on the big royal yacht, so you’ll have to get out there somehow. And they’re all bigwigs, so you’ll have to be dressed to the nines. So dashing!”
Dag turned around and made a face at him. “Do you have a picture of her, at least?”
“Of course not! She’ll be wearing a red dress, so she should be easy to spot.”
“And if there are thirteen women wearing red dresses?”
“Then it’s bad luck!” Sergio laughed. “But my source says she should be the only one. They make some kind of fuss about all looking different. Silly people.”
Dag put his hat back on. “Where do I have to take her?”
“You know that café on the water in San Dominique, the Villa Cristallo?”
“I’ll be waiting there. It’s fairly close to the royal palace. All you have to do is get her to the restaurant, and I’ll take care of her from there. That’s all.”
Dag rolled his eyes. “Right.”
Getting into a tuxedo and getting out to the yacht proved to be the easy part of the job. The royal yacht was set to start out from the wharf behind the palace, so Dag arrived early and drifted into the palace gardens, hoping to spy out a way to get aboard without being seen. At first he felt horribly conspicuous, but then when a liveried footman offered him a glass of wine he realized that he fit right in with the other guests. The man at the shop had said the tux was the latest rage, and Dag was glad to see that he was right. The jacket was white, with a black stripe on the lapels; but the pants were black, and there were a black cummerbund and bowtie to match. The wing collar felt a little restricting, but not too bad. He scanned the crowd, hoping to catch sight of the ‘woman in the red dress.’ No sign of her yet. Maybe she was on the ship already.
An elderly lady, overdressed, stout, and out of breath, was puffing down the path toward the gangplank.
Dag put on his most helpful smile. “May I assist you, Señora?”
She looked up in surprise, thinking he had materialized out of the bushes. Dag hadn’t realized he had come up so quietly.
“My apologies.” He held out his arm, and after looking him critically up and down the stout lady accepted it.
“My husband is still talking with the king,” she puffed, as they made their way slowly down the path to the water. “He and Guillame will always find much too much to talk about, and he forgets all about me.” She put out her lower lip in an absurd pout. Dag bit back a smile and endeavored to appear properly sympathetic.
“He won’t be alarmed at your absence?”
She sniffed. “Not he.”
Dag swallowed a delighted laugh. He had a free pass onto the yacht.
Security didn’t look at him twice. He finally got the stout old lady safely stowed aboard and talking with her acquaintances; then he edged discreetly away before she could ask his name. He took up a stand near a large potted palm and surveyed his position. The whole ship was lit up like a carnival at night, and there were elegantly dressed people swarming everywhere on the top decks. Ritzy, all right. Through a doorway he could see a dining room that was positively sparkling with crystal and silver, where white-uniformed staff were setting up a veritable feast. Here and there on the fringes of the throng he saw men who he guessed were security – their suits were a shade plainer than the general level of dress, and they weren’t talking as much. He realized that there was music coming from somewhere, and finally spotted a string orchestra hidden behind a row of potted ornamental shrubs. Abruptly they struck up a grand fanfare, and everyone quieted down and turned toward the gangplank.
The Royal Family, apparently. There seemed to be a lot of them, though. Dag saw a stocky old man with a thick white beard and a large stomach who had to be the king of Pallas Athena – although there were so many medals on his suit that Dag wondered how much the whole rig weighed. He had a graceful, dark-haired, middle-aged woman on his arm who Dag figured was Princess Jennifer. After them came the governor, a tall graying man, with a young woman on his arm. The young woman was smiling, and she seemed very popular. His daughter or some society queen, he supposed. After them came a dour looking man with a slight stoop and only a few medals on his suit, and a boy who seemed hardly more than a teenager who looked around in a bored fashion. The crowd shifted a little, making room for them and the rest of the party, and Dag straightened to make sure he had seen right. The girl on the governor’s arm was wearing a red dress.
He sidled closer. She had to be the one. Abruptly his eye caught another flash of red. Who was that? Oh brother. Not another one.
Dag reversed direction and followed the other woman in the other red dress. This one was older, and she was talking with a distinguished looking man who he presumed was her husband. He saw an expensive diamond flash on her left hand, confirming what he thought.
Sergio had said she wasn’t married.
Dag didn’t want to run off with anybody’s wife on accident. He looked at her again, just to make sure. Her dress wasn’t really red, he decided. There were big red flowers on it, in a pattern, with lots of jewels, but the background was black. Wrong one. He turned away to find the young woman in the red dress again. Her dress was definitely red, and the skirt looked like it had a mile’s worth of ruffles on it. She was even wearing red jewelry and long red gloves. Hey, what was going on?
The orchestra was playing something else – a waltz, he thought. People were pairing off, and those who didn’t want to dance were moving to the sides of the deck or going downstairs. The young woman in the red dress was dancing with the governor, and they seemed to be leading the dance. Dag didn’t want to attempt dancing. Too much talking involved, at least with this slow kind of dancing. He wandered closer to the rail, sticking his hands in his pockets. He was going to have to try to catch the woman alone – he gulped at a terrible thought.
Was he going to have to ask her to dance just to get an opening? He made a face at her back, which was luckily turned, and leaned against the rail. Great.
After what seemed like hours, the old king went into the dining room, and a lot of the people followed him. Dag looked quickly around. The young woman in the red dress was saying something to a tall blondish young man in a dark blue suit and a yellow tie, and he didn’t look exactly happy. The young woman laughed, and the young man turned away and went into the dining room. Dag held his breath. The woman in the red dress was walking slowly along the mostly empty deck, looking contentedly around her at the blue sea that was turning orange and pink under the sunset. She leaned her elbows against the rail near the bow, and Dag hesitated. Should he just walk over and start talking to her?
What on earth was he going to talk about?
He knew he should have never let Sergio talk him into this.
More people drifted inside. From the vantage point of one of those potted trees that were bolted down all over the deck, Dag watched the woman in the red dress. He whistled under his breath for a minute, annoyed with himself for not knowing what to do, then stopped as inspiration struck. He turned his back on the woman in the red dress and looked dreamily out over the golden sea.
The woman in the red dress sighed happily. The Caribbean was lovely. She should probably be inside, but the breeze out here was cool and comfortable, and she was tired of petty small talk. Someone was singing, a soft crooning song in Spanish.
She cocked her head, listening. He had a good voice. There was a quality to it that she liked – soothing yet strong, laughing yet tender, warm yet teasing, and she turned around, trying to see who it was. She was alone on the deck. Perhaps it was one of the sailors, down below. A little disappointed, she began to walk slowly back towards the dining room, hoping to hear the end of the song. Something white moved slightly on the edge of her field of vision, and she started.
A young man in a black and white tuxedo was leaning against the rail between some ornamental trees with his back to her, his hands in his pockets. He was rocking slightly with the tune of the song he was singing, completely oblivious of her presence. The soft notes died away.
“That was lovely,” the woman in the red dress said, after a moment.
The young man turned. He had brownish blond hair, and it was falling in his eyes. He pushed it back with his hand. “Oh.” He gulped. “Thank you.”
The woman in the red dress smiled. He was only a little taller than she was, and looked only a few years older. “I don’t remember being introduced.”
The young man smiled, tilting his head back. He had a naughty little smile that made her want to smile back. “I’m nobody important.”
The woman in the red dress looked sideways at him, raising her eyebrows. “I see.” She smiled. “What song was that?”
He looked away, towards the island behind him. “It’s called ‘Eres Mi Amor.’ It’s an old Spanish song.”
“I thought so, but my Spanish is unfortunately not very good. My French is better,” she laughed.
Dag pulled a face of mock horror. “And my French does not exist.”
“Do you live here?” She was looking mildly interested, although her voice never seemed to get any louder –always soft and gracious and polite, just with different inflections.
“All my life, yes.”
The woman in the red dress leaned against the rail beside him, looking across at the island. “I’ve wondered how they live, there,” she murmured. “Do they talk about as many boring things as we do?”
“Oh, everyone here. I get so tired of it sometimes – all the polite nothings that nobody really means. We’re putting in at San Dominique, briefly, during our circuit of the island tonight, but it’s not like we’ll really meet the ordinary people. I wish I could.” She laughed softly, a little embarrassed. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“Because I’m not a stuffed shirt weighted down with medals.”
She laughed softly, a genuine laugh this time. Dag smiled to himself. This was working better than he could have ever hoped. He arched his eyebrows and looked at her slyly.
“We-ell, if we’re putting in at San Dominique…” he paused, watching the interest grow on her face. “We could always slip ashore and go for dinner at some little Mom and Pop place and eat finger food instead of getting waited on hand and foot in there.”
Her eyes sparkled, then dimmed. “But…”
Dag elaborated quickly, before she lost enthusiasm. “We could take a motorboat and catch up with this tub in a half hour or so – it wouldn’t be hard, and people probably wouldn’t even notice we were gone.”
The woman in the red dress chewed on her lip, thinking. The corners of her mouth kept twitching, like she was trying not to smile. She turned back and faced him.
“Yes!” Her eyes were sparkling again. “Let’s do it. How should we get off the ship?”
Dag thought about it. This would be the tricky part. “Won’t they put down a gangplank at San Dominique? Like at the back, where nobody will be paying attention?”
She thought about it for a minute. “Yes, I think they will. I know we’re picking up some things there, some local fruit for dessert or something like that, I think. Could we get off then without being seen?”
Dag smiled again. “Oh, we will. Don’t worry.”
The woman in the red dress smiled back. “I should probably go in. The king has been raving about the seafood for the last week and a half, so I need to be qualified to give him an opinion.”
Dag suddenly realized that she expected him to go back to the dining room with her. “I’d better find out how we’re going to get off this thing,” he said quickly. The look he gave her was naughty, and she laughed, a soft gracious laugh.
“I’ll look for you, once we get to San Dominique,” she called over her shoulder.
King Guillame Georges VI was thoroughly enjoying the dinner. Ah, it was so good to have fresh citrus fruit again, and – and – king crab. The enormous crab legs were done to perfection, succulent and tender and pink, and that horseradish sauce that the natives concocted, with pineapple on the side…. The king sighed rapturously.
“Your Majesty, Princess Jennifer,” a discreet voice murmured in his ear.
King Guillame wiped his moustache with a napkin. “Ah yes, thank you Max.” He glanced up at the tall blond young man in the dark blue suit and yellow tie, his chief of security. “Everything under control?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
The princess had entered the dining room, and everyone rose.
“Please, sit down,” she said graciously, before moving to the head table. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
She sat beside the king, who winked slyly at her. “Try some of this crab, my dear,” he urged her. “We’ll be at San Dominique soon, and we don’t want to disappoint all those people who want to see you.”
She smiled archly at him, arranging her napkin in her lap. “Of course not.”
Dag was in a bit of a pickle. He had been able to sneak down to the kitchens fairly easily, simply by looking like he belonged there, but he could see no way of getting through to where the service gangplank would be lowered without being seen. A bell rang from above, and he ducked out of sight behind an open door. The kitchen staff filed past him, going up to the dining room. Dag looked into the kitchen again, once they were safely gone.
There was a wide passage that led from the kitchen to the side of the ship, and all along it there were big walk-in coolers for food storage, but no good places to hide.
Dag frowned. Suddenly he smiled. On the left side of the passage, right before the heavy doors that would open out onto the gangplank, there was a smaller locked door. He fished a pick out of his pocket and quickly opened the lock. Arranging it so at first glance it would not be noticeable that he had tampered with it, he eased the steel door open and slipped inside, and just in time. He could hear the kitchen staff coming back.
It was nearly pitch dark in the little room. Dag stood perfectly still for a few moments, trying to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. Some sort of machinery was giving off a faint hum not far ahead of him, and gradually he could make out the shape. It appeared to be some sort of coolant system, probably for the big lockers in the passage. On his right, a narrow iron circular stairway went up and disappeared through a hole where a faint light was coming through.
Dag climbed the stairs and cautiously stuck his head through the hole at the top. Another closet of sorts, this one with assorted wrenches and extra cable and pieces of hardware. There was a beam of light coming in from under the door. Dag bent over and inspected the doorknob. No sign of a keyhole on this side. Great, he was locked in.
He tried the knob anyway, and nearly fell out into the hallway when it opened under his hand. Apparently not.
Warily, he stuck his head out. No one in the hallway. This looked like cabins, for the sailors perhaps, or the kitchen staff. It stretched the whole width of the ship, and at the center he could see a landing where the stairs went up to the dining room. He didn’t want to go that way. To his right, at what would be the side of the ship, there were closed double doors. Much better. He walked quickly along, hoping no one would see him.
“May I help you, sir?”
Dag groaned inwardly and turned around. A girl from the kitchens, balancing a huge bowl of salad in one hand and a tray of water glasses in the other, was looking at him rather curiously.
He grinned sheepishly. “I got lost,” he admitted.
She smiled. “Just take those doors at the end of the hall there,” she pointed with her head. “They go out to the C deck balcony along the side of the ship, and then there are stairs up to the top.”
Somehow she bobbed him a little curtsy without dropping anything and went on up the servants’ stairs. Dag got out onto the starboard balcony and leaned his back against the closed doors, enjoying the breeze. It had been hot down there – and a little too close for comfort. These tuxedos made pretty good disguises.
The yacht’s deep-voiced horn blared through the warm summer night, announcing the arrival at San Dominique. Dag was glad. He had had enough of this huge boat that was swarming with people. Luckily that girl from the kitchen hadn’t been local, or she might have recognized him. Sooner or later somebody was going to. Now he just had to find the woman in the red dress again.
The royal yacht steamed grandly into the harbor, surrounded by smaller craft of all sizes. A special place had been prepared at the largest wharf for it to put in. Dag found a place on the port rail of B deck and watched the proceedings. There were a lot of other people there too, aides to various dignitaries who didn’t quite merit mingling with the high folk on A deck. By the sound of it, some of them didn’t even speak English.
The waterfront was swarming with people. They were cheering enthusiastically, and then suddenly they got a whole lot louder and started jumping up and down.
“That’s Princess Jennifer, for sure,” a youngish fellow near Dag was saying. If the princess said anything, he couldn’t hear it. Then showers of pennies started flying through the air, down toward the wharf. Some of them fell in the water, but most of them fell among the crowd, who scattered to pick them up, cheering some more. The big horn tooted again, and Dag knew they would be putting off soon. He had to find the woman in the red dress.
He left the rail and picked his way behind the aides up to A deck. The king was going to make a speech, and the orchestra was striking up a fanfare. Dag spied the woman in the red dress talking with the stout lady he had helped back at the palace. He worked his way through the elegant throng to the starboard side of the ship, then strolled along until he was more or less behind the stout lady. The stout lady was talking a lot, complimenting the woman in the red dress.
“You’ve grown so much, my dear,” she was saying. “And you look so nice…”
“Thank you, Countess. It has been so wonderful having you with us on this trip.” She glanced up, and Dag nodded at her. She smiled graciously down at the stout lady. “If you’ll excuse me…” she murmured politely.
“Of course, of course…mustn’t keep you all to myself…much as I would like to…”
Sure that she was following him, Dag turned and made his way down the stairs to B deck. There was hardly anyone on this side – they were all watching the crowds on the other side, where the sailors were still throwing pennies. He heard the swish of silk and crinoline behind him and turned. The woman in the red dress looked worried.
“We’re putting off soon.”
“I know. But I found a way.” He offered her his arm, and she took it. “This way.” He led her toward the stern, then took the balcony stairs down to C deck.
Dag peeked inside the double doors. “There is a door for a closet, three doors down,” he pointed. “We have to get inside before someone from the kitchens crosses that landing, there – ” He pointed, and the woman in the red dress nodded. Dag listened for footsteps on the stairs. “Now!”
They scuttled inside the passage and made for the closet door. Dag opened it quickly and pushed the woman in the red dress inside, closing the door quickly behind him. He hoped nobody had seen the door moving.
From the darkness, he heard the disembodied voice of the woman in the red dress.
“This is the way out?”
He groped for her hand in the darkness. “There is a circular stairway down to the next level here at the back,” he whispered, leading her forward. He put her hand on the iron railing. “Here. Put your other hand on my shoulder.”
He went down first, and she followed. By the time they got to the bottom of the stairs, their eyes had adjusted to the dimness.
“I unlocked the door to the passage where the gangplank is when I came through here earlier,” he told her. “Let me go first.”
Dag put his ear against the steel door. Someone trundled past, toting what sounded like a crate.
“These go in the coolers?” someone was asking.
Dag privately wondered how they were going to become invisible and get down that gangplank.
“You’d better get back out there if you don’t want to miss the end of the king’s speech,” someone else was saying.
“Yeah, we gotta get moving.”
Dag held his breath. Perfect. He heard all the men troop down the gangplank, and the sounds of the kitchen staff faded away as they went back to their work. From the wharf, the cheering got suddenly louder.
Dag grabbed the woman in the red dress’s red-gloved hand and opened the steel door. Without bothering to close it, he led her at a fast trot down the gangplank. Thank goodness, it was short and fairly level, and ended in a warehouse yard with a tall wooden fence. He looked around. Right now it was deserted, because the workmen had gone out the exit to the right to hear the king’s speech. There was another exit to the left, probably a back alley. Perfect.
They had just made it. Dag closed the wooden gate behind them just as the yacht’s horn blared again. Through a crack in the fence, he saw the gangplank being pulled back up. The yacht was casting off, and the crowds were waving. He looked at the woman in the red dress. She was looking around the little back alley curiously.
“Well, we made it,” Dag said.
The woman in the red dress was shivering slightly in the wind from the harbor. The sun was going down, and it was getting cool. “Is it far to the restaurant?” Dag took off his jacket and laid it over her shoulders.
“No. A few minutes’ walk, that’s all.”
They started down the alley, and Dag suddenly got a mental picture of how absolutely out of place they had to look. He hoped Sergio was waiting at the Villa Cristallo.
The Villa Cristallo was a middle-class restaurant with brightly painted walls, outdoor seating under a patio roof, and a view of the sunset. Dag led the way inside and scanned the tables. To his dismay, Sergio was nowhere in sight.
Dag turned to the woman in the red dress, trying to stay cool. “Why don’t you make your order? I need to make a phone call.”
A brightly dressed waiter in a floral purple shirt and pink pants guided her to a table, and he went into the phone booth.
“Operator, I need to make a call to Sergio Mendoza.” Dag gave her the number and settled down to wait. All of a sudden the operator was back.
“I’m sorry, but your call will have to wait….”
“Princess Jennifer of Pallas Athena….I’m sorry sir…”
“Hey, hold on…”
“Hey, come back!” Dag yelled into the phone. No response. He hung it up with a savage click and shoved his hands in his pockets. “What’s the big deal?” he grumbled. “All I need to do is call Sergio and find out why he’s not here, and the operator can’t even talk sense.”
He reached for the phone again, then checked his pockets. No change.
A newsboy had just come in, and Dag flagged him down instead. “Can you make change?” The boy fished in his pockets and made change for a dollar. Dag thanked him and started back towards the phone booth, and the boy shoved a paper after him.
He inserted the coins and tried again. “Okay. Operator, I need to make a call to Sergio Mendoza.”
The girl was babbling something about the palace using the lines.
“What? Look, I really don’t care.”
It finally sounded like she was putting the call through, then suddenly there was silence.
“Hey – anybody there?” Dag looked at the phone. It appeared to be working. He put it back by his ear, waiting. “What’s going on with these people?” he muttered. He glanced down at the paper in his hand. It was really just a one page flyer, mostly headlines.
“PRINCESS JENNIFER OF PALLAS ATHENA KIDNAPPED!” the headline screamed.
“What’s next?” he rolled his eyes. There was a picture at the bottom of the sheet.
Dag dropped the phone.
Dag looked at the picture, and he looked at the woman in the red dress who was perched on one of the little chairs at the table. The waiter in the purple floral shirt had just brought her order, and she was trying to pick up a hamburger without getting ketchup on her long red gloves.
“The woman in the red dress,” he gasped. He ran to the table, brandishing the paper.
“What is your name?” he demanded.
The woman in the red dress put down her hamburger. “What’s the matter?” She didn’t seem at all concerned. She went on, “We don’t have much time, so you’d best sit down and eat…” Dag compared her with the picture, holding it at different angles. It was her, all right. He brushed her words aside.
“Look, I just want to know….”
She stood up, waving her finger at him, all grand and graciously obstinate. “I’ve always wanted to do this, so don’t ruin it with anything. It was your idea in the first place…”
“Yeah, okay, fine. Just…”
She included the whole view in a gesture. “It’s so exciting! The music, the food…”
Dag was fast losing his patience.
“What – is – your – name!”
She finally seemed to realize what he was asking, and looked mildly surprised by how excited he was. The woman in the red dress smiled graciously. “Jennifer.”
Dag pointed at her in horror. “And – you – you’re from Pallas Athena, and you’re the – ” he gulped, “the princess.”
She gracefully held out her hand, like she expected him to kiss it or something. “How do you do? I’m pleased to meet you.” Dag looked wildly around the restaurant.
He had to get out of here. He grabbed the princess by her extended wrist and dragged her after him out to the street.
“Wait, where are you going…” she was trotting after him as fast as her spike heels would allow, trying to keep his tux jacket from falling off her shoulders.
“Come on – we have to go.”
“But – ”
They were out in the street, away from the other patrons of the restaurant who had already begun to look at them strangely.
“Look, I was told to steal the ‘woman in the red dress,’” Dag exclaimed. “I don’t want a princess on my hands!” He stopped on the sidewalk and let go of her wrist. “Sergio isn’t here – he was supposed to meet me. Go wherever you want – I’m not sticking around.”
“Stop, wait,” the princess protested. She stood up very straight and looked at him severely. “If you’re not going to kidnap me, you’re not going to just run off and leave me standing here,” she argued, in a ‘see how logical this is’ tone. “You said you would show me how real people live, and I still want to see the island.”
Dag backed away. “Oh no. I’m not taking you with me.”
She started after him, losing some of her grand airs. Her eyes were desperate, pleading almost. “You don’t know what it’s like, living in a palace. I’m not even allowed to go outside without an escort. How can I be a good ruler and make laws to help my subjects if I don’t even know how regular people live?”
Dag put his hands in his pockets. “That’s none of my business.”
“Please – I – I don’t even know your name.”
Dag rolled his eyes at her. “I’m not sure I want you to know.”
“I’m not upset with you,” she pleaded. Her eyes got a faraway look. “I’ve always dreamed of this – escaping – having a day to just be a normal person.” She looked up at him, and her mouth twitched in a sad smile. “I don’t even know how to make a call at a pay telephone booth,” she admitted.
Dag hesitated. He half turned away, ready to just leave her behind. Crown jewels were one thing – princesses quite another. Then he glanced back at her, and saw a sad, resigned look stealing across her face. She turned around, ready to walk back into the restaurant.
The princess turned, in an elegant swish of red silk and crinoline. Dag made a face at her. “Come along.” He raised his hand, checking her exclamations. “But you aren’t going to get very far dressed like that. You need some different clothes.”
The tux shop was luckily still open, and so was the dressmaker’s next door. Dag maneuvered the princess into the dress shop and deposited her into the hands of a saleswoman. The princess was distracted instantly, looking through the racks of quite ordinary dresses and shoes like a little kid opening presents at Christmas. Dag whispered a price limit to the saleswoman, who nodded understandingly. He looked back at the princess. He doubted she had ever really been shopping before in her life, by the way she was enjoying sorting through the dresses.
“I have to pick up my suit next door,” he told her. As he left, he saw the saleswoman steering her toward another rack, saying something about sizes.
When he got back, wearing his white suit again, the saleswoman was waiting alone by the dressing rooms.
“The señorita is almost finished,” she explained. As she was speaking, the door opened, and a very different Princess Jennifer came out.
Dag was taken aback. If she hadn’t been carrying her other dress over her arm, he would have hardly guessed that it was the same person. She was younger than he had thought – he would be surprised if she was even twenty. She had on a simple wrap-around summer dress with short sleeves and a mid-calf length skirt. The skirt had a wide ruffle around the bottom and a lot of stuffing inside, and the whole dress was pale cream with thin, widely spaced salmon pink stripes. She had let her hair down too, and somewhere she had gotten bangs. A lot of her grand airs had come off with the grand red dress, and she was a lot shorter in the white sandals than she had been in the ridiculously high-heeled red shoes she had in her hand. Dag started to feel slightly more sympathetic. She was barely more than a kid.
The princess’s eyes were like big stars. “This is so fun!” she exclaimed, beaming at him. Dag forced himself to smile back, trying not to make it look too painful. The princess was turning to the saleswoman. Her hair went down almost to the bow on the back of her dress.
“Here, you can keep this,” she said, handing her the red dress. “I don’t need it anymore.”
The saleswoman’s eyes got very big. “Gracias, señorita,” she stammered, her arms full of red silk. The princess skipped to the front of the store, calling to Dag.
“Come on!” She flashed him a bright smile, and he doggedly started after her. Suddenly he remembered the saleswoman.
She shook her head, indicating the red dress. “No. Good trade.” She beamed. Dag got out of the store. Now where had that princess gotten to? He heard her laughing, a delighted, childish laugh, and followed the sound.
A young woman was standing on the sidewalk a few doors down, with a baby on one hip and a little boy clinging to her hand. The princess had another boy, who appeared to be an identical twin to the other one. She was kneeling down, talking to the little fellow, and he was nodding, grinning hugely.
The princess looked up at him. “Aren’t they cute?” she asked, her eyes shining. “I’ve never seen twins before.”
Dag exchanged glances with the young mother. “They were getting away from me,” she explained, shifting the baby on her hip. “They have so much energy!” The baby made a grab for her necklace.
“We can help you take them home,” the princess volunteered eagerly.
Dag made a face at her back. Well, the twins were cute. And it wasn’t like anyone was going to recognize her in that striped summer dress. He hardly did, himself.
Princess Jennifer had already gotten hold of the twins’ little hands, so there was nothing to do but follow along. They walked slowly down the street, to accommodate the toddlers’ pace. The princess was chatting gaily with the little boys and their mother, asking questions about raising children. Dag stayed out of it. He was keeping an eye out for Sergio, hoping against hope that maybe he was just a little late. But there was no sign of him.
They got the twins home, then went on through downtown San Dominique. The princess was nearly skipping along, turning right and left to see everything and peering eagerly into every shop window.
“What game is that?” she asked Dag suddenly, pointing. Some teenage girls were playing near the big fountain in the square.
“Oh. That’s hopscotch.”
“Do you think they would teach me?”
Dag raised his eyebrows. “I guess….”
The princess laughed at his expression. “What is your name?” she asked curiously.
Dag stuck his hands in his pockets. “You can call me Dag.”
“Dag?” She tilted her head to one side, her eyes bright and curious. Dag noticed that they were dark brown. “Is that short for something?”
Recognition dawned on her face. “I think I’ve heard of you!” she exclaimed. “You stole the crown jewels.” She smiled at him. “They were all talking about it at the palace, with a woman detective named Anna Maria.”
Dag groaned inwardly. “She never shuts up, does she?”
The princess laughed. “She thinks you are – how did she say it? – a pain in the neck. But I don’t.”
She made a face at his grumpy one.
“Now, stop thinking I’m a princess and call me Jennifer. I just want to be completely normal for one day of my life. Please.” Jennifer smiled sweetly and stared him in the eye, daring him to smile back, and after a few seconds he gave in.
“Okay, fine. Jennifer.” She laughed and ran over to where the girls were playing hopscotch, balancing on top of a curb along the way. Dag leaned against a tree and watched.
It was weird – and surprisingly easy – to think of her as just Jennifer. It did make her seem more her age – more normal – than when she had been the glamorous ‘woman in the red dress’. Dag watched her skipping down the hopscotch grid, flailing her arms to keep her balance. He mentally revised the description. Make that a very naïve girl who people were trying to make grow up way too fast wearing a red dress that was designed for someone ten years older than she was. That was more like it. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
After five games of hopscotch, an attempt at jumping rope, and watching the antics of a peddler’s monkey, Jennifer finally sat down on a flower box to enjoy the musicians playing serenades from the porch of a café across the street.
Dag looked around. It was getting dark, people were drifting away to their homes, and the princess was covering a yawn. He couldn’t take her to the little boardinghouse room he called home – and it was too far away anyway. He shoved his hands in his pockets, trying to think who he knew who lived in San Dominique and was married and old enough that it wouldn’t be inappropriate to ask to let Jennifer stay the night. He whistled under his breath, trying to think. What tune was it? He scowled, trying to remember the name. It was that one Tio Emilio was always humming, the one about the fox trying to catch ducks.
Dag snapped his fingers. Tio Emilio and Tia Rosa would let them stay the night, and ask no questions. They were always saying he didn’t visit them enough, anyway. He turned to the princess. She was still sitting on the edge of the flower box, listening to the song the street musicians across the road were singing and swinging her feet, enjoying the feel of the strappy sandals.
“You can stay at my aunt and uncle’s for the night. It’s a bit of a walk, so we should get going.”
The princess looked up at him. “Where will you stay?”
Dag shrugged. “On the couch in the living room. They have room.” She stood up, and after a moment, he offered her his arm. Let people think they were just a couple lovebirds on the way home from a dance. Jennifer took his arm.
They walked in silence for a while.
“Dag, I have to say ‘thank-you,’ for all of this.” She waved her hand at the lighted shops and cafes, the flowers. Her eyes were big and shining. “I’ve had so much fun.”
Dag looked around. It was nice, he realized. Carefree. Soft Caribbean-style music drifting along the street. “Yeah – I guess.”
Tia Rosa was washing up the dishes when Dag took Jennifer in the back door. He snuck up behind her and gave her a smacking kiss on the cheek. “Buenos noches, tia mia?”
The little elderly lady jumped. “Dagoberto, you frighten me!” She shook her finger at him, her eyes twinkling over her glasses. “Now, there is strawberry cake in the icebox, and good lasagna left from supper that is probably still warm, and…oh.” She caught sight of Jennifer, who was looking eagerly around the bright, tidy little kitchen.
Dag hesitated, his arm around his aunt’s ample waist. “This is – um, Jennifer. She got – lost – and I didn’t think…” It wasn’t exactly a lie. The girl didn’t have a clue where they were, at least.
Tia Rosa looked past whatever there might be of the story that he wasn’t telling. “Of course, she stay. My Paulita stay at her cousin’s, so she have her room. And you have big couch in living room. Just like when you are little.”
Jennifer smiled shyly. “Thank you….?”
“Tia Rosa,” Dag introduced her. Then he realized that Tia Rosa was his aunt, not hers. “Actually…”
“Tia Rosa just fine,” his aunt declared. She gave him a little push. “Now get some plates and you and her finish up that cake before it go bad.”
Tio Emilio, tall and gaunt as a heron except for his midsection, came in as they were finishing up the cake. He clapped his nephew on the back and pulled up another chair, helping himself to a slice. Tia Rosa scolded him. “You have two already!” She pointed to his well-fed stomach. “You eat any more, the boat sink when you get in it.”
The princess giggled behind her napkin. Dag and his uncle pulled uncomfortable faces at each other.
“I already had two and a half,” Dag admitted, surveying the pink crumbs and smears of whipped cream on his plate.
Tia Rosa put her hands on her hips. “That just fine. You too skinny anyway.”
Jennifer couldn’t hold it in any more. She sat back in her chair and laughed helplessly, and everyone else joined in.
Later, when Jennifer was asleep in the little back bedroom, Tio Emilio sat out on the front porch with Dag, smoking his pipe. “She’s a cute little thing, all right,” he observed, with a sidewise glance at his nephew. Dag made a face at him over the guitar he was tuning.
“Now don’t start that. Girls aren’t my line. I don’t have time for them.” He twanged an off chord and fiddled with the knobs.
His uncle put up his hands in protest. “I wasn’t saying nothing, I was just making a comment,” he complained. “When a body’s twenty-four and still single…”
“Twenty-three,” Dag corrected him.
“…a man starts to wonder when he picks up with a girl all of a sudden-like,” Tio Emilio finished calmly.
“Well, it’s not like that,” Dag declared. He struck a soft, feathery chord, listening to the tone. “That’s better.”
Emilio knocked out his pipe. “Play that one about the fisher boy who fell in love with the mermaid.”
From the kitchen, Tia Rosa heard him singing and smiled.
Jennifer woke up with the sun streaming through the flowered curtains and the sound of the waves in her ears and wondered where on earth she was. Then she saw the striped summer dress on the chair by the bed and remembered. She was free! She dressed quickly and went out to the kitchen. Tia Rosa was keeping the eggs warm for her.
“You needed to sleep,” the little woman smiled, when she apologized for not helping. She ate slowly, enjoying the simple food, and Tia Rosa bustled around her like a mother hen. Jennifer marveled over the simple cheerfulness of the tiny house. The curtains, the carpets, the furniture, were all bright and breezy. They were worn, yes, but homey. If this was how normal people lived…
“Dagoberto is out at the boat,” Tia Rosa told her, shooing her outside. “Do dishes later.”
Dag and Tio Emilio were out on the wharf, checking the nets and sinkers.
“I’ve got to pick up some hardware in town,” Emilio explained. “You two want to come with me? They’ve got a carnival.”
“What is that?” Jennifer whispered.
Dag was speechless for a minute; then he grinned. “You’ll see.”
Right before they pushed off Tia Rosa came trotting down the walk, carrying a brown paper package. She handed it to Jennifer. “You go to carnival, you need this,” she said. “Dag bring it back later.” She waved to them from the shore. Jennifer waved back for a long time at the little yellow and white house by the ocean, until Tia Rosa disappeared inside.
They heard the music before they landed. Jennifer stared at the bright crowd and the floats. “Oh my goodness.” She smiled.
Tio Emilio dropped them off at the wharf. “I’ll be in at sunset, if you need a ride back,” he said. “Have fun!” He walked away to the hardware stand.
Dag looked around. It was actually a pretty small carnival, and from the signs he could see it was already winding down. It had probably officially finished yesterday afternoon. But he didn’t tell Jennifer that.
He and Jennifer stood in the middle of the crowd, feeling a little lost without Emilio. Dag pointed to the package. “She said you needed that for the carnival, so open it.” They found a bench, and Jennifer sat down and struggled through the wrapping paper.
“Oh,” she breathed. Her eyes were like stars. From the package she lifted up a little red dress with a ruffled skirt and little white polka dots.
“There’s shoes too,” Dag noticed, catching the paper as it slipped off her lap. He held them up. Red high heels with white bows. He looked at the heels and was privately glad he wasn’t expected to wear them. Girls were talented creatures.
They found a clothing booth where Jennifer could change, and in a minute she danced back out, twirling in the ruffly skirt. She had her other clothes in a bag. She pinned up her leftover curls, and Dag discreetly picked a red flower from a pot and stuck it in her hair.
“There, now you are Señorita Jennifer.” She giggled like a little girl.
They followed the music to the little square, where perhaps a hundred couples were dancing.
“What dance is that?” Jennifer asked. She was watching eagerly, trying not to miss anything.
Dag looked around. “Right here it’s swing; but over there they’re doing salsa,” he pointed out. “It’s not hard to learn.”
“Can you dance?”
Dag gulped. Gee, he hadn’t danced since Sergio had that party last year, when somebody put too much brandy in the punch and he had luckily escaped getting drunk.
“I guess…” he started reluctantly, then saw the excitement in her eyes. Poor kid. Being a princess was sounding more boring all the time. “Sure, I can dance,” he said, and took her hands. He pulled her through the crowd to where she could see the dancers more clearly but where they wouldn’t be in anyone’s way.
“Just go slow first,” he warned her. He guided her through the basic steps. They were pretty easy, until you got going really fast. She caught on quickly.
“Can we try it to the music now?” Jennifer asked. Her cheeks were pink from excitement, and she really was cute in the little red-and-white dress.
“I think so,” Dag smiled. He waited, counting the beats, then pulled her in among the other dancing couples. It took Jennifer just moments to catch the rhythm of the music, and Dag stepped faster, twirled her faster, and she kept up with him, her eyes sparkling. He did a quick hand change and took her over in a dip, and she squealed in surprise. The sound was so funny that he laughed aloud and started planning when he could pull another one off on her. They did the normal steps for a minute, then he dipped her the other way. She caught on and laughed this time, but he really wanted to make her squeal again. He spun her behind his back, planning his next move. Bring her back in front, then…
Dag scooped her up off the ground and twirled her completely around, and she squealed again. Then he pretended he was going to drop her, and she squealed louder and threw her arms around his neck to try to catch herself. He put her back down, grinning, and she made a face at him that reminded him of Tia Rosa. This was fun.
They finally got tired and walked down the street on the far side of the square, where there were shade trees. Dag got ice cream cones, but then he had to show Jennifer how to eat hers before it melted, which was tricky without letting his melt either. Then because it was rather hot they walked slowly along under the trees, watching the children playing and enjoying the breeze from the harbor. Another band was playing, but they didn’t want to dance again yet.
Some of the children had set up a makeshift bowling alley, and were charging admission. Jennifer wanted to try it, so they went over.
“Were you here for the parade last night, señor?” a small dark-haired boy asked Dag as he counted out the change.
“No, was it good?”
“Eh bien! There was a huge dragon float, and the royal yacht came into the harbor and tooted the horn, and Princess Jennifer waved to us, and then the sailors threw pennies from the deck! I got lots. And the king made a speech.” He grinned, revealing missing teeth.
Dag smiled at him and turned to follow Jennifer, who had just rolled her first ball under the direction of the children. “Jennifer, do you…”
A small wiry man with an ugly scar on his cheek pushed past him and roughly grabbed at Jennifer’s arm.
Dag suddenly saw a knife flash and tackled him. Jennifer screamed. In an instant the fellow had let go of Jennifer and wrestled him to the floor, trying to stab him with the knife.
Land sakes, the fellow was strong for his size. Dag gripped his wrists, struggling to keep the razor-sharp blade away from his throat. He tripped the man with his feet and rolled over, pulling him down. Now he was on top. He jammed his knee into the fellow’s gut, and the knife fell to the ground.
“Get it!” he yelled, and one of the little boys darted in and scooped it up. Suddenly the booth was full of street musicians who had heard the ruckus, and they pulled Dag and the assassin to their feet and separated them.
“He tried to kill her,” Dag gasped, trying to get his breath back.
“Si, señores, here is his knife,” the urchins agreed with him, holding up the weapon. The smaller children were crying, and someone was calling for the police; Dag could hear whistles already. People were pointing, questioning. The little kids were saying, “trying to kill the señorita in the red dress.” Dag looked down. Jennifer was looking up at him, with big scared eyes, two little girls clinging to her skirts.
“Are you all right?”
She nodded, and he was surprised how relieved he felt. She stood up, comforting the children. “The police are coming,” she told them. “The policemen are going to put the bad man in jail.”
The street musicians let Dag go, since he obviously hadn’t been making the trouble. The smaller man was still struggling, spitting curses. A big man with a tuba under his arm stuck a beefy finger under his nose.
“Hey, there are kids here. Shut your mouth or I’ll wash it with soap for you.” The kids giggled, imagining a grown-up getting his mouth washed out.
“Senor, you are very brave!” The little boy who was holding the knife was grinning hugely. The other kids were jumping up and down, excited by all the noise and the arrival of the policemen. Dag ruffled the boy’s black hair and discreetly slipped a couple dollar bills into their money jar. As he straightened up, he caught sight of a tell-tale floral pantsuit and straight blond hair talking to the policemen. Anna Maria. Dag caught Jennifer’s eye.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.”
He took her hand and ducked in behind the row of booths, leading her down a few back streets, picking his way among crates and produce and racks of straw hats and glancing back now and then to make sure Anna Maria hadn’t seen him.
Jennifer trotted alongside him, clinging to his arm. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah.” He was still trying to get his breath back. When they were coming to the end of the booths, Dag suddenly stopped. “Put your other dress back on,” he said. “It’ll make you harder to spot.” When she was done, he changed his clothes too. They were pretty dirty anyway, and he had lost his hat in the scuffle. Hopefully the change would throw off any other potential assassins, and Anna Maria as well.
They got out into a little square on the far side of town and sat down to rest on the edge of a fountain.
Jennifer produced a dainty white handkerchief and dipped it in the water. “Look at me.”
Dag obediently turned his head, thinking. “Jennifer, why would somebody be trying to kill you?”
She dabbed at his cheek. “You’ve got blood on your face – hold still.” She swished the handkerchief in the fountain to wash the blood out. “I’m a princess, so I guess I have enemies, but I don’t think I could say for sure who it was.” She wiped her own face with the damp cloth. “I have a cousin, Nicholas, who doesn’t like me, of course, because he has a son Albert who is a little silly; but I don’t think he would have someone try to…” she shuddered.
Dag squeezed her hand. “Sorry. I need to watch better, that’s all.” She didn’t let go of his hand right away, but he didn’t mind. She was probably still scared, poor thing. He stood up.
“Tio Emilio might still be in the bay, or one of his friends – he could take us to one of the other islands. They wouldn’t know where to look for you then. Or do you want to go home?” Forget the deal with Sergio. He didn’t want her to get hurt.
Jennifer shook her head, still holding his hand. She stood up, her eyes downcast. “Dag – I – thanks.”
Dag swallowed. It was the first time a girl had ever looked at him like that, like he was some kind of hero. It flustered him. He patted her shoulder, clumsily. This was different from dancing. This was…yikes. “Hey, it’s okay. Come on.”
Tio Emilio wasn’t at the wharf. An old fisherman said he had put out at nine o’clock. Dag decided they would have to wait for the regular ferry. It arrived at three, and by the clock on the church it was ten to the hour. He could feel his stomach complaining.
“Are you hungry?” He thought Jennifer still seemed a little dazed.
There was a little waterfront café, not the one he had taken her to the night before, where they could sit and watch for the ferry. Dag ordered hamburgers and French fries, and Jennifer finally relaxed over the finger food. She was licking ketchup off her fingers when the ferry tooted its horn and it was time to board.
The ferry was old and noisy. There was a stiff wind blowing, and Jennifer and Dag found a place at the rail. Dag stood behind her, holding the rail on either side, so she wouldn’t slip. A school of dolphins frisked beside them, and Jennifer exclaimed over a baby one that came quite close.
“It’s so cute!” she exclaimed. She looked up at him through her eyelashes, and Dag caught himself smiling, then felt himself getting hot under the collar. Why was she shaking him up like this? Cut it out, he snapped at himself.
“Yeah – I think that’s his mom over there,” he pointed, as a larger one came and played with the baby.
Jennifer tapped his arm. “Is that Tio Emilio’s boat, over there?” She pointed, and he sighted along her arm.
“Hey, it is.” How had she remembered that so easily? There were lots of boats around. Dag thought quickly. Maybe Emilio could take them to Bali. This ferry didn’t put in there, so whoever was following Jennifer wouldn’t think of it. Better to be safe than sorry.
“Hang on to the rail,” he told Jennifer, then cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. “Tio Emilio! Hi!”
Luckily it seemed that his uncle heard him. The little sailboat, the Rosa, slipped closer to the ferry. Dag left Jennifer at the rail and went to find the ferry captain.
“We need to get off into that sailboat,” he explained. “We’re going to one of the other islands.”
The man grumbled, but slowed his ship. A tip helped. Dag went back to Jennifer. “He’s going to let us off,” he told her. The Rosa pulled alongside, sidling up to the rail. Tio Emilio threw Dag a line, and he made it fast to the rail.
The sailors put out a rope ladder, and Dag went down first. Jennifer started after him, but the motion of the ladder was making her dizzy. Dag climbed back up and positioned himself behind her, so she had her back against his chest.
“It’s all right, I’m right here. Just do one step at a time,” he reassured her. She took a deep breath and followed him, step by step, down to the sailboat. There was a gap between the ferry and the sailboat, and Jennifer froze. Tio Emilio called to Dag.
“I’m going to pull her in closer,” he shouted. He reached out with a boat hook and caught the end of the rope ladder. Bracing his feet, he pulled, easing the Rosa closer.
“Hold tight,” Dag murmured to Jennifer. He stretched, out-out-out, and got his foot over the Rosa’s side. With one foot in the sailboat and one on the ladder, he called to Emilio. “I’m going to pass her to you.”
Jennifer was still clinging to the swaying ladder, looking a little scared. Dag slipped his right arm around her waist. “Pretend we’re dancing,” he told her, trying to make her smile. “Put your arms around my neck, and hold steady, and I’m going to lift you over.”
Jennifer cautiously twisted her upper body and got her arms around his neck.
“Here we go.” Dag swung her out, keeping her tight against his body. A wave smacked up and got them wet, and Jennifer gave a little shriek. Dag held her tighter, giving her a second to calm down, then eased her carefully down to Emilio, who set her in the sailboat and took Dag’s wrist. The waves pushed both boats up, and Dag let go of the ladder and dropped neatly into the Rosa.
They waved to the people on the ferry, which started up again, and Tio Emilio swung the Rosa out and away towards the other islands.
“So where you headed?” Tio Emilio asked, as he swung the tiller around. “I thought you’d be back to my place tonight.”
Dag glanced at Jennifer, who was sitting by the bow, watching the dolphins again. He lowered his voice. “Some guy tried to kill her in town,” he murmured.
Emilio shot a sharp glance at him. “Why?”
Dag squirmed. Now he had to make a clean breast of it. “Remember the headlines? About the Princess of Pallas Athena getting kidnapped? That’s her.” He pointed at Jennifer.
“What?” Emilio looked from Dag to Jennifer and back. “That’s a princess?”
Dag nodded glumly. “Yeah.”
“How did you hook up with her?”
Dag looked out over the water. “It’s a long story. But some jerk tried to kill her, and I’m trying to shake his gang, if there is one. I was thinking Bali.”
“Why not take her back to the palace or whatever?”
Jennifer looked back at them, laughing, pointing to a fat pelican who was swimming beside the boat.
“She doesn’t want to go,” Dag sighed.
Emilio scratched his whiskery chin. “I see,” he said, and tucked his pipe back into the corner of his mouth. Dag glared at him.
“It’s not like that.”
Bali was beautiful. Jennifer stared around her, at the gorgeous flowers spilling from windowsills and just the roadsides in general.
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed. She looked up at Dag, who hadn’t been saying much. “Who plants them all?”
Dag jumped. “What? Oh, nobody does. They just grow like that. All year round.” The sun was already sliding down toward the horizon, and he knew they had to find somewhere to stay the night again. The only problem with Bali was that while he knew a lot more people –they would all be terribly curious about why he was asking them to let a girl with absolutely no luggage stay the night. They had left the red and white dress and shoes with Tio Emilio.
Dag stuck his hands in his pockets with a frown. Gossip. So many times gossip had hurt him. Gossip and speculation. He remembered when his mother had died, and he had been so completely alone. The neighbors’ whispers to each other at the funeral, when they thought he didn’t see them. How they had all gone away and left him standing there by the fresh grave, a twelve-year-old. He had been so devastated that he hadn’t even thought to call Tio Emilio and Tia Rosa, so they only heard about his mother’s death through a tiny notice in the newspaper, almost a week later. They had come, though, as soon as they knew, and they had wanted him to live with them. He had reluctantly tried it for a while, but it was too soon. He was different from them, and seeing their close knit little family had made him realize all the more what he had lost.
Shortly after that he had met Sergio, and he had grown up. Sometimes he went to church, because he liked the music and the organ, but just as often he didn’t. He had made his First Communion, and his mother had tried to teach him the catechism, but by that time she had been so sick that he was pretty shaky on a lot of things. The priest at his old parish still tried to talk to him sometimes, but he always shied away, half afraid but half wanting to listen. He still remembered some of the old stories from the Bible, especially the one about the Good Thief. He had a lot of sympathy for Dismas – he had an idea of what it was like for him. Sometimes he wanted to go to confession, but he knew in a confused way that it was no use. He was a thief. That was how he lived, and he couldn’t think of another way.
“Dag, are you all right?” Jennifer was looking up at him, concern on her face.
“You’re so quiet.”
“Oh, sorry. I was just – ” He looked down at her. She really had no idea how harsh the world was. For a second he was almost jealous. Abruptly he shook off the bad mood. Where had it come from anyway? He smiled down at her. “Just thinking. Are you hungry again? It’s getting late.”
They walked down the neat streets and found an open air restaurant on a corner with tables arranged under a couple of huge trees. The breeze slipped in from the streets, making it cool and pleasant in the shade.
Jennifer had absolutely no idea what most of the things on the menu were. Dag tried to explain them to her, but she still didn’t seem to completely understand because she didn’t even know what the ingredients looked like when they were alive and swimming. They ended up ordering breaded popcorn shrimp with spicy horseradish sauce and macaroni and cheese for starters. Jennifer had never had macaroni and cheese. Dag couldn’t believe it.
Even he could make macaroni and cheese – but he always skipped on making a sauce and just melted the cheese right into the noodles. No sense in diluting the taste. When the food came they realized that they were both ravenously hungry, and they ended up ordering a third dinner – fried chicken and yellow rice – and splitting it.
Watching Jennifer eat with her fingers was hilarious, especially with the chicken. Dag had looked up from his chicken leg to see her going at it with her fork and knife.
“Just pick it up,” he exclaimed. She looked puzzled.
“Um, you just – ” Gee, how did you explain how to eat chicken with your fingers? “You just grab it by the bony parts and eat the meat off the rest of it.” He demonstrated. There just wasn’t an elegant way to eat chicken legs. Jennifer was laughing so hard she could barely pick up her own chicken. Then she tried it, and got grease on her chin. But she did manage to eat the chicken leg, with her fingers. She looked immensely pleased with herself. They had pineapple for dessert.
Dag asked the restaurant owner if he could recommend a motel. The man directed him over a few streets, saying his brother-in-law had good service. Dag privately wondered how good it would be, but was favorably impressed with the place when they got there. Now he had a bit of a dilemma. Should he get two separate rooms, or would it be better to get a suite? He compared the prices with the girl at the desk, and decided on the suite. It would be better to be close by, just in case…knowing that there were people out to kill Jennifer made him a lot more cautious, even if they were a couple islands away from San Dominique.
The girl at the desk gave them the key to the suite, Number 10. She seemed to think they were a married couple, and Dag figured that was good. It saved uncomfortable questions.
He unlocked the suite and checked it out. There was a bedroom at the back, with a double bed; a tiny bathroom; and a moderately large sitting area with a small table and the smallest couch he had ever laid eyes on. He was mainly concerned about the windows. The ones in the bedroom had bars over them on the outside, to discourage thieves, and he was glad to see that they were nailed to the wall. Getting through them would be noisy business. The one at the front was the same way.
Jennifer was looking around, a little uncomfortably.
“You get the bedroom,” he explained quickly. “I’ll sleep out here on the floor.” The door had a latch. He didn’t want to do anything wrong by her. Her face brightened, and he was glad to see she understood.
They split up the blankets and pillows from the bed, and Dag made up a kind of sleeping bag on the floor in the front room. Jennifer said she didn’t need the comforter, so he put that under everything else for padding. They took turns washing up in the tiny bathroom, then Jennifer went into the back bedroom and closed the door.
“If anything happens, just come and get me,” Dag told her, before she went in. “But I think it will be okay. Good night.” She smiled at him and closed the door, and he heard the little latch slide across. Satisfied that she was safe and comfortable, Dag partially undressed and got into his makeshift sleeping bag. Man, he was tired. Only seconds after his head hit the pillow he was sound asleep.
Café Au Orchídè, a high-end restaurant located just outside a fashionable resort town a few islands away from San Dominique, was still lit up at eleven. A small spare man with a slight stoop, dressed in an expensive dark suit, stepped out of a powerful motorboat at the private marina and walked quickly along the red paving stone path through the manicured grounds to the restaurant. A waiter in black tie and tails greeted him and guided him to a booth along the wall, where he ordered a bottle of wine and hors d’ouvres. He appeared to be waiting for someone, for he kept glancing rather nervously around the elegant dining room and at his gold watch.
At quarter past eleven a very tall man with longish brown hair and a cane entered from the terrace and casually scrutinized the room. He wore a light colored suit with tails and an ascot with aristocratic grace, and carried a cream top hat under his arm. Without showing the slightest sign of surprise, he observed the man in the dark suit’s curious glance and changed direction, making for his table. He came to a stop before it, leaning disinterestedly on his elegant cane.
“Joël Robuchon, I believe?” the small stooping man inquired, in a tone that attempted to be condescending.
“So you believe,” the other coolly returned, in a similar tone that quite succeeded in being condescending with the help of a slight French accent. He took a seat without being asked, and the small man barely succeeded in hiding his annoyance. Robuchon’s attitude was gracefully insolent and wholly assured, and it rattled his nerves.
“Might I offer you a glass of wine?” the small man invited, with a show of politeness.
“Merci.” Robuchon sipped his wine, his black eyes expressionless. “So, the Princess of Pallas Athena is removed secretly from the royal yacht in the midst of a fashionable party without anyone noticing until a half of an hour later. No sign or word of her has been had since by the public. The Baron receives a telegram informing him that a profitable enterprise might be entered upon regarding the same charming princess…therefore I am to assume?”
The small man cleared his throat. “Actually, she has been seen since. The man I hired originally caught sight of her this afternoon in San Dominique, but he was prevented by a young man who appeared to be escorting her.”
“Her secret lover or her bodyguard?” Robuchon wondered calmly.
“We have been informed by the police, in particular by a female detective named Anna Maria, that the princess was removed from the yacht by a talented thief who has carried out a number of high-security thefts in the area – a certain Dagobert, of unknown surname, most likely an alias.”
“This female detective saw the abduction?”
“No. Fingerprints were taken from several doors that were found open by the staff and the crew of the yacht and matched the ones for this Dagobert fellow, who also made away with the crown jewels three nights ago. Apparently he never wears full gloves.”
“And has no need to, since this detective appears incapable of laying hands on him.”
“Correct. We have no knowledge of his motive for abducting Princess Jennifer, other than the most obvious financial one, which also coincides with his removal of the crown jewels. However, no ransom notices have been received; and if he was seen with her in San Dominique this afternoon, in a carnival booth if what I had from the man is to be believed, then…”
“We can assume that he is either extremely confident in his successes, madly in love with the princess or has made her so with him, or it was a case of mistaken identity.”
“Yes.” The small man ate a cracker artfully decorated with mayonnaise and smoked salmon and wiped his mouth delicately with his napkin, attempting to appear unconcerned and failing miserably. “In either case, her permanent reappearance is most undesirable, as you must have gathered from my telegram….”
“And as I know very well, which may surprise you, you are the Princess Jennifer’s first cousin, meaning that your son Albert will be in the fortunate position of next in succession for the crown of Pallas Athena after the princess’s tragic and untimely demise at the hands of – a professional thief named Dagobert, perhaps?”
Nicholas squirmed slightly at the Frenchman’s acute perception of the situation. “That is quite correct,” he agreed after a slight pause. “I am prepared to offer you fifteen thousand British pounds upon the completion of the business – five thousand now and the rest afterwards.”
“Twenty,” Robuchon stated coolly. “Ten now. There are always unforeseen difficulties in dealing with other professionals of the criminal fraternity, especially – ” he set his wine glass delicately on the table, “one young, principled, single, and yet so accomplished as to be known as the best thief in the Caribbean.”
“May I congratulate you on your powers of information, Monsieur le Baron,” Nicholas said stiffly.
Robuchon raised his glass and swirled the contents, surveying the rich color. “You will find that in this game living well-informed is a necessity to living at all, Monsieur. If you would be so kind as to deliver the advance, I will bid you good evening.”
Nicholas scowled at him for a moment, then quailed under the expressionless stare of the assassin’s black eyes. He fumbled in his suit pocket, removing a wad of crisp bank notes. He laid them on the table. “There.”
Robuchon pocketed them and rose. “Simply remember that if the remainder is not delivered upon the completion of the affair, I know very well how to reach – ” the word send shivers up Nicholas’s cowardly spine, “you and your son. Au revoir, Monsieur.”
Dag came slowly awake to a parrot making a fuss just outside the window. He rolled over and saw that it was morning, and made a face at the window. Why couldn’t the sun sleep in once in a while? He got up and dressed and splashed water in his face at the sink.
He more or less combed his hair with his fingers, then noticed that the motel had provided a comb and toothpaste and things like that. He shaved, combed his hair properly, and knocked on the bedroom door.
“Jennifer? Are you awake?” He heard a little contented sigh, then it sounded like she rolled over and snuggled back under the covers. Dag laughed quietly. Sleepyhead. “I think they’re making breakfast,” he called. This time it sounded like she was actually paying attention. “I’ll wait for you outside.”
“Okay,” Jennifer said sleepily. Dag went out, wondering how long it would actually be before she got out of bed. It was a beautiful morning, though, cool and breezy. A couple of yellow and white parakeets flashed past, scolding at each other, and he laughed. He had always liked the parrots. They were naughty, and they made a mess, but they always looked so smug and pleased with themselves.
Jennifer finally came out, yawning.
“Sleepyhead,” he teased. She made a face at him, and they both laughed.
The motel had a breakfast room, and several other guests were seated, chatting, when they arrived. The kitchen was at one end, and a stout Indian woman was frying sausages and bacon and eggs while the girl from the desk was making toast and coffee and cutting fruit.
“Dag, what is she doing?” Jennifer whispered.
“The girl, there.” She pointed. The desk girl was pouring light colored batter into a black pan attached to the wall. Then she put down a lid, locked the handles, turned the whole contraption over, and set a timer.
“That’s a waffle iron,” Dag told her. “It’s like an electric stove. You put the batter in, close it, then it cooks in there until it’s done, and then you take the waffle out.”
Jennifer looked impressed. “Is it easy to do?”
Dag laughed. “Don’t tell me you want to try it.”
“I do!” she protested. “It looks fun.”
“Go ask her then,” he said. “She looks pretty busy.” Jennifer jumped up and went to talk to the girl, and sure enough, in less than a minute they were over at the waffle iron, and Jennifer was pouring a new batch of batter into it, looking pleased as punch.
Jennifer made waffles for all the motel guests. Dag figured it was the closest thing to cooking that she had ever done, and she was enjoying it a lot. She kept putting more on his plate, and he kept eating them. At last everyone else was finished and going back to their rooms or out to go sightseeing, and he finally had to tell her that he seriously could not eat another waffle. He just didn’t have room. Then he had to make her sit down and eat her own breakfast.
“I like to cook,” she was saying, her eyes shining. “I never got to try it before. Sometimes Bridget and I went down to the kitchen, and the staff gave us cookies, but we never were allowed to help with anything.”
“Who’s Bridget? Your sister?”
“Max’s sister. Max is my bodyguard, and Bridget and I are almost the same age. We grew up together, so we’re practically like sisters. Their father was my grandfather’s chief of security until he was killed in a riot, before the war. Max wants to be just like him. Sometimes Bridget and I tease him. He doesn’t smile enough anymore.”
“Growing up can have that effect,” Dag agreed, with great solemnity. Jennifer saw that he was doing it on purpose and laughed. The Indian woman and the desk girl thanked Jennifer for her help, then Dag paid for the room and they went out into the street. Dag didn’t quite have a plan for the day; mainly just sightseeing and then – maybe – talking Jennifer into going back to the palace. He wasn’t looking forward to that part.
They went down to the waterfront and strolled along, enjoying the view of the sparkling blue Caribbean on the right and the flowering, forested hills rising on the left. Jennifer was in heaven.
“Look, they’re painting it,” she pointed. The artists had their easels lined up in a row, and each was painting a slightly different scene. All of them were overflowing with color. Jennifer skipped over to see better, pulling Dag along. She had never been allowed to talk to the street painters in Europe.
She sidled in next to one of the artists. A small white church nestled amongst a flowering forest on his canvas.
“It looks real,” she complimented him. “Is it a real chapel?”
“Si, señorita,” he said. “It is in my home town, on the island of Trinidad. Have you been there?”
“No, I haven’t,” she said. “Have you, Dag?”
He nodded. “Once. But it was a while ago.” He saw no point in telling her that it had been for a job.
“The señorita should have her picture painted,” a new, suave voice tinged with a slight European accent suggested; “before it is too late.”
Jennifer looked up. “What?”
Dag took an instant disliking to the man. He was very tall and elegantly dressed, in a violet suit and hat with a cream waistcoat, and carried a cane. Something about his eyes unsettled him. They were very black and expressionless, odd. The tall man beckoned to one of the painters, toying with the head of his cane. It was an ornate one, with an eagle motif on the head. Dag edged closer to Jennifer. Just in case…
In a single fluid motion the man in the violet suit produced a sword from his cane and lunged at Jennifer. Dag grabbed the nearest wooden artist’s palette and jammed it in the way of the thrust, knocking Jennifer out of the way. The man recovered with amazing speed, and Dag jumped back, avoiding a slash at his stomach.
All of a sudden the startled artists recovered their wits and charged. They piled on top of the man in the violet suit and knocked him to the ground. A Franciscan friar, who had been walking along the street, came running. He quickly took off his rope girdle and helped the artists tie the man up.
Dag backed away, standing protectively in front of Jennifer. He knew, now, who the man was. He had heard him described, but this was the first time he had seen him face to face. Joël Robuchon. The French assassin they called the Baron. And he had been trying to kill Jennifer.
“My son, you had best take your friend away from here,” the priest said to him. “We will summon the police.”
Dag nodded, startled into action again. “Thank you, Father.” He took Jennifer’s hand and ran with her up the street, taking back alleys and doubling back and cutting through restaurants. Dag knew the layout of Bali like the back of his hand; he hoped Robuchon didn’t. They ran until they were out of breath, then collapsed on the edge of a flower box.
Jennifer was gasping for air, leaning against his shoulder, trying to catch her breath. “Who was that man, Dag?” she asked. Her eyes were dark and scared. “Why was he…”
Dag put his arm around her shoulders, trying to calm her down. “Easy, catch your breath.” Better not to scare her. His stomach felt funny from all the adrenaline right on top of all the waffles. “I don’t know. The artists have got him now.” She was quiet for a minute, resting against him.
“What I would like to know,” he said, sitting up straighter, “is how there are always people nearby who can help us? You would think somebody…like that…would want to catch us when there is nobody around.”
Jennifer sat up, and he dropped his arm. “I don’t know. Do you think they are all gone now?”
“I hope so.”
They walked down the street, going more slowly. A young couple went strolling past them arm in arm, dreamy-eyed.
Jennifer looked up at him. “Are they in love?” she asked.
Dag shrugged, pulling a face. “I guess.”
She tucked her arm through his. “Have you ever been in love? I haven’t.”
Dag looked down at the top of her head. “No, not really, I guess.”
They went on for a while, up through the higher part of the town. Dag started hearing two men talking. Their voices got louder and louder, and he thought… They turned a corner.
Dag stopped short. “Sergio?”
“Max!” Jennifer looked shocked.
“Stand back,” Max ordered. Dag recognized him as the blond young man in the blue suit who had been talking to Jennifer on the yacht. “He blew this job, big time.” Max waved his pistol at Sergio.
Dag stepped in front of Jennifer.
“What?” This was getting kind of eerie. “He hired me. You’re saying you hired him?”
“Eh, he did,” Sergio agreed. “Now he isn’t happy, for some reason.”
“Max, what are you talking about?” Jennifer came around Dag, and he put out his arm, trying to keep her back.
“I don’t want you taking the throne,” Max said sullenly. “He – ” he pointed at Dag, “never delivered you to Sergio, so now there is a mess.”
“Sergio didn’t meet me at the right place,” Dag retorted. “I tried calling him, and the operators were screaming about Princess Jennifer. So I took the ‘woman in the red dress’ somewhere else because I figured it wasn’t safe to hang around with a princess on my hands.”
Sergio gasped. “That’s Princess Jennifer?” He stared at Dag.
“Hey, you didn’t tell me she was a princess!” Sergio protested, pointing at Max. “You just said ‘the woman in the red dress,’ and that’s what I told Dag.”
Dag could feel himself getting angry. “You used me,” he accused Max.
“Of course I did,” Max sneered. “I knew you wouldn’t have done it if you knew she was a princess.”
“I thought you were a good person,” Jennifer exclaimed, and for a second Dag thought she was talking to him. Then he saw that she was glaring at Max. Thank goodness. She walked stiffly up to him, her eyes snapping.
“I thought you, of all people, would want to get me safely back. I – I’ve known you all my life! You and Bridget, and – ” Before Dag could stop her, she tripped on a rough patch of pavement. Out of habit, Max reached out to catch her, and when he did, Sergio stepped forward and took his gun away.
“I’ll handle this one,” he declared. “Dag, you take the little princess and keep her good and safe. She’s better off with you than with these people, that’s for sure. Adios!”
Once the thief and the princess were out of sight, Sergio lowered the gun.
“I’m glad you’re such a good actor,” Max commented dryly.
“Now what was the point of all this again?” Sergio demanded. Max took his gun back and hid it in his coat.
“She’s safe with him for now. If I take her back to the palace she’s going to be a sitting target for whoever Nicholas has out to get her. She has to think I’m the bad guy so she doesn’t want to come back. I’m setting traps of my own to catch Nicholas; it’s just safer for her to be away from the palace right now.”
Sergio shook his head. “And I thought Dagoberto had a complicated mind.”
Dag flagged down a two-wheeled mule cart, and he and Jennifer climbed inside.
The driver clucked to his beast. “Where to, señor?”
The road was steep in places, and Jennifer stared wide-eyed at the view, all blues and greens with patches of red and white and orange and yellow and pink. Dag watched her, glad to see that she seemed to have recovered from her earlier scare, even though she still seemed upset about her bodyguard’s treachery.
“You like it?”
“Yes,” she agreed. “Europe doesn’t have big huge views like this at all – there are houses everywhere. The churches are beautiful, though.”
“I’ve seen pictures,” Dag volunteered.
Jennifer looked back at him. “Do you want to go there, some day?”
Dag laughed. “I don’t think they’d want me. I would take off with too many things.” She was quiet for a moment, obviously thinking.
“I just don’t see how Max could – could be so wicked,” she burst out. He’s my own…” Her voice trailed off. “He’s practically like my brother.”
“It does kind of make sense, though,” Dag suggested. “If he needs money – or maybe that cousin of yours, Nicholas, is blackmailing him. He didn’t seem to want to kill you; just get you off the throne. Maybe somebody else has plans he doesn’t know about.”
“I wonder if Bridget knows,” Jennifer said sadly.
San Julian was another seaport town. They crested the last hill, and Dag stared, then groaned inwardly. He had forgotten that it was carnival week. And this carnival was absolutely huge. At least carnivals were easy to hide in, and Jennifer…well, maybe this would be a lot of fun. It would distract her from her gloomy thoughts of Max, and the Baron was taken care of.
They got out of the cart, and Jennifer kept turning around, trying to see everything. “It’s so big!” she exclaimed. “Have you ever seen anything this big?”
Dag grinned. Her quickly rekindled excitement was contagious. “Yeah, since I was a kid. I was born in San Julian.”
Jennifer looked around with renewed interest. She glanced back at him, hesitantly. “Do your parents still live here?”
Dag shook his head. “They’ve both been dead for a while,” he said.
“What about you?” Dag was suddenly curious.
“My mother is back at the palace,” she explained. “The king is my grandfather, so we all live together.”
Dag, remembering the stout man in the medals, couldn’t imagine having a king for a grandfather. “Yikes.”
“You would like Grandfather,” she protested. “He’s nice.”
Dag pretended to be scared. “Uh-uh. I got one look at him, and that was enough.”
They walked leisurely through San Julian, taking in the sights. Everyone was getting ready for the big parade, and they rode on a merry-go-round. Dag got cotton candy from a street vendor, since it was a carnival, and watched Jennifer get completely sticky eating it. She was getting better, but she still didn’t get how some things were done. They found a water spigot on the side of a building and washed the cotton candy off, then found a good place to watch the parade.
The big brass band led the parade, followed by a flower-covered float where the queen of the carnival and her court were riding, all dressed up in fluffy dresses like pink cotton candy. Jennifer thought the costumed children who came next were the cutest, with their little pets. There were family groups too, where everyone was dressed on a theme, and young men on horseback, with lovely señoritas seated behind them with flowers in their hair. A huge float of a castle moved slowly by, surrounded by companies of men dressed up as soldiers. Jennifer said they looked dashing, and Dag laughed at her enthusiasm.
Everyone was singing along with the bands, which were playing the old Spanish favorites that everyone knew. Dag found himself singing along too, and Jennifer smiled up at him.
“I like how you sing,” she said. She blushed a little. “It almost makes me be able to understand the words, the way you do it.”
Dag hesitated, not sure what to say. Anybody could sing. He was going to miss her, though, when she went back to the palace. Although the way things were going now, that wasn’t going to be for a while. It had been fun showing her around.
“Look, there’s some pirates,” he pointed, to distract her. They wiggled through the crowd to get a better look. The pseudo pirates were a fierce-looking lot, with red bandanas and black masks and swords. Some of them had earrings and a couple even had tattoos.
Dag turned to ask Jennifer if she thought it would be fun to dress up for the parade – and she wasn’t there. Startled, he turned all around, standing on tip-toe.
There seemed to be a lot of men in green soldier costumes around. A large black tricorn hat with white plumes, working its way away through the crowd, caught his eye. It was moving funny, like it was dragging something…. Dag jumped up and caught a glimpse of the top of Jennifer’s head.
He started to push through the crowd, and suddenly all the men in the green soldier costumes blocked his way. They all had black masks, and they all had swords.
Jennifer was scared. The tall man in the black hat had a grip like a vise on her wrist, and he was dragging her along after him. She tried to set her feet and resist, but she may as well have tried to stop a train. Dag was nowhere in sight. The tall man stopped for a moment, glancing back over the crowd, and Jennifer recognized him. It was the strange man with the sword cane.
Dag had gotten a sword away from one soldier and a shield away from another soldier, and he was trying to keep all four of them off of him. They weren’t as fast as Joël Robuchon, but they were quite fast enough. He kicked the man behind him in the stomach, but didn’t have time to feel relieved. Two swords were coming at his head. He bumped them aside with his clumsy shield and stuck his sword in underneath. One of the men made a grunting noise and stopped fighting.
Two left. Ahead of him, he saw the tall man in the black tricorn pass Jennifer off to a pirate in a red bandana and head back. He took over from one of Dag’s opponents – in an instant Dag recognized him.
Somehow he had gotten away from the artists. The two men circled him, the Baron staying in front of him while the other one kept getting around behind him. Dag was almost getting dizzy from turning so fast, trying to keep his back in one piece. Finally he smashed the one behind him in the face with his sword hilt, and he fell back behind a booth. Dag slammed his shield into the Baron, pushing him off into the crowd, and while the assassin’s back was turned he ducked into the booth after the other soldier.
It took him only a minute to peel the green coat off the dazed soldier and put it on, likewise the hat and the mask. He rolled the thug under a tarp and ran out to the street again, looking for Jennifer.
The big black tricorn was nowhere in sight. Dag hurried to catch up with the other green soldiers, hoping Jennifer would be nearby. On the edge of the parade he caught sight of the red pirate, and there, he had Jennifer with him. The red pirate raised his sword, and Jennifer was trying to pull away but couldn’t.
Dag ran up behind the pirate and tapped him on the shoulder. Surprised, the man turned, and Dag punched him in the jaw as hard as he could. The pirate reeled, and Dag half carried him behind a parked float and took away his weapons – a sword and a pistol with ammunition.
“Put on his costume,” he told Jennifer, pulling off the essential parts and shoving them into her hands. Her eyes widened as she recognized him through the mask. “Hurry! I’ll wait for you out there.”
He slipped out into the crowd again. The Baron was back at the head of his soldiers, and he was scanning the crowd, looking for Jennifer. Dag was glad he had the black mask. He fell in with the soldiers, who were doing formation drills with the red pirates. Dag fell into line, watching to see what the others were doing. The Baron was having a mock sword struggle with the leader of the pirates, and the crowd was appreciative. Dag worked his way to the edge of the parade, trying to avoid looking Robuchon in the eye.
A little red pirate came running out from behind the float beside him, complete with enormous red boots and a jaunty bandana. The costume was huge.
Dag laughed. “Señorita!” He guessed that it was the first time Jennifer had ever worn pants, and she looked terribly embarrassed. It made her even cuter than ever.
“Dag, is this how it goes?”
“It’s fine,” he told her. He took her hand. “Come on!”
He pulled her away through the crowd, keeping his head low and keeping to where the people were thickest. He glanced back once. Robuchon hadn’t noticed yet that he was one soldier and one pirate short. Good. They ran down a side street, and Dag thought fast. Where should they go? Town wasn’t safe anymore. He led Jennifer through a maze of back alleys until he was sure they weren’t being followed. Suddenly Jennifer tripped over the huge red boots.
Dag caught her, and helped her sit down.
“They’re too big – they hurt my feet,” she panted. He knelt down and helped her take them off. There was really no need to keep wearing the things anymore. She had her sandals in the pants pockets, so she took them out and put them on.
Jennifer blushed. “I’ve got my dress on underneath this,” she explained. Dag turned his back while she got the pirate costume off, peeling off his own green jacket and the hat and mask. The pistol he transferred to the inside pocket of his suit coat, and he put the ammunition in his pants pocket. He felt better having them.
They hid the costumes in a cardboard box beside a trash can and went on up the alley.
“Dag, remember – that man in the purple suit, by the artists? The man at the parade, in the big hat with the white feathers – he was the same man.” Jennifer looked up at Dag, a worried look on her face. “I heard his men calling him ‘Baron.’ Do you know who he is?”
Dag sighed. She may as well know now. “Yeah. I didn’t want to tell you before.” He hesitated, looking down at her. Man, he did not want her to get hurt. She was so tiny, so bright and innocent, and he – gee, what did he think of her? He didn’t know. “His name is Joël Robuchon, and he’s an assassin – one of the best. Whoever’s out to get you must be getting desperate; and they have a lot of money.”
Jennifer looked down, and he saw her shoulders quiver. She looked up, and there were tears in her eyes. “I don’t understand,” she whispered, a catch in her voice. “I never knew people would – hate me like this. I – ” She blew her nose. Dag carefully put his arms around her.
She needed the physical comfort of a hug, especially since he couldn’t think of anything to say that would make her feel better. She snuggled against him, and he laid his cheek against the top of her head. What on earth was happening to him? He’d never felt like this. Had Tio Emilio been right, then? Maybe this was what it was like to fall in love. He sighed.
“We’d better keep moving,” he said.
San Julian was on the edge of the forest, and the last houses simply scattered out among the trees. Dag took Jennifer along the walking paths through the woods. The sandy dirt was hard and dry, so there was little chance of Robuchon being able to track them. The paths were a veritable maze as well, and it was easy to get lost.
Dag knew where he was going. The path was more overgrown than he remembered, but he knew the twists and turns like he knew his parents’ house. Jennifer was holding his hand, and neither of them felt like talking. The woods were cool and still, with an occasional brightly colored bird fluttering across the path ahead of them. Dag caught sight of a faded white steeple through the thinning trees ahead, and knew they were almost there.
“Oh,” Jennifer breathed.
They were standing on the edge of a clearing. At the far end, a tiny chapel, open to the air, had once stood. It had long been abandoned, but parts of the walls and the roof still stood, and on a tree beside it a large cross was still hanging. The simple wooden benches were mostly sagging and mold-covered, but there were a few stone seats that were still intact by the tree.
“I used to play here, when I was a kid,” Dag said. “It used to be the chapel for the old fort up there on the hill,” he pointed through the trees. “Sometimes people used to come out from town too.”
Jennifer walked up the grass-grown aisle, looking at the remains of the windows. “It must have been beautiful,” she murmured.
“My parents got married here,” Dag told her. “But then there weren’t soldiers at the fort anymore, so it just kind of got left alone. It’s more overgrown than it used to be.”
He walked over to the tree with the cross. “When I was little, I hid a coin here for my dad, after he died. He said it was pirate treasure.” Dag smiled, remembering. “He was always proud that he was descended from a real pirate, back before they were all hunted down.” Jennifer came over and looked up at the big cross.
“I wonder if the coin is still here,” she wondered. Dag smiled down at her. Sometimes she reminded him of a little kid, so curious and interested in everything.
“I wonder,” he mused. He walked over to the wall of the chapel and knelt down, feeling among the stones in the foundation. There, the little chink, where the mortar had fallen out. He broke off a twig and slipped it into the opening, sliding it from side to side. Yes, there was still something in there.
He maneuvered the stick, feeling the resistance from the weight of the coin. The edge, blackened by moisture, came into view. He got hold of it and pried it out into his hand, then held it up.
“Here it is.”
Jennifer broke a big leaf off the tree, and they polished the coin with it. It was a thick old silver coin, with Spanish words on it. Dag tossed it in his hand, remembering the weight and feel of it, then gave it to her to look at. Jennifer sat down on the bench under the cross, tracing the lettering with her finger. She looked up at him and smiled, a little shyly.
“Dag – you puzzle me.” He looked down at her.
She cocked her head over on one side, like a bright-eyed little bird. “You’re such a good person – and you’re a thief.”
Dag put his hands in his pockets, thinking about what she had said. Sometimes he wondered about that, himself. Jennifer watched him, her head still to one side. Dag sat down on the stone bench beside her, leaning his elbows on his knees.
“I guess I never really thought about it a whole lot,” he admitted. He looked up, at the little chapel, the peaceful woods, the old fort on the hill. Dusk was settling, and fireflies were starting to flicker among the trees. He looked at Jennifer. Her face was sympathetic, and it encouraged him. He stood up and walked across the chapel, his hands in his pockets.
“My father was the wild one in his family. He ran away from home when he was ten and signed onto a tradeship’s crew because he didn’t want to be a fisherman like Tio Emilio. He loved the idea of pirates, and he wanted to see the world. I think he maybe saw too much of it.” He looked down at a fat tiger moth slowly climbing along one of the sagging wooden benches.
“Did he find the coin in his travels?” Jennifer asked.
“I think so. He met a girl from San Julian and fell in love with her, and they decided to get married. She knew he was wild, but she thought that maybe having a family would help him settle down.”
“It didn’t,” Jennifer guessed.
Dag shook his head. “He was killed in a police shoot-out at a bar when I was four – a week before my fifth birthday.”
Jennifer stood up, remorse written across her face. “Dag, I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. I’ve never talked about it, except with Tio Emilio, a little bit. He doesn’t know the whole story. My mother didn’t want him to; she thought it would make him feel bad about his brother.”
“If your mother didn’t want – ” Jennifer started.
“She’s dead,” Dag said curtly. He saw the look on her face. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound like that. She got sick after Dad was killed. I was too little to get a job at first, and when I was old enough they didn’t want to hire me, because of my father. So I started stealing things. Mother wouldn’t ask for help from anybody, even Tio Emilio and Tia Rosa. They had five kids, so they couldn’t have helped much anyway. I started making contacts, people kind of like Sergio, although I didn’t meet him till later, who would buy the stuff I stole so I could try to get the medicine she needed.” Dag scuffed his foot in the sandy dirt. “I couldn’t save her.” Jennifer was looking down at her hands, folded in her lap.
“Since then, it’s like I’ve been drifting. There’s an old Indian woman who keeps a room for me at her boardinghouse, does laundry for me and that, but it’s not like having a family. Tia Rosa tries to keep track of me – she used to make sure I got a real bath once a month instead of just going swimming in my clothes – but she can’t keep up. Sergio’s probably my best friend – he found me sitting in the rain in an alley the week after my mother died and helped me look at things differently.”
Dag looked up at the big trees behind the chapel, remembering Sergio as a lanky teenager who thought he was practically ancient at fifteen.
“He said, ‘You’ll never get anywhere with being content to stay at the bottom of the food chain,’ and he was right. His dad was involved in some big jobs, and eventually I worked my way up. But it’s like it’s not enough. Stealing things for other people doesn’t make me happy. I enjoy it – the excitement, the challenge – but…”
He shrugged. “I can remember when things were different. Sergio, it’s all he knows. Sometimes it feels like I’ve always been looking for a way to go back, and I’ve never been able to find it.”
Dag turned, and looked back at Jennifer. “I don’t even know what it is that I really want. Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong places.” It was a relief, to tell her all of that. Before, he had never told anyone how frustrated he felt sometimes. Sergio hadn’t understood, the one time he had tried to explain, so he had given up.
Jennifer stood up. “I hope you find it, whatever you really are looking for.”
Dag looked at her standing there, in her light summer dress, with her dark hair falling over her shoulders and the fireflies twinkling around her and her eyes like big dark stars. Kind, softly shining stars. She was so pretty – and not just pretty. She was – he didn’t know the right words.
“Maybe I was wrong,” he whispered, more to himself than to her. “Maybe I’ve already found it, and I didn’t know. Maybe…”
He walked slowly across the chapel. Something was pulling him, a quiet, powerful urge that he did not understand, an urge as old as mankind itself. He could see an echo of it in Jennifer’s eyes, and it told her to stay, to wait for him to come to her. It was the first time either of them had heard the call, and they obeyed it slowly, half uncertain but at the same time knowing what it was that they were meant to do.
He walked slowly across the chapel, until he was standing directly in front of her.
Jennifer stood very still. Dag let his hand slip up to brush her cheek. The quiet voice had said to do it, and he was ready to obey. She dropped her eyes, but she did not pull away. Slowly, carefully, he bent his head toward her. He was a little afraid, because he had never kissed a girl before, but he knew he wanted to now. He could feel Jennifer breathing, quick and a little shy, and he closed his eyes.
Abruptly with a little gasp she pulled his hand away. Dag started, shaken and confused.
“Wait, you can’t,” she pleaded.
She had quickly passed him, and he couldn’t see her face.
He was breathing hard, for some reason, and everything inside him felt so mixed up and tingly – it was like it hurt. The soft, mounting chord that had pulled him with its music had broken off in a jangling discord, and his heart was caught in the strings.
“Is it something – ”
Jennifer came up, hesitantly, behind him. “It’s not your fault. I – I have a secret.” Her voice was trembling, and she wouldn’t look at him. “It’s a big secret, and nobody knows except a few people. I have to tell you, before – before…”
Dag turned to face her. “Jennifer.” She was so upset, and he…
Jennifer met his eyes for a moment, but couldn’t hold them. She seemed so frightened, almost, like she had done something wrong.
“I am not – ”
Dag reached hesitantly for her hands. She was shaking like a leaf.
A gunshot shattered the quiet, whistling over their heads.
Dag pushed her down. “Look out!”
Dag grabbed her wrist and ran as fast as he could, pulling her along after him, helping her, ducking whippy branches and jumping bigger fallen ones. He had gotten one look at what was coming up the path. Robuchon and his men.
This time there was no one else around.
He could hear the Baron shouting to his men, could hear them crashing through the jungle underbrush. One man shrieked, something about a snake, and the sounds of pursuit got fainter. Dag didn’t stop. He took the shortest path, taking Jennifer up the hill. There, the old fort. The gates were sagging, and there was no way to close them, but at least the old stone walls would offer some protection. They ran inside the gate, and Dag paused, trying to decide the best place to hide Jennifer. There were scraggly bushes growing in the courtyard, and even a palm tree or two, but they weren’t enough for what he wanted.
He looked up. The walls were crumbling, but there was still one tower standing – he hoped the floor was still solid.
“Up here,” he panted to Jennifer, leading her up the steps. She was hovering close to him; scared, yes, but every time he caught her eyes there was something in them that jumbled everything inside him into a knotted tangle of feelings and emotions he hadn’t known existed. Even the way she held onto his hand was different, and it made him want to…gee, pull her up against him and kiss her, and kiss her, and kiss her…
Dag thrust Jennifer behind him and pulled to a halt. He remembered just at the last second to keep her away from the edge of the battlement. They had gotten to the top of the stairs, and there, standing in the doorway to the tower, was Anna Maria. Ignacio was standing behind her, holding his gun determinedly but utterly failing to look fierce.
Anna Maria pointed her pistol squarely at his chest. Cautiously, Dag held up his hands, thinking more of Jennifer than of himself.
“Princess Jennifer, we have come to rescue you.” The woman detective glared at Dag, jingling the ever-present pair of handcuffs. “Crown jewels are one thing; princesses are quite another. You won’t get away from what you deserve this time.”
Jennifer, from behind Dag, started to say “But – ”
“Anna Maria, listen.” Dag looked her in the eye. The foolish woman would never understand, and he didn’t have much time. “Contrary to everything you have heard and are willing to believe, I did not come up with the idea of kidnapping Princess Jennifer. I was hired to take her away from the party on the yacht. That’s all. Then people started trying to kill her yesterday afternoon, and we’ve been running from them ever since. Right now – ”
Anna Maria sniffed. “I’m not convinced. You’ve talked your way out of things a few too many times to expect me to believe all that.”
“But it’s true!” Jennifer exclaimed, sticking her head out from behind him. “Someone has hired the Baron to try to – to…”
“Joël Robuchon?” Anna Maria turned to Ignacio. “Isn’t that the man that fool Nicholas up at the palace, that Max had arrested this afternoon, was babbling about?”
Jennifer nodded eagerly. “Yes, it is, and he…”
“Anna Maria!” Dag was getting exasperated. “Forget that now. The Baron will be here in a moment, and please – ” he glanced down at Jennifer and motioned with his hands, which were still in the air “this is no place for her right now. I know I can at least trust you to keep her safe.”
The woman detective looked at him narrowly for a moment, then at Jennifer peeking out from behind him. Her gun came down. “Very well. But after this – ”
“Hey, no promises,” Dag protested, backing away. “Now get her out of here.”
Jennifer suddenly realized that Dag was staying behind. And the Baron was coming, with his men. “What – Dag – ”
“Anna Maria will look after you. She’s all right – she’s been trying to catch me for years.” The corner of his mouth twisted in a smile.
He looked like he was thinking of saying something else, but didn’t. He stepped aside to let her follow Anna Maria.
Jennifer was seized by a panic. This was horrid. She couldn’t even think of anything to say, and she felt as if she wanted to say millions of things. She hesitated, remembering the chapel, reluctant to just walk away and leave him there. “Dag I – ” The unruly lock of hair that he was always pushing back with his hand was falling over his forehead, casting a shadow in his eyes, but she saw something change in them.
Dag reached – and had her in his arms. There was no time for what he wanted to say; he couldn’t think of the right words, anyway. For an instant her eyes met his, a little startled, a little shy, but not – upset – instead it was almost like…he didn’t dare interpret the look in her eyes. Hesitantly at first, because he didn’t know if she would like it, he kissed her.
Jennifer gave in, leaning up against him, and it did funny, crazy things to his heart. Dag pulled her against him, pouring everything he felt and wanted to say into the kiss. Who cared if she was a princess with some kind of secret? She had been going to tell him. That was enough. Right now he just didn’t care.
Too soon he knew he had to stop.
He pulled his head back, hating it. He had to let her go.
The look in her eyes cut his heart to the quick – so warm and soft and shy and hopeful and brave. He had done that, and he didn’t know whether to be glad or sorry. For a moment he cupped her face protectively in his hand, memorizing the feel of her.
She was so tiny, so delicately made – like one of his mother’s flowers. The princess had been the bud, prim and a little stiff; this girl who had bloomed in his hand was the flower, with silky, vibrant petals and a golden heart just peeping through.
Dag knew there was a very good chance that he would never see her again. He hoped he had not made things worse for her; he cringed inwardly at the thought of the dainty girlish flower – his flower – shrinking under a blow.
But it had to be.
He stepped back, releasing her. Anna Maria looked shocked, but he didn’t care. The woman detective took Jennifer’s hand, and as she led the princess away Dag wondered if a clean bullet through the heart would really hurt very much.
As the woman detective led her quickly away through the old fortress and down through a back way out over a pile of crumbling stonework, Jennifer looked back as long as she could, until even Dag’s white suit disappeared into the gloom. Then she realized that she was crying.
Behind them in the darkness the man she had come to love was waiting to give his life for her, and she would never see him alive again.
Dag loaded his gun. There were six chambers, and when he had loaded all of them he had only two bullets left. He shoved them back into his pocket. This was going to be short, however it worked out. He went back down the stairs and picked a place among the stonework in the courtyard where he could be mostly covered but still run if he had to. He could hear the crunch of gravel under someone’s shoes, and he recognized the length of the stride. The Baron. Apparently he had tired of his men’s noisy thrashing around in the jungle.
The man came to a stop in the gateway of the fort. “Dagobert!” He scanned the area, his black, vulture-like eyes catching everything. He removed his pistol from his pocket. “Where’s the girl? You’ve gotten away from me twice – I admire that. But you can’t run forever. Somewhere you will have to stand and fight.”
Robuchon waited for an answer; getting none, he continued.
“We aren’t so different, you and I – you’re a thief and I’m an assassin. The law makes no difference to either of us.”
Dag held still. There was a difference between them; one Robuchon would never appreciate. Assassins shot first. Dag could not. Not with the memory of Jennifer’s kiss on his lips.
His ankle, tired of crouching, slipped. The Baron fired at the sound, and Dag felt the bullet whistle over his head. He scooted to another place, berating himself for his carelessness. Robuchon shot the bushes full of holes around him, and finally Dag saw a chance for a shot.
He jumped up and ran behind a palm tree. Robuchon was circling to get an opening, and Dag sighted him in and fired another round.
Robuchon ducked, but he lost his hat to the bullet. He fired even as he avoided Dag’s shot, and Dag winced as splinters flew from the tree beside him.
The Baron was talking again. “You can’t escape me, Dagobert. Where is the Princess Jennifer? I will kill you quickly if you tell me now….”
Dag jumped out into the open and threw another shot at him. Like that was going to happen. He knew it missed, but it gave him time to get under cover again.
Robuchon paced forward. “I know how to kill a man slowly,” he sneered. He too was keeping cover now, but he did it with an ease born of long practice. “I can force it out of you till you scream for mercy.” He coolly sent two rounds at Dag’s head and sighed. “It’s sad, really.”
Dag ducked and set his teeth, determined to ignore the man’s banter. He shot again, and again the Baron sidestepped it. The man was as fast as a snake.
“Perhaps you should thank me,” Robuchon said dispassionately. “They would never have let you have her. I certainly will not, since I need you to be blamed for killing her anyway. She will look so sweet, laid out in a coffin with flowers heaped around her – it would crush you, I’m afraid, but you won’t be alive to see it.”
Dag peppered two shots at him, hoping to catch him as he sidestepped, hating the image his words brought to mind.
He had to stay cool. The second shot had grazed the Frenchman’s sleeve, but the first one had just kicked up gravel. Dag dove headfirst behind another piece of stonework and reloaded with the two bullets he had.
He rested a moment, in the shadow of the stonework. He was hot and sweaty, and his shirt collar was choking him; he pulled it open another button. His hand brushed the silver medal of the Blessed Virgin around his neck that had been his mother’s, and he clutched it tightly in his fingers. “Please, keep her safe,” he whispered. “I think I’m getting the hang of his timing, so let me shoot straight!”
Dag cautiously peered around the edge of the rock, just as a shot crashed down where he had been sitting. He rolled over, sending off a shot at almost point-blank range. Robuchon cried out, and he knew he had hit him. Dag scrambled off through the bushes and turned around, carefully getting to his feet. Robuchon’s left shoulder was drooping, and there was a red splotch growing there.
“I will pay you for that one, boy,” the Baron snarled, and came in fast, shooting so quickly that Dag was amazed that none of them hit him. The shots ricocheted off the old mossy stone walls, almost more dangerous than the live bullets. He fired off a quick shot, almost sure of a hit, but at the last moment he had to duck and it went wide.
The Baron came on, presenting a perfect shot. Dag lined it up carefully.
He pulled the trigger, and nothing happened.
Eight was already gone.
Dag turned to run – and saw that Robuchon had him in a corner. There was nowhere to run.
The assassin sauntered up. “Ah, I see,” he triumphed. “All out. Now perhaps you will listen to reason.” The gun came up. “Where is Princess Jennifer.”
Dag could see it all in his head. Robuchon coming upon Jennifer and Anna Maria. He would call, and Jennifer would turn, and…
“You can’t make me tell you,” he said quietly. Out through the gate he just could see the white steeple of the chapel. He remembered the warm, soft look in Jennifer’s eyes, her smile, her little squeal when he had taught her how to swing. How it felt to be in love. It was such a relief to give it a name. He loved her. Loved her more than living.
For a moment the Baron did not move. “Have it that way, then,” he said, and he smiled, a smile that had absolutely no warmth in it. Two dark shadows thrashed out of the jungle and ran toward them, then stopped.
“Robuchon? Should we – ”
“No. Just cover him.” He began reloading his partially empty gun, slowly, deliberately, still with the same cold smile. Dag felt sick.
Dag turned his back. He couldn’t watch. He tried not to think about it, tried to think of other things that would drown out the metallic clicks behind him. He would be the second person in his family to die this way, and all the old neighbors would wag their heads and say ‘like father, like son’; the old priest in San Julian would see to it that he was buried beside his mother’s almost unmarked grave, and pray for him out of habit; but Tia Rosa would cry, when she knew, and she would pray her Rosary for his soul, and Tio Emilio would be sorry – he would never know how close he had come to telling the future, or maybe it had already been the present. Whatever story the Baron came up with, they at least would not believe it. Even Sergio would miss him, and old Señora Posita, at the boardinghouse, would wonder what had happened to him.
His mother – his mother would have been proud of him, and the thought of her quieted his fears and let him think clearly. There weren’t any newspapers where she was, but she would know what he had done, and she would be proud of him. The neighbors were wrong, and nothing the Baron could say afterwards would change the real story to the people who mattered. Anna Maria would have to believe it, even, and Jennifer…his heart wrenched in agony at the thought of her, when they would have to tell her that he was…Jennifer had to live, or death became terrifying.
Dag wanted to pray, but the prayers he remembered didn’t seem enough – he needed to ask for some things, and he needed to ask directly. He wasn’t sure if God made deals. He didn’t know about things like that. All he could hope, desperately, with every fiber of his being, was that maybe, please, He would accept his life instead of hers. It was a pretty bad trade, he knew – a thief who probably didn’t matter for much in exchange for a sweet, gentle princess who had never said an unkind word and couldn’t imagine cruelty, but he had nothing else to give, and he was willing.
Robuchon snapped his last rounds into place, ignoring the throbbing pain in his left shoulder, planning the scenario he needed. It was just as well that Dagobert wasn’t looking at him – one shot to the back, near the shoulder, would explain how he had arrived and tried to try to prevent the young thief from murdering the princess. It would be the beginning of paying him back, then the rest of the shots to the front…
His own injury would be explained to show how dangerous the thief really was – he had shot back almost instantly. Robuchon had an inkling that the princess had left the fortress with someone else, possibly that female detective? She would have to be killed too, but later – he would say she had bravely endeavored to stop the thief as well, and while distracting the young murderer had given him, Robuchon, the chance for the finishing shot, while losing her life in the process. That would do, and it would explain a few more of the bullets in what was left of the thief’s chest. He would have to get the woman’s body back to the fortress somehow, but he would manage.
It would be easier to kill the detective, then bring the princess back alive, so he wouldn’t have to carry her with his injured arm. He wasn’t concerned that she would be any trouble. Then one shot point-blank against her bodice, and she would fall lifeless or nearly so to the ground beside the thief. He wanted to see the boy’s face while that happened. Then, having inflicted mental torture on top of everything else, he would finally let the boy die. Maybe he would just let him lie there and die from his wounds. But then he would have to pry the girl’s body from his arms once he was dead, for the final setup. That almost seemed too kind – letting them die together.
He would wait and see how that part worked out. He raised the gun, satisfied with his plan.
Dag heard him take up his position, and he looked up over the battlement wall at the dark rustling trees. Let Robuchon kill him. He was a little afraid, but well, so much for that. The bullets would kill his body, but they could not take away that for a few incredibly precious seconds an innocent, beautiful girl had rested unresisting in his arms, and that she had not been afraid to turn her face up to his to learn what love was from his overflowing heart.
There was really not much wrong that he had done. Life had made his hands those of a thief, but somehow he had managed to keep his heart that of a good thief.
“There they are!”
Dag thought he should recognize the voice that shouted, but he didn’t. A volley of gunfire exploded from the jungle, and it took Dag a moment to realize that he wasn’t dead. Dag turned around, and saw Robuchon’s body contort in a weird spasming dance and then sink to the ground. The two hit men had spun to return fire, only to go down in seconds. A body of men came pounding down the path, and he saw Max in the lead – the others seemed to be mostly policemen. Probably some of the same ones who were always chasing him for something or other. Time to go…
It was Jennifer’s voice. Dag looked, up at the top of the fortress. Jennifer and Anna Maria had come back. Ignacio was running along in front of them on the battlement, waving his gun and whooping. The fool looked as happy as if he had shot the Baron himself. Jennifer and Anna Maria came down the crumbling steps as fast as they could, and Jennifer was waving to him, and coming…Dag guessed she hadn’t seen Robuchon’s body yet. She came down the last steps and turned toward him, but Max stepped forward. Dag had an instant’s fear, remembering the man’s altercation with Sergio, but then saw that his gun was put away and that he looked genuinely repentant and relieved to find the princess safe.
Jennifer turned away from Dag, reluctantly. She too seemed to remember Max’s earlier treachery, and looked a little nervous. “Yes?”
“We just arrested the Baron’s men on our way here. I sent half of my squad back with them, with Sergio in command.” Then he looked a little sheepish and went down on one knee.
“My apologies for the – ah – misunderstanding this morning. We had to deceive you to ensure your safety. The whole thing with Sergio,” he glanced at Dag, “was an act, to make sure you didn’t come to the palace and become an easy target. Sergio’s been a great help to me – he’s the one who figured out you would probably come here.”
Seeing the look of incredulity on the princess’s face, he continued. “Your cousin Nicholas was arrested this afternoon for hiring Joël Robuchon to kill you. I didn’t find out about Robuchon until after he tried to kill you this morning, and after Sergio and I staged our argument. We had the mock argument simply because I guessed that Nicholas would try again, somehow, and I didn’t want you coming home yet. After you left us I got a call from Anna Maria that Nicholas had been located. Sergio was on his way to catch the ferry home when he found out that someone had already tried to kill you again, and learned that the artists had dragged Robuchon into the police station this morning but then he nearly killed two policemen with his bare hands as they tried to handcuff him and then escaped. So Sergio called me and told me there was still someone after you.”
Max sighed slightly, as if remembering something unpleasant.
“It took me an hour and a half to get out of Nicholas who he had trying to kill you. I’ve been pretending to go along with his schemes for about a month now, in order to find him out, but he didn’t tell me about the Baron, because he skipped town as soon as his assassination plot in San Dominique failed. As soon as I found out he had the Baron on the job I sent Anna Maria and Sergio after the two of you, just to keep an eye out for trouble.
“I’ve been trying to catch up since, and we all heard the shots and headed in the same direction. We knew you were in good hands, but at the same time…”
“Yes, very good hands,” Jennifer said, rather coldly. She glanced at Dag, relief written across her face, then smiled at Max, almost as an afterthought. “But thank you for coming just now. It – it was very good of you.”
Anna Maria came up then and started asking Jennifer how the whole adventure had gone, from beginning to end. Jennifer looked hopelessly at Dag, but began to answer the woman detective’s questions. Anna Maria took out a notepad and started scribbling.
Dag sighed. Anna Maria probably thought she had a great case against him, finally. Jennifer was safe, so right now he didn’t really care too much. He could always get away later, if Anna Maria pulled out the handcuffs. Another policeman had run up out of the woods, with the news that the prisoners were loaded into the police van.
Max was giving him a message to take back to Sergio, basically saying that everything was under control.
Dag glanced down at the Baron. It was the first time he had seen a body keep twitching like that; it was gruesome but weirdly fascinating. Almost against his will he edged closer, circling to the right of the crumpled figure and around to where Max was still talking to the policemen. Now Jennifer and Anna Maria were on the far side of Max, by the stairs. Dag checked on them. The Baron’s contortions couldn’t do them any harm way over there. The man was lying face down, with one arm twisted under him, and the back of his violet suit was turning red. An odd movement of the hand suddenly caught his eye.
Robuchon still had the gun – and he was aiming directly at Jennifer.
Dag’s heart leapt into his throat. He couldn’t shout, he couldn’t think, he could just stare in horror at Jennifer, who was talking to Anna Maria without realizing that she was a beautiful target.
Robuchon’s gun steadied.
Dag ran. He flew past Max, knocked over Anna Maria, and threw himself in front of Jennifer. The gun went off, and the force of the bullet slammed Dag to his knees. As he stumbled he pulled Jennifer down with him and tucked her head against his chest, trying to shield her with his body. Somewhere along the way he tripped over her feet, or maybe they were Anna Maria’s, so he ended up half sitting, half lying, in Jennifer’s lap.
The policemen were shouting, Jennifer was screaming “Dag!” and Robuchon was taking aim again. Max had his gun out and Anna Maria was fumbling with hers but couldn’t get a good angle on the Baron.
The startled policemen had gotten in Max’s way, because they weren’t quite sure what was going on, and he was trying to fight his way through them.
Jennifer reached over his head and grabbed Anna Maria’s gun. Dag tried to stop her, to get up higher, but his legs weren’t working and he couldn’t pull himself up with only his right arm over her shoulder. He was too slow – she was too exposed – he couldn’t bear to watch and hid his face against her, holding her tighter in spite of the searing pain, hoping only that it was still enough to block Robuchon’s next shot.
A gun went off in his ear and he winced, thinking it was the Baron’s. Anything – he didn’t care. Just let his body stop the bullet from reaching her and he could be happy, even. Then Jennifer threw Anna Maria’s gun away and put her arms around him, and her fingers were in his hair; she was crying, but not like she was hurt, and he dimly realized that somehow she had shot the Baron.
Where had she learned to shoot a gun? He twisted his head, and saw Max taking the assassin’s gun away. If princesses were taught self-defense, he didn’t know, and it didn’t matter now.
Robuchon was dead.
Dag sagged against Jennifer with a soft groan of relief. His strength was fading fast, and his arms wouldn’t obey him anymore.
It was over. She was safe. That was all that really mattered…Jennifer was like an angel, laying him down so gently in her lap as he started to slide, but even that hurt so much, because it felt like a red-hot stake had been driven halfway through him and left there – the bullet had gone home, and he knew that he was dying.
Her name escaped his lips, a soft cry of anguish, and with tears spilling down her cheeks Jennifer laid his head against her bodice and cradled him in her arms like a child, trying to tell him she was all right through the sobs that racked her slender body, trying to make him comfortable as his arms slipped down, unable to hold her.
Max and Anna Maria and Ignacio and the policemen stood back in stunned silence. Pity told them that while the great tragedy they had feared had been prevented, another was building quickly to its climax in a way that was almost more cruel. No one thought to go to the princess’s assistance. They all knew that it was too late, that the intrusion would only waste time, time that was all the more precious because it was slipping away.
Their faces were a study – Max indescribably grave, with no other emotion distinctly visible. Anna Maria staring open mouthed, genuine concern and sadness in every line of her face and pose, the handcuffs forgotten. The policemen shocked and touched. Ignacio uncertain, wavering between sneaking discreetly away or staying and ready to put his hands over his ears or his eyes, whichever was needed for propriety’s sake. There was nothing they could do.
Dag never wanted to leave Jennifer’s arms. She had her hand behind his head, helping him look up at her face, and he could feel every soft beat of her heart, feel every breath she took, and each and every one whispered to him that she was alive, warm and breathing and alive, and that God had accepted the trade and spared him the agony of watching her die in his arms. Instead He had given him this last exquisite happiness of lying against her heart while she whispered his name over and over and over again.
He was so weak and dizzy.
The fiery pain deep inside his back was getting steadily worse, and breathing was difficult. His cheek fell against the striped fabric of her dress. He was shaking uncontrollably, shivering; his eyes kept drifting shut as it got harder and harder just to pull air into his lungs. The warm, sticky blood was soaking through his clothes and hers, and it upset him, because he knew that the blood scared Jennifer, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He wished he could have knocked her down more gently. She was so warm and soft and sweet. His hands were getting very cold. He could be brave, if only she never let go, ever…
Jennifer was bending over him, trying to support him, and he felt her lips on his hair, his forehead …his eyes fluttered open, to try to… and then he tasted paradise and tears as she kissed him, a long, long kiss on the lips that broke his heart.
He loved her so much.
He tried to lift his head, to reach up and touch her face; but his strength was beyond exhausted, and he couldn’t. He could just barely look up and find her eyes.
She had such beautiful eyes; now they were all wet.
“Don’t cry,” he gasped, and was rewarded by the tiniest of smiles through the tears. He didn’t have strength for more. Everything seemed to be getting dark – he couldn’t even really see Jennifer’s face clearly. He was so tired. His eyes closed, and consciousness slipped away into the darkness.
“Will he live?”
The question was more of a demand. The doctor looked up from his examination, his hands bloody and his eyes tired behind his glasses.
“I believe so. The bullet will have to be removed as soon as possible, but I won’t be able to do it until at least midnight. It missed his lungs, and he’s young and healthy, so he should make it until then. There was a dreadful automobile accident this evening, so besides him I have three other serious cases that need immediate attention. The nurses are preparing the operating room right now.”
Max sighed, looking down at the still figure in the bed. “I know you’ll do the best you can.”
The doctor glanced at him. “Is the young woman his wife?”
Only moments ago the tall young chief of security had been forced to pry the princess away from the patient’s side and remove her from the room. She had been nearly hysterical, her dress stained dark red from holding the unconscious body in her arms. Both men had felt that she was in no state to witness the examination.
Max hesitated. “No – she’s my…sister. I don’t actually know him very well.”
It was best the doctor didn’t know the whole story.
“He was trying to protect her from an assassin who mistook her for Princess Jennifer. I – I guess he’s…” He swallowed, unwilling to say aloud those sentimental words ‘in love with her.’
Could it truly be love – real, lasting love – in so short a time?
Max was afraid the princess was deluding herself, clinging to a romantic dream that would soon pass away, and he did not want her to hurt herself over a fantasy.
But then he had to honestly ask himself if what he had seen in Dag’s dimming eyes and heard in his anguished whispers, and likewise in the princess’s heartbroken sobs as she clasped him against her when death had seemed to steal him from her embrace – could that be anything else than whole-hearted, unselfish love, the kind of love that came only once in a lifetime and was willing to make any and all sacrifices?
Out of respect for the dying Max had looked away as the princess bent her head for what he knew had been a kiss. Had it been the first? He didn’t know, and he was afraid to ask.
Max had not hired the young thief on a whim. He had thoroughly researched his background, professional and personal – he would not have allowed anyone who fell below a very high moral standard to even touch the princess. Sergio had given him his word of honor that as far as he knew, Dag had never so much as improperly flirted with any girl he had ever met, and had no interest in them at all. He had said the young thief thought they were nothing but trouble. But then why? Could Sergio have been mistaken?
Or could saving a girl’s life three times in scarcely two days turn simple chivalry into pure, all-surpassing love?
The doctor had guessed what he had left unspoken.
“Poor girl,” the man of medicine murmured softly, laying a sterile piece of gauze over the wound and drawing the sheet up over the smooth brown back and shoulders. The nurses had stripped Dag to the waist in order to sponge away the blood after Max had taken the princess out, leaving only the silver medal of the Blessed Virgin around his neck. Max hadn’t been sure what to think when he had seen it.
“If she continues to be extremely upset, give me a call and I will prescribe a mild sedative, if she will take it.”
“Thank you, Doctor. I don’t know if she will.” He sighed. A very quiet Sergio had the princess now, out in the waiting room. “I’d best be getting her home.”
Was the doctor right, then? Was it the kind of love that he didn’t need to be afraid of? For one moment, Max had seen Dag kneeling, clutching the princess to his chest in defiance of any man alive to hurt her, even as his own blood stained his back. Max had no idea what he would tell the girl’s mother. The king he could tell – he was a man. Maybe the king would know the right thing to say to Jennifer’s mother. He had a feeling that the whole ‘I had your daughter kidnapped to keep her safe’ part wasn’t going to go over well at all. Especially since it had almost ended in disaster. And now this.
“I will call you as soon as I have been able to remove the bullet, or if he takes a turn for the worse,” the doctor was telling him, washing his hands. “Oh, and Max…”
The chief of security for the Royal Family of Pallas Athena turned back.
The faintest hint of a wry smile crossed the doctor’s tired face as he dried his hands. “If he was willing to take a bullet for your sister, I would think you can be pretty sure that he’s willing to give the rest of his life to making her happy.”
It was the nightmare again, the worst one. He couldn’t shout, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t do anything. The Baron was holding him back, laughing. He saw Jennifer, in her light summer dress. There was a dark red stain on the bodice, like pooling blood. She was afraid, and she was calling him, and he couldn’t run to her. She was falling down, looking up at him with dark scared eyes, growing paler and fainter and farther away. She was crying, and there were tears in her eyes. The Baron’s hands were pinning him down, keeping him away. He tried to call to her.
“Jennifer!” He had to go to her, had to save her. The Baron was shaking him now, and he struggled.
“Señor Dagoberto, wake up!”
Why was Robuchon telling him to wake up? He was so cruel, and Jennifer – it started raining, and he tried to get the water out of his eyes – and woke up. Sergio was leaning over him, pouring water on his head.
“Ah, you are finally awake, señor sleepyhead,” Sergio crowed.
Dag realized that Sergio was wearing a striped gray suit and a dark red shirt; but that he was wearing blue-and-white striped pajamas that were designed for someone fifty pounds heavier than he was. His head felt like a chunk of lead.
“You’ve been sleeping there for three days – it’s about time you rose from the dead.” His friend grinned. “You did enough thrashing and screaming in your sleep to scare the nurses, so I offered to take a turn holding you down.” Sergio pulled up a chair. “That little princess was making such a fuss when they brought you here, that bodyguard fellow, Max, had to practically carry her out.”
“Jennifer,” Dag whispered. He let out the breath he hadn’t known he was holding in a sigh of relief. It had been a dream – she was all right.
“Ho!” Sergio chortled. “The great Dagoberto has finally taken a hit from Cupid! Eh bien!”
Dag rolled his eyes. Sergio was such a tease. His friend was getting a folded newspaper out of his jacket pocket.
“It seems like you have competition,” he pointed to the front page. “See here – ‘Princess Jennifer of Pallas Athena to be married’ – and soon, too. Some prince or other. And unless you count as the prince of thieves, it’s not you.”
“What?” Dag sat bolt upright. His head promptly threatened to explode, and he swayed. Something still hurt. Bad. Sergio steadied him.
Dag got hold of the paper and spread it across his knees. There was the headline, just as Sergio had said. And a picture of Jennifer – his Jennifer – in a crown and a fancy dress. He traced the line of her cheek, remembering the feel of her skin. It couldn’t be true. There must be some mistake. Hadn’t he read something about how royalty were always being told who they had to marry? Maybe it was a case like that. Maybe they would let him talk to her. Maybe she could change her mind. He swung his feet over the side of the bed – and was shocked at how much energy it took.
“Hey, where you going?” Sergio’s eyes were kind. “You want to talk to her?”
Dag couldn’t trust himself to speak.
“Let’s get your clothes.” Sergio grabbed them off the back of a chair. The white pants were fine, but the white coat had a brownish stain on the back that looked like it had been scrubbed without much success. “You’re lucky,” Sergio scolded him. “If it had been a different angle, you’d be dead.”
He saw the look on Dag’s face, and his tone softened. “Then again, if you hadn’t gone for her like you did, she’d be dead.” He held up the coat, pointing to a small round hole near the top of the stain. “You’re taller – it would have taken her through the heart.”
Jennifer was miserable. Max had said she couldn’t stay at the hospital, because everyone would wonder why the princess was so worried about the cocky little thief who had kidnapped her. But she had wanted to. Max had nearly dragged her, begging and pleading, out to the car and taken her back to the palace. It was the same car that they had loaded Dag into to take him to the hospital, and there were still bloody towels on the back seat. The first night, she hadn’t been able to sleep at all. She had paced back and forth among the flower beds by the water, crying and praying until the tears wouldn’t come anymore, waiting for the telephone to ring, while her mother and Bridget had tried repeatedly to get her to come inside and calm down.
Max had gone to make sure the prisoners were secure and to get any further information from them. He was back before one. The hospital had finally called around three o’clock in the morning, to say that they had operated on Dag and believed they had been successful.
Then she had cried all over again, because they said he seemed to be all right. The sun rose, and Max carried her upstairs to bed. She was too exhausted to resist him this time, and she fell asleep trying to plan how to escape and get to the hospital.
When she woke up, though, at two o’clock in the afternoon, Bridget was sitting beside her, and she said the hospital had called again. Dag was still unconscious, and delirious as well. Her mother and Bridget agreed that she should try to eat and go through the normal routine of the day. Jennifer tried. She got up and dressed, but then her mother gently tried to ask her about the kidnapping, if she had been hurt, and she broke down again.
At lunch she picked at her food, and hardly heard a word anyone said to her. The staff thought she was suffering from trauma from being abducted, and didn’t press her. Through the long weary afternoon she sat in a chair by the telephone until she was afraid she would go mad. Her mother and Bridget sat near her, trying to read and do needlework, but after a while the teary silence began to make them uncomfortable. They had no idea what to say to her.
Max came in, later, to tell her that the governor was coming that evening to see her, and she begged him to tell the governor that she was ill, and to let her go to the hospital instead, trying to explain that if it was dark people wouldn’t see her. Her mother was surprised at her outburst and somewhat worried by her insistence. Max refused, trying to explain the reasons; her mother gently tried to agree with him without knowing enough of the story to make an informed decision, and she cried herself to sleep on a couch.
Jennifer woke up in the dark, in her bedroom. Her chest hurt from crying, and her eyes felt puffy and tired. She thought of Dag, lying still and pale in a hospital bed somewhere, and she cried again, remembering those two glorious days they had had.
She hugged her pillow, letting the memories come. Dag reluctantly agreeing to take her along, hearing him singing late at night through the walls of Tio Emilio’s house, teaching her how to swing dance at the carnival, his naughty grin when he pretended he was going to drop her during a lift. The way his hair fell in his eyes. Dag sitting on the bench at the chapel, wondering why he became a thief. His hand pulling her wrist as they ran away from the Baron. His lips against her mouth.
It had been her first kiss and his, and even the memory of it made her heart ache with longing.
Quietly, very quietly, she got up and put on a dark dress. She had to go to him. When he woke up, he would wonder where she was. The first thing she would tell him was her secret. She didn’t want to have any secrets from him anymore. She refused to think that he might never open his eyes again, never know she had come. She opened her window. She was on the second story, but the ornamental stonework on the house looked easy to climb. Dag would have had an easy time of it, and she wished she were as agile. She put her leg over the sill.
She went down slowly; a wrong step would send her down into the azaleas. There were plenty of toeholds though, so she made good progress. She was almost low enough that she could jump down when a huge moth fluttered into the side of her head, attracted by a reflection on the window beside her. Jennifer screamed.
Her feet slipped.
The next thing she knew was she was lying flat on her back in the azalea bed; the lights were on; and the night watchmen were looking down at her with surprised expressions on their faces.
It was the old king who finally seemed to understand. He peeked discreetly into her bedroom, where she was in bed after her fall, and his old eyes were sympathetic.
“May I come in, my dear?”
He heard a little sniffle from the bed, and took it for permission. The king took a capacious armchair and eased his bulk into it with a sigh. “My little princess. The outside world is nice, isn’t it?”
He saw her shoulders quiver, and he patted her back. “I know. Being a ruler is the hardest job there is. Sometimes I wish I could give Max a day off and just be a normal grandfather. I would sit in the sun on a porch somewhere in my suspenders and stocking feet and smoke a pipe. And I would tell stories to all the little children in town and spoil them terribly with candy.” He smiled whimsically.
Jennifer turned her head on the pillow, so she could see him better.
His face was kind. “But it isn’t that, is it?”
She shook her head, feeling the tears threatening again.
He laid one of her dark curls over his gnarled hand. “I was lucky,” he mused, a gentle smile on his face. “I fell in love with the girl my parents told me I had to marry. I still miss her, you know.”
Jennifer sobbed into the pillow. “I just want to take care of him,” she whispered, crying. “I can’t help it. And Max won’t…”
The old king patted her cheek. “Don’t cry now. If it is meant to be, it is meant to be, and everything will be all right. I am going to take a nap.”
He stood up, then clapped a hand to his pocket. “There I go – I almost forgot.” From his pocket he removed his reading glasses, then an old silver coin, much shinier than before, that now hung from a matching silver chain. He laid it in her reaching hand and smiled in quiet sympathy as she clutched it to her heart like something precious.
“You dropped it, when Max carried you up here,” the king explained. “I decided you probably didn’t want to lose it.”
Afterwards, Dag wasn’t quite sure how they got to the palace. Sergio gave him brandy, and tried to tempt him to eat, but Dag couldn’t. It seemed like forever before the horse-cab pulled up in front of the large, elegant Victorian mansion on the water.
Sergio went ahead and spoke to the door guards. In a minute he came loping back down the walk. “They say you can go in,” he said, with a shrug of his shoulders. He bundled Dag out of the cab and helped him up the walk. The uniformed men at the door looked at Dag curiously, but made no comment. He didn’t know that he was as white as his suit and looked ill on top of it until they nearly walked into a mirror. Next to the golden bronze of Sergio’s tan, he looked like a ghost.
A footman escorted them through the house to a spacious screened-in veranda overlooking the strait. Max was standing behind an ornate sofa from the turn of the century, and Jennifer was seated on it, arranging a vaseful of flowers.
Dag hesitated. She hadn’t seen him yet, and he didn’t know what to say. He watched her small hands toying with the flowers. Something – something was different – just a little off. He couldn’t place it, but it made him uncomfortable.
Max discreetly cleared his throat. “Your Highness.”
Jennifer jumped. “Don’t scare me like that!” she laughed. Again, Dag noticed something strange, this time in her voice. She turned around, and looked Dag full in the face without a trace of recognition in her eyes.
Dag reeled. She wasn’t Jennifer. She was, yet she wasn’t. He just knew, with absolute certainty, that this was not the bright, sweet, curious girl who had crept into his heart and made it her own.
The girl who looked like Jennifer was saying, “Oh, you must be Dagobert,” in a friendly, gracious, conversational tone that reminded him oddly of the woman in the red dress. She stood up. Dag could feel panic rising inside him. He was sick with anxiety. Where was the real Jennifer then? What had they done to her? Had they…he couldn’t wrap his mind around it.
He was dizzy and faint, and there was a ringing in his ears, and the girl who wasn’t Jennifer was saying something to Max, and then right behind him heard a little faint gasp. He knew that gasp.
Dag dropped Sergio’s arm and spun around so fast that for a few seconds he couldn’t even see in the shadow of the hallway.
She was there. Jennifer. His Jennifer. She was wearing a long white dress with a white jacket, and she looked so pale that instinctively he reached for her in case she fell. Her beautiful eyes were red, like she had been crying, and the look on her face said she couldn’t quite believe he was real.
“Jennifer,” Dag asked, simply, “what is going on?”
Her chin quivered, she blinked very fast, and then she was in his arms, clinging to him, touching him, sobbing in relief. Dag pressed his lips against her hair, breathing a silent prayer of thanksgiving. She loved him. Thank God, she loved him.
Jennifer turned her tearstained face up to him, brushing his cheek with her fingertips. Her touch was so soft. Her voice quivered. “Are you all right? Really?”
Dag captured her hand and kissed it. “Yes,” he answered, and was amazed to hear his own voice shaking like hers. She felt his forehead, smoothing his hair. “Your head is so hot,” she murmured. “You shouldn’t be – ”
Dag couldn’t wait anymore. He kissed her, slowly, gently, promising every day of his life till they put him underground to loving her. Sergio was saying in the background, “I probably shouldn’t have brought him – he should still be in bed – but the newspaper….” There was some kind of commotion from inside the house, and the doctor and a nurse from the hospital came bursting in. They saw Dag kissing Jennifer and stopped short, mumbling incoherent fragments of sentences. Sergio herded them away, saying, with a wink, something about Dag needing “a different kind of medicine.” But Dag didn’t really hear any of it. Jennifer was nestling against him like a tired child, and he could feel her heart beating against his breast. He closed his eyes – and almost fell.
Max saved him, easing him to a sofa. Jennifer was kneeling beside him in an instant, and he took her hands.
“Dag, are you all right?” Her eyes were dark and worried.
“I’m fine,” he whispered. “Just tired. Is it true, what the paper said?”
Jennifer laced her fingers through his, tracing the scar on his thumb that he had gotten from a seashell when he was ten. “Yes, it’s true. But you must listen,” she pleaded, placing her fingers over his lips.
The other girl, who looked like her, had been hovering discreetly off to the side. Now she came and sat in an armchair near the sofa.
Jennifer glanced at her, and she nodded, as if giving permission. Jennifer took a deep breath.
“Dag, I am not a princess. And – my name is not – Jennifer.”
Dag tried to sit up. “What?”
How could she not be Jennifer?
“Shhh,” she begged, gently pushing him down again. She looked squarely into his eyes, a little scared but completely honest. “Do you remember at the motel, when I made all the waffles, how I told you about Bridget, Max’s younger sister?”
“Dag, I am Bridget.”
Dag looked at Max, standing behind the other girl’s chair, and compared them. There was a resemblance, in the eyes and the nose, and it made sense then, why Max really wasn’t a villain. It also made sense then why she had been so upset by his pretended treachery. He looked back at Jennifer.
“It was a secret. Because I look so much like Princess Jennifer, Max had me pretend to be her sometimes, when it seemed like someone might try to harm her. Only the three of us, the king, and Mother knew about it.”
The other girl gave her an encouraging smile.
“The princess’s cousin Nicholas thought that when we left the ship, it was a good time to have the ‘princess’ killed. He had been planning it for a while, and Max was pretending to be in league with him, so he had Sergio hire you to kidnap me so the real princess would still be safe. Nicholas was arrested a few days ago, while we were in San Julian, and he confessed everything. He hired the first man in San Dominique, with the knife, and when you stopped that man, he hired the Baron. Nicholas’s son Albert is next in line for the throne, and Nicholas wanted to be Chancellor once the king died, since Princess Jennifer would be dead.”
Dag thought back to the party on the yacht. If this Nicholas fellow was the princess’s cousin, then he would be…
“Is Nicholas short, dark-haired, kind of stooping, and grouchy? And Albert is fairly tall and looks like a teenager? They were right behind you when you came aboard the yacht, the night of the party.”
Jennifer nodded. “Yes.”
“But then who was the woman with the king? Is that your mother?”
“No, that was the governor’s wife. Princess Jennifer’s mother is dead, and my mother wasn’t with the royal family. She doesn’t go to parties much anymore.”
She saw the question in his eyes and turned to the other girl, who was sitting very straight in her armchair.
“Dag, this is the real Princess Jennifer of Pallas Athena.”
Dag squinted at the other girl. She did look a lot like Jennifer. And if she was Princess Jennifer, then – then –
The Jennifer who was really Bridget blushed pink. “Princess Jennifer is going to be married in a month,” she explained carefully, and then she stammered, “But – I – I’m not Princess Jennifer.”
Dag got up off the sofa. It hurt, and he was unsteady, but he pulled Jennifer/Bridget to her feet and made her sit down. Very carefully he knelt at her feet.
“Jennifer – Bridget, will you…” he swallowed at a stab of pain in his back, and at the enormity of what he was doing. But he was sure. Getting shot could make a person mighty sure. He pulled two huge dark pink roses from the vase and laid them in her lap.
Jennifer was leaning forward, willing the words, and the look on her face… Dag looked up into her beautiful eyes. A tear was sliding down her cheek, and he wiped it away with his finger. Gee, why was his voice all choked up? He tried to start over, but all that came out was “Marry me?”
Jennifer slipped forward off the sofa and into his arms with a little sigh. “Yes, Dag,” she whispered, laying her head on his shoulder. “Yes.”
After that Dag had to lie down on the sofa again. He had overexerted himself, and his back hurt and his head ached, but he was happy.
So incredibly happy.
Jennifer sat down on a footstool beside him, and because she was in love and very tired, she laid her head on his chest and whispered many things that only the thief and the angels who record good things heard.
“Charles!” Princess Jennifer had discreetly moved out of earshot, and now she jumped up. A tall young man in a smart suit with several rows of medals on the front had come in, and was looking rather surprised to see an almost identical girl in another man’s arms across the room. The princess went to him and took his hand, but Dag had caught his look.
“This princess is mine,” he laughed. “You can’t have her.”
When Sergio finally came back, with the doctor and the nurse in tow, Dag had fallen asleep. Jennifer was in his arms, and the pink roses were lying against her white dress. It was a picture Sergio never forgot, even when he was a very old man and had grandchildren to tell stories to. The thief and the princess.
“See,” he whispered, with a sly smile, “just like in the fairy tales – love fixes all things.”
The old king heard him, from the comfortable chair in the next room where he had been napping, and he smiled. Everything was going to be all right.
Dag woke up two hours later to the realization that he was incredibly hungry. Jennifer was fast asleep in his arms. The nurse came over from the window, where she had been reading.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Hungry,” he told her with a grin. The nurse smiled.
“It seems such a shame to wake her,” she murmured. “They said she hasn’t slept much for the last few days.”
Dag kissed the top of her head.
“Jennifer, are you hungry?” he called softly. He stroked her cheek with his finger, and she stirred slightly, then came awake with a start.
Jennifer flushed dark pink, realizing that she was still in his arms. There was an imprint of one of his shirt buttons on her cheek.
“I didn’t know I fell asleep,” she protested.
“I didn’t either. All of a sudden I was waking up, and I’m starving.”
“Since you’re not really sick, you can basically eat whatever you want,” the nurse was saying.
Dag laughed, letting Jennifer sit up. “Bring it on!”
The staff brought in dinner on a huge silver tray, but Dag was too hungry to be awed in the least. They brought a low table close to the sofa, and Jennifer sat across from him and ate too. If the staff were amazed by the amount of food the two of them put away, they did not show it, except perhaps by certain faint twitchings of the mouth and twinklings of the eyes as they removed the plates and replaced them with new ones.
They were finally slowing down when the king dropped in to check on them.
Dag went to stand up, but His Majesty waved the formality away. He wasn’t sure the young man would be able to, in any case, and he didn’t want him falling over something as silly as protocol.
“Don’t get up, don’t get up. I’m sitting down myself.” He sank into another chair beside Jennifer and leaned back, folding his hands over his capacious stomach and looking from the one to the other with a pleased twinkle in his eyes.
“So, this is the famous kidnapper of princesses that I’ve been hearing so much about.”
Dag felt himself blushing. “Um, yeah. I guess.” Jennifer reached over and took his hand, smiling shyly.
“Max didn’t actually tell him the ‘woman in the red dress’ was a princess,” she defended him. “And she wasn’t, really.”
“Hmmm,” His Majesty pondered. “And Max did explain to me, after the crown jewels were abducted and my adopted granddaughter was stolen out from under my nose, that he was using you in an elaborate scheme he was rigging to trap that idiot Nicholas, who thought he had won Max over to his side. And I’ve gotten a full account of what went on, finally. Well, young man, I have some hard commands for you.”
Dag got a shade paler, but he sat up straight, holding tight to Jennifer’s hand.
“First of all, I am granting you a full pardon on the condition that you marry this young lady here and retire permanently from the ranks of the professional burglars.”
Dag swayed. His eyes darted from the king to Jennifer and back. He was absolutely stunned. Jennifer left her chair and perched on the sofa beside him, touching his shoulder, her face concerned. She was afraid he would faint.
“Are you all right?”
“All right?” Dag gasped. He threw his arms around her and kissed her with every ounce of strength he had. Then he buried his face against her shoulder and cried like a child. He couldn’t believe it. Nagging doubts and worries had already begun to taunt him, pointing out that he had several points of law standing against him that weighed heavily against whatever good he might have done. But now he was free. Free to start again, to start a new life with Jennifer that would make both of their dreams come true.
He turned to the king, trying to wipe the tears out of his eyes. “I – ”
“Wait, I’m not finished.” His Majesty Guillame Georges VI surveyed him with a benign smile. “In recognition for your services in defending my granddaughter Princess Jennifer – or at least, the girl you thought was Princess Jennifer – the government of Pallas Athena has decided to grant you a small pension, which will help support you until you decide what occupation you are going to apply your talents to.”
Dag stared at him. He couldn’t say anything. His mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out. All he could think of finally was that the king was the one who had done it all, and somehow he had to thank him. He stood up, and Jennifer helped him. Dag faced the king of Pallas Athena, his arm around Jennifer’s shoulders.
“I – Your Majesty, I – ” He shook his head helplessly, not knowing what to say. “I – ” He looked around the room, trying to compose his thoughts. Gee, the king was so…so…
Dag swallowed. “Thanks.” He meant it. “I – Your Majesty, you’re just – great.”
Guillame Georges VI’s thick white eyebrows went up, his mouth twitched; then he leaned back in his chair and laughed until he cried. Then they were all laughing, and Dag sat down too hard and jarred the bandages swathed around his torso, so he was gasping from the pain and still laughing at the same time.
“Ouch.” He leaned back, resting his head against the carved top of the sofa.
“It is about time to change the bandage, anyway,” the nurse told him, coming forward. “If your Majesty will excuse us…”
“Where was he actually hit, anyway?” The king leaned forward with interest.
Dag scooted carefully forward and turned his back so he could see.
“Sergio said there’s a hole somewhere in the stain there,” he said. He twisted his head, trying to see it.
The excitement and Sergio’s brandy had worn off, and he was starting to feel the pain more now. The nurse helped him take off his suit coat, and he reached back with his hands, trying to feel the bandage. He could just barely touch the bottom of it without making anything hurt worse than it already did. Dag turned his head and saw Jennifer looking pale.
“Are you okay?”
Her chin quivered. “I’m just so glad he – you – ” Her voice trailed off, and she blew her nose. Dag took her hands, moving closer to her on the sofa. Jennifer started crying, and he put his arms around her, holding her close.
“I was so – afraid,” she whispered. “I thought you were dead…all the blood…and I – then Max came over and felt your wrist and said you were still alive, and they took you to the hospital…and I – I knew I – ” Jennifer clutched him tighter. “I missed you so much.” She cried softly, and Dag held her.
“I’m not leaving,” he murmured, against her hair. “Jennifer,” he looked down into her eyes, “I – ”
Dag blushed. “I guess I should call you Bridget.”
She smiled then, shyly. “I know who you mean.”
Dag wiped away her tears. “I – Jennifer – ” He corrected himself.
“Bridget – whatever your name is – ”
“Why did you do it?” she whispered. She had her arms around his neck, tight. Her chin quivered against his shoulder. “If you had died…”
“I couldn’t help it.” How could he explain it? “I was ready to get shot, anyway…” He swallowed and tried again.
“It was better dying and knowing that…”
Jennifer put her fingers over his lips, trying to stop him, and he kissed her fingers.
“I wanted you to live,” he said simply. “So bad.”
“I love you Dag,” Bridget whispered. “I love you so much.”
“All that came from a bullet?” Dag exclaimed. He was lying on his stomach in a pair of borrowed pajamas, with the shirt hiked up under his arms, on a large white bed upstairs in one of the guest rooms of the palace. The king had had to call the servants to get them all up there, since the palace didn’t have an elevator, and it had been a bit of a job. The nurse was changing the bandage, and when she had removed it, as gently as she could, there had been some fresh blood, from all the moving around he had done, but most of it was dry. The king was holding a mirror so Dag could actually see where it was.
The wound seemed larger than it should.
“The surgeon had to enlarge it to remove the pieces. Luckily there was minimal mushrooming,” the nurse explained. Jennifer, who was holding the scissors for the nurse, made a little whimpering noise and sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. Dag reached for her hand.
“You all right?”
She nodded. The nurse swabbed a disinfectant around the area, then fixed a new bandage in place. Dag winced.
“Now you what you really need is rest. Right here, in a proper bed,” the nurse ordered. “You’ve already nearly killed yourself with excitement today, and it will slow the healing.” She turned to the king. “Your Majesty, will he be able to stay here for several days? I say it because I doubt he wishes to return to the hospital,” she added, with a significant glance at Jennifer.
“Of course, certainly. I was thinking that myself,” the king agreed. He and the nurse headed for the door as Dag got willingly under the covers, in no mood to argue.
“I will check on him every hour,” the nurse was saying, trying to shoo Bridget out. Dag was still holding her hand.
“Where’s Sergio?” Dag asked suddenly. Bridget looked around.
“I don’t know. Maybe he left.”
Dag shook his head with a wry smile. “He probably did. He must have thought security might wonder what he was doing.”
Bridget smiled. “I don’t think they bothered chasing him. He’s probably off doing something with Max.”
He was getting so sleepy again.
Bridget kissed him goodnight, a little shyly, because the nurse was still in the room, even if she wasn’t looking.
“You go to bed too,” he told her, interpreting the nurse’s look. “You’re exhausted.” He smiled, releasing her hand. “I don’t want anything happening to you now either.”
The first morning at the palace, Dag opened his eyes and simply enjoyed the completely peaceful feeling of lying, without the strength, need, or inclination to move, in an enormous, extremely comfortable white bed while the sunlight filtered gently into the dim room through the long lightweight drapes.
Eventually he turned his head. A woman who looked about the age his mother would have been, still pretty and with dark brown hair just beginning to be streaked with gray arranged in a bun at the nape of her neck, was sitting in the cream velvet armchair that was placed to catch the light from the tall window, crocheting the filmiest, most delicate piece of handmade lace he had ever laid eyes on. She lifted it up, shaking the folds out over her knees, and saw that he was awake.
Dag found himself looking up into the gentlest, gravest, most knowing dark eyes he had ever seen. They were the calm eyes of a soldier’s wife, accustomed to waiting and sorrow and sleepless nights of prayer and longing, and they seemed to appraise him. He sensed that what they thought of him was very important, but what disturbed him, though, was that he didn’t know who she was.
“Are you a different nurse?” he asked uncertainly, still held by the gaze of those dark eyes. Her dress was very simple, like a nurse’s uniform; it was a soft dark gray color, with a dainty lace collar and cuffs and plain pearl buttons.
The woman gently shook her head. She carefully laid her lace aside and moved to the bedside table.
“Would you like a drink of water?” she asked kindly.
Dag tried to sit up. “Yes – I mean thanks – um, thank-you.” She had to help him, because he was very weak. She kept one arm firmly behind his shoulders as he drank, and did not hurry him. When he did not want any more she set the glass back on the tray and propped his pillows so he could rest more comfortably. Then she sat back down in the chair.
But she did not pick up her lace.
“I had a long talk with my daughter last night,” she said quietly.
Dag, still dizzy from the effort of sitting, experienced a moment’s fleeting hesitation. Her daughter…then he realized that she was Jennifer – actually Bridget’s – mother.
Bridget’s mother watched the recognition dawn on his face and nodded. “I am Max and Bridget’s mother.” Her face was grave.
“You have no idea what it is like when your only daughter is kidnapped and your son will tell you nothing for two whole days. And then when your son brings your daughter back with almost no explanation and will not look you in the eye, and your daughter cannot bear to tell you anything that has happened.”
Her face softened. “All she would do was shake her head ‘no’ when we asked her if she had been hurt and then burst into tears.”
“I didn’t hurt her,” Dag whispered, “ever.” He shook his head on the pillow. “I didn’t.”
“When Max came back to the palace and told me she had been kidnapped, my first fear was that she would be unknowingly compromised, deluded and brought down by men who wanted to take advantage of her. Max tried to tell me that she was fairly safe, but no more, and I knew it was better to expect the worst. Princess Jennifer and I prayed, and Father Griswald offered his Mass every day for her safety.
“I can only say our prayers were answered when Max brought his sister back on that night, but she was a very different girl than she had been when she left. I feared my worst thoughts had been founded, and Max would explain nothing to us, except that the assassin was dead. His Majesty dropped a few hints, after having a long private discussion with him, but not enough. Bridget would not eat, would not sleep until she collapsed from exhaustion, would scarcely speak in monosyllables, even to the princess, who is her best friend, and to me, her own mother.
“Yesterday afternoon I went to rest, since she was finally sleeping – she fell while trying to climb down from her bedroom in the early hours of the morning…”
“What?” Dag exclaimed, starting up in sudden fear. “Is she all right – was she hurt?”
“She was not injured, just stunned,” Bridget’s mother reassured him.
“Why on earth did she do it?” he wondered miserably. The bad pains had started now, brought on by his sudden movements and forcing him to fight to even keep his eyes open and focused.
The woman in the chair saw the worry and disbelief etched across his pale face, and left her chair to sit on the edge of the bed, facing him directly. She spoke slowly and clearly.
“Bridget risked her life to climb out of the second story window of the palace because Max, to protect Princess Jennifer from possible scandal, would not let her go to the hospital to see you.”
Dag slumped back against the pillows. “Jennifer,” he whispered brokenly.
Bridget’s mother took both of his hands in her strong small ones, forcing him to look at her. She could see the pain he was in, but she could not let sympathy sway her yet.
“What did you do to my daughter?”
Dag was confused. She looked very stern, as if she was angry with him. He wasn’t quite sure what she meant. Did she want a day-by-day, hour-by-hour account of those two days they had spent together? If that was what she wanted, he would give it, but…a horrible thought crossed his mind. Did she think they had done something dreadfully wrong?
Dag swallowed, feeling the color creeping into his cheeks, but he forced himself to meet that stern gaze. The spasm of pain passed.
“I – I kissed her,” he whispered truthfully, his head fallen back against the thick pillows. “Twice. At the fort. And the second night, we stayed at a motel, but she slept in the bedroom and I slept in the front room, so I thought that was all right. We didn’t think we were doing anything bad, but…”
He was even more confused when Bridget’s mother began to smile.
“Why did you kiss her?” she asked.
“Because – because…” He was stammering helplessly, blushing madly under her smiling gaze. “I – I didn’t want to get shot without doing it,” he got out at last. He dropped his eyes, embarrassed. “I love her. A lot,” he amended. “I’m sorry – it kind of happened by accident.”
And he didn’t understand when she laughed.
Bridget’s mother leaned forward and kissed his forehead. Sympathy could be shown openly now. The danger was past.
“Dag, I am not angry with you. You’ve told me honestly everything you could possibly think of that might have been wrong, and it wasn’t wrong at all. I must admit I was rather worried when I came downstairs yesterday afternoon and found you sleeping on the couch with Bridget resting in your arms, but I took the king’s word for what had happened. You are a very brave, good young man and…”
Her voice broke, and she tried to recover. Dag held her hands tight, and she squeezed back, the tears streaming down her face. “I know my husband would have been proud to let you take care of Bridget…”
She choked on a sob.
Dag swallowed, blinking back some things that felt suspiciously like tears.
“My husband was killed in a riot, trying to save the king, much the same way that you saved Bridget,” she explained quietly, getting control of herself again.
“We’ve all been trained that the royal family comes first, before personal wishes, safety, or happiness. Max has yet to forget that. Last night was the first time I have ever seen Bridget ready to throw all of her training to the wind for any cause or anyone. She loves you with all her heart, and you deserve it.”
Dag couldn’t talk. There was a huge lump in his throat, and if he said anything he was going to start crying.
Bridget’s mother brushed back his hair and traced a cross on his forehead with her thumb, blessing him the way his own mother used to. “God bless you.”
She picked up her lace and workbasket and quietly left the room.
Dag recovered slowly but surely. For the first week he was confined to bed, and the nurse remained at the palace, on duty. Sometimes he had a slight fever, but every day Bridget and the princess would come and talk to him, and bring him books to read, and sometimes even Max dropped in.
As his strength came back, most days he could come outside and would sit with Bridget in the gardens in the shade, in a lounge chair. Only a few days after coming to the palace, he had a long talk with the priest from his old parish in San Julian, and finally went to confession. He felt like the last traces of a huge load had dropped from his shoulders. The only thing he had been concerned about was how he was supposed to make up for everything he had stolen. He didn’t know the names of most if not all of the owners, and there was no way he could return any of the items. When the priest told him that he could give equivalent amounts of money to the church or charity, he had been relieved. At least that was possible, even if it would take a while.
One evening as he was sitting out in the garden with Bridget Sergio dropped by, toting a guitar.
“I know you play, so I thought you might have time for some serenadas,” he hinted, looking sideways at his friend from under the brim of his hat. Dag made a face at him, and Bridget laughed.
“You know this is all your fault,” Dag teased him.
“Oh yes,” Sergio smirked. “It was all a big plot to get you married. Max and I talked it over, and we decided that I had this friend who was a pretty good guy, and he had this little sister that was going to be an old maid, and we agreed – ” He saw Dag’s raised eyebrows and the incredulous look on Bridget’s face and laughed.
“Just kidding, Señorita.” He clapped Dag on the back. “I want to be invited to the wedding, eh? Let me know!” Sergio bowed grandly to Bridget, clapped his hat back on his black head, and marched jauntily off. “Adios, amigos!”
Bridget laughed helplessly. The way Sergio narrated things, even a funeral would have been funny.
Dag fiddled with the guitar, biting back a smile. He was surprised that it was mostly in tune.
“You have anything you’d like?” he asked.
She started to shake her head, then stopped. “That one you sang on the yacht, ‘Eres Mi Amor,’ wasn’t that the name?”
“Yeah, that’s it,” Dag agreed, surprised that she remembered. He strummed softly, playing the introduction, then began to sing.
Prince Charles, on the other side of the garden with Princess Jennifer, left off in the middle of a sentence.
“Who is singing?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “He has a very good voice…”
“An excellent voice,” her fiancé corrected her enthusiastically. “Let’s find out who it is.”
They slipped through the gardens and found a place behind a hedge where they could listen.
“It’s Dagobert,” Princess Jennifer finally realized.
“Ah, the thief,” the prince agreed, recognizing the couple under the tree. “Shhh now, listen.” He nodded his head in time with the music.
“Amazing,” he whispered, when Dag finished. “His pitch is remarkable, and the tone and quality…” He stood up, assisting the princess. “He could easily be a professional musician.”
Princess Jennifer stared at him. “It’s perfect!” she exclaimed. “He’s been wondering what he should do, now that he’s not a thief anymore, and if you say he can…”
“Without a doubt,” Charles affirmed.
“Let’s go tell them!”
When they came bursting around the corner of the hedge, bubbling over with plans and grand schemes, Dag was rather surprised at their announcement, once they finally got it out straight. Everyone in the Caribbean could sing – it was just something they did.
Bridget, however, instantly agreed with the princess.
“Your voice is beautiful,” she told him. “I don’t know why I never thought of it.”
Prince Charles elaborated. “I have studied music, especially voice, for some time, and yours is remarkable. Your range is good, but it is the tone and the feeling that you convey that is amazing. You could easily make a contract with a recording studio and sell records.” He smiled and tucked the princess’s hand through his arm. “I know I would purchase every one.”
“I always just liked to sing,” Dag protested, still rather dazed.
“I know!” Princess Jennifer suddenly exclaimed. “Charles, there is going to be a party on the yacht next week – now that there is no one who wants anyone to be kidnapped – welcoming some of the guests who are arriving for our wedding.” She turned to Dag. “Would you be willing to sing for them? Then you would see that Charles is right.”
Dag looked at Bridget. “Do you think…”
She nodded, her eyes shining.
“It feels strange to be going to a party more or less together,” Princess Jennifer commented, smiling. She and Bridget were up in her room, getting ready for the engagement party, and Bridget was arranging her hair. The princess was seated before her dressing table, wearing a long, elegant cream dress with puffed sleeves and a ruffly neckline and her grandmother’s pearls. The soft candlelight gleamed softly on the silk fabric and her long white kid gloves.
Bridget looked over her head into the mirror, her hands full of curls, and smiled back. Her dress was soft pink, and the princess had insisted that it be a similar style as her own. It brought out the roses in her cheeks.
“It’s so strange, that we’re both getting married, almost on such short notice,” Bridget laughed. The princess’s eyes grew wistful.
“I was worried, that you would be all alone after my wedding, and I’m glad that you won’t be. But I know I’ll miss you. I did a couple weeks ago, when Dag ran off with you, and that was only for two days! I can’t imagine weeks, months…”
Bridget pinned the curls in place around Jennifer’s tiara. “It will be different,” she agreed. “But at the same time…I…I want to get married. We’ll still be like sisters, but now we’re both…in love.” She blushed, thinking of Dag.
Jennifer looked out the window down into the garden, where Prince Charles and Dag were talking about last minute details.
“I’m almost just a tiny, tiny bit jealous of you,” she laughed. “You are in love. Completely. The way Dag looks at you, an ice cream sundae in January would melt, just from all the love in his eyes.”
“Charles loves you, too,” Bridget protested, flushing. She took some cream rosebuds from a vase and began to fix them amongst Jennifer’s curls, glad for something to do.
“Yes, but it’s a different kind of love. I think we’re still falling in love, Bridget. I think I will be able to truly love Charles, after we’re married – I really, truly, like him very much,” Jennifer said seriously. “But you and Dag…” She smiled, watching Bridget turn pink in the mirror.
“There, you’re done,” Bridget declared, stepping back to see the effect. Jennifer turned her head from side to side, admiring it.
“Thank you. Now it’s your turn.” She stood up from her chair, and Bridget took it. “I do want you to be my bridesmaid, you know,” Jennifer said. “I’ll probably have to ask some of Charles’s cousins, the younger ones, to be flower girls, but I don’t see why I can’t have a girl who’s practically my sister for my maid of honor, even if she’s not royalty at all.” She gave a determined little nod. “I shan’t let them talk me out of it.”
Bridget smiled. “I’d like you to be my bridesmaid too, but…”
Jennifer giggled. “You don’t know if Dag can wait long enough for us to get back from our honeymoon? Besides, you do have to give your mother enough time to make your dress.”
“Stop it!” Bridget made a face at her. “I don’t know if we can have a very big wedding – you and Charles, and mother and the king, of course, and Max, and Dag’s aunt and uncle that we stayed with – they’re perfectly sweet, you’ll love them – but will Max let it be a relaxed thing with all of you there?”
The princess rolled her eyes. “If he dares to make a fuss about security I shall seriously put him in irons for you,” she declared.
They had all finally gotten the whole story from Max, and the two of them were conspiring over ways to give him a hard time about it.
As it turned out, he had tipped off street musicians, then gone to catch Nicholas.
Nicholas, however, had not been at his lodgings – he had gone into San Dominique to try to talk to the murderer, only to find out that “Princess Jennifer” was still alive, and apparently had a capable bodyguard. Nicholas had then gone rushing off to get hold of the Baron and to avoid Max, who he suspected wasn’t in league with him anymore.
Max consequently had spent the rest of day trying to find Nicholas, without success. In the morning, realizing that Nicholas probably would put someone else on the job, he had decided to get hold of Sergio and find Dag and Bridget and keep them away from palace, so they would be more or less safe.
Sergio and Max then spent most of the morning trying to figure out where Dag took Jennifer. They had called all the ferry stops and talked to over a hundred people, but since Dag and Bridget had gotten off the ferry onto the Rosa, they didn’t have a lot of luck. Finally they had gotten hold of the ferry captain, and Sergio had figured out they went to Bali, since it was where Dag grew up. Max could have hit himself for not figuring it out earlier.
Max and Sergio had then taken a fast motorboat to Bali and staged their fake argument quite successfully. However, since they completely missed the Baron’s earlier attack, and Dag didn’t mention it, they knew nothing about it. Once Dag and Bridget had left them, Max had received a call from Anna Maria – Nicholas had been found. Max had left immediately in the motorboat to go arrest Nicholas.
Sergio, on his way back to the ferry, had found the townspeople all excited because the artists had caught the Baron, but then he had gotten away from the police station. They didn’t know who the Baron was, and neither did Sergio, but he had called Max to alert him that there was another assassin on the loose.
Max had just caught Nicholas, so he had spent a frustrating hour and a half trying to get him to tell who the new assassin was. Nicholas finally revealed that it was Joël Robuchon at four o’clock in the afternoon. Max had nearly had a heart attack, and immediately called Sergio and Anna Maria and told them to find Dag and Jennifer and shadow them.
Max then came to meet Anna Maria and Sergio on Bali and they had split up – Anna Maria and Ignacio, Max and Sergio – to find Dag and Bridget.
Anna Maria had started on the far side of island and heard the shot from the Baron at the chapel, so she had gone to the fort. Max and Sergio had heard it too, from farther away, and had also headed for the fort, but they ran into the Baron’s men on the way and arrested them.
Sergio had then taken command of prisoners with some of the police, since he wasn’t a gunman, and told Max to go on ahead and rescue Dag.
The girls weren’t planning anything too terrible for Max – they just wanted something to break up his implacable stoicism and strict adherence to the rules. Clapping him in irons might just do the trick.
The two girls went gliding downstairs to greet the guests.
“My, my, don’t you both look lovely,” the old king complimented them. “Can I steal a kiss before those fortunate young men put in an appearance?” He got his kisses and led them out to the garden, one on either arm. “We old folks need a chance once in a while,” he teased. The Count and the Countess had arrived, and His Majesty presented them.
Bridget felt slightly self-conscious, observing the curious glances that came her way when people realized that she and Princess Jennifer were almost identical. “No, not her twin sister, her lady in waiting,” King Guillame Georges was saying. “She’s a well-kept secret,” he added, with a sly wink at Max. Max, his mother on his arm, deigned to smile.
They met Prince Charles, with Dag in tow, by the gangplank. Bridget flushed, feeling Dag’s eyes on her. Prince Charles bowed ceremoniously, and Dag followed his lead, only with a little quirk of his mouth that suggested that he found it very funny.
“Be off with you,” the king protested. “I’ve decided to steal them for a few moments, then you can have them back. Have pity on my old age!”
“I fear he’s serious,” Dag whispered to Charles. They exchanged anxious glances.
Bridget made a face at him, and his eyes twinkled back naughtily. The young men followed them up the gangplank to the deck, where the king finally relinquished his charges after greeting several more of the guests. “I suppose it is your party,” he told Charles. “And to be fair I suppose I must give up Bridget as well,” he sighed, handing her to Dag.
They walked away from the main throng of guests to a spot by the rail, perhaps the same place they had first met.
Dag held her at arm’s length, inspecting her. “You look beautiful,” he said, his eyes glowing. The salty breeze ruffled his light hair. He looked nice, too, in a tuxedo, with a pink carnation to match her dress. He reached up to touch her curls.
“Are you nervous?” she asked.
“Not now, with you here,” he answered. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. “You’re so beautiful,” he murmured. He kissed her, a soft kiss that made her giddy.
“I was thinking,” she said, after a while; “Jennifer and Mother were wondering, and I was too…we haven’t actually set a date, for – ” she blushed slightly, arranging the carnation on his lapel.
“For the wedding,” Dag finished for her. He took her gloved hands. “Can you wait, just a little while longer?” he asked, his eyes probing hers. “I want to be healed up, first…and tonight – after tonight I’ll know.”
Bridget understood what he meant. After tonight he would know if he had found what he was meant to do. “I can wait,” she whispered. “But Dag…”
She brushed his cheek with her fingertip, trying to make sure he understood. “I don’t care if we – if we’re poor at first. I’d like to learn how to cook, and clean house, and…and…do mending and things – as long as I can do them for you.”
The look in his eyes was so happy…she smiled back up at him, then found herself wrapped in his arms. “Oh, Jennifer, I love you so much,” Dag whispered. She felt him laugh softly. “I did it again, didn’t I?”
“I don’t mind,” she giggled, against his shirt front. “I’ve been called Jennifer all my life, so ‘Bridget’ almost feels strange.” She snuggled closer to him. “Besides, I like how you call me ‘Jennifer.’ It’s what you’ve always called me, and I don’t think you should try to change it, if we’re both used to it.” She felt Dag smile.
“Psst, Felicia, look!” His Majesty nudged Bridget’s mother, whom he had borrowed from Max.
“Yes, I see. Now leave them alone and give them some privacy,” she scolded him, smiling gravely, as she endeavored to steer him in the other direction.
“Oh stuff and nonsense,” the king grumbled good-humoredly. “If I were one of those crazy young people nowadays with their noisy obnoxious Kodaks, I would snap a photo, enter it in an exhibit, and call it ‘Love.’”
Felicia sighed in gentle resignation. His Majesty smiled, lapsing into a reminiscent mood as he allowed himself to be led away, glancing back over his shoulder at the very pretty picture behind him.
“They almost remind me, sometimes, of Jennifer’s parents – you know, so full of dreams and hopes and so completely caught up in each other that it’s like they’ll never grow old. It takes a very special kind of people and circumstances to do that,” he mused. His thoughts wandered to his own son, killed with his young wife in a train-wreck barely three years after their marriage.
“David was such a good boy, almost so naïve at times, and Rosemarie was…was an angel. Not like you aren’t, too, but…”
“Yes, she was,” Felicia agreed quietly, remembering the gentle young crown princess who had been her friend.
“And now we have two angels, yours and mine,” the king remarked more cheerfully. “The one enchanted herself a fairy tale prince, and the other fell under the spell of her guardian angel in human form, sent to protect her. Stop looking at me like that, Felicia – you know I’m degenerating into a hopelessly sentimental old codger,” His Majesty finished wryly. “I promise you I shall ring my glass the loudest at the wedding – well, both weddings, in fact, and there is nothing you can do to stop me.”
“Except take your spoon away,” Bridget’s mother said gravely. But there was a twinkle in her eyes.
The dinner party was actually fun. Dag was surprised. He and Jennifer were seated at the same table with a Count and his wife, who Dag instantly recognized as the stout elderly lady who had unwittingly helped him get onto the royal yacht the first night. They just knew he was some sort of protégé of Prince Charles’s, so they chit-chatted in a friendly way with him and Jennifer. He was surprised how interesting they were. He didn’t know a lot of the political stuff, but it was enlightening to hear the Count and the diplomats discussing it. Jennifer seemed to know them all, and a couple times he caught her smiling at some private joke that she probably remembered from when these same people had addressed her as the princess.
“I am constantly reminded how much you resemble dear Princess Jennifer,” the Countess was saying to Jennifer. She was smiling graciously at the old woman, and Dag exchanged glances with her. If only the Countess knew the truth – about both of them.
After dinner Prince Charles rose. “Everyone, may I extend my thanks to you for being present tonight with your good wishes and congratulations to myself and Princess Jennifer.” He smiled down at his fiancée, who smiled back encouragingly. The guests applauded. Prince Charles raised his glass. “Friends, I would like to propose a toast, to His Majesty the King, who has truly brought about the means of a happy union between our two countries.”
“His Majesty the King,” everyone responded, and drank the toast. There was more applause.
Prince Charles continued. “And to my fiancée, Princess Jennifer of Pallas Athena,” he said. “May…” he choked up, and cleared his throat. “May she live long and happily, if I have anything to say about it.”
The applause was deafening, and Princess Jennifer stood up and kissed his cheek. Dag smiled at his Jennifer over his wine glass.
“And to the other Princess Jennifer,” he said, so only she could hear. He raised his glass.
When the applause died down, and Prince Charles could speak again without turning red, he went on.
“I’ve asked for a special song tonight,” he announced. “I first heard it only a week ago for the first time, but the words and the melody say better than I can what I feel, what I hope for, and what it truly is to be young…and to be in love.”
He nodded to Dag, who stood up and walked over to where the orchestra was waiting. They had a chair set up for him with a microphone, with the guitar beside it. He picked up the instrument and sat down, hooking his foot up on the rungs, and made sure it was in tune. He fiddled with the knobs, just a touch, then struck the first rippling chord. Everyone fell silent.
Dag played the introduction carefully, then went to start the first verse…and couldn’t. He didn’t think he was nervous, and he had practiced all week with the orchestra, but something still wasn’t right. He didn’t dare start singing. He tried to block out the stage fright, and the notes from the guitar started sounding strange. He realized he was panicking but couldn’t stop, couldn’t fix it.
A sudden flash of pink caught his eye. Jennifer had come over, and she was sitting right on the edge of the orchestra where he could see her. She smiled at him, and nodded encouragingly. For a moment he paused, letting the sour notes die away into nothingness, and then he smiled back.
Dag leaned back in the chair and began to play again, only for her. The words came easily, flowing and ebbing with the rippling notes from the strings, and he sang louder, feeling the orchestra surge with him, feeling Jennifer’s beautiful smile growing with the song. He sang it through to the end, as if the audience wasn’t there, and when the orchestra died away for the last chorus, he felt as if he had been able to tell her, just by himself, everything she meant to him.
Love. Happiness. Hope.
The last chords feathered away. Absolute silence settled over the dining room.
Then with a burst of applause the guests rose to their feet, and Dag realized suddenly that they were applauding for him. He tore his eyes away from Jennifer and stood up. Prince Charles was beaming at him, holding Princess Jennifer’s hand. The king was wiping tears from his eyes, and the stout Countess was sobbing into her handkerchief. He felt himself grinning helplessly, like a little kid. It had worked. Prince Charles was right. He could do it.
Dag looked back at Jennifer. She was standing too, clapping her hands, and she looked even happier than everyone else.
Dag held out his hand and smiled.
Jennifer blushed, but she came forward and took his hand. The guests were going wild. Dag stuck his free hand in his pocket and got out a little box. He pried it open and fished something small out, then set the box on the chair and looked into Jennifer’s eyes.
“Sorry it took so long to get this,” he whispered. Carefully, he slipped the little thing onto the third finger of her left hand, and it sparkled in the candlelight. “Don’t pick a day that’s too far away,” he asked, and watched her eyes get very big.
Jennifer looked down at the sparkling diamond on her hand, then at the cheering guests. Princess Jennifer was hopping up and down in a most undignified fashion with an enormously silly grin on her face, her mother’s eyes were suspiciously bright, and the king was positively beaming. Even Max was smiling.
Jennifer looked up at Dag. She had absolutely no idea what to say. Then she threw her arms around his neck, and in less time than it takes to say it he was kissing her like he would never stop – and then everyone started positively screaming, because apparently Prince Charles had grabbed the princess and kissed her, too. But Dag and Jennifer only found out about that afterwards.
Dag and Jennifer were married a month and a half later, after Prince Charles and Princess Jennifer got back from their honeymoon. While they were gone, Dag had gone for the first recording session, and the first album was selling out faster than the studio could believe. Prince Charles, true to his word, was an avid salesman.
The wedding was fairly small, and took place in the chapel on the palace grounds, since that was the only way Max would consent to a simply friendly attendance by the royal family. He remained unmoved by Princess Jennifer’s threats of irons, because he knew very well that he had to give the bride away.
Dag had a few close friends who came: Tio Emilio and Tia Rosa, with their five grown children; Señora Posita, the old Indian woman who ran the boardinghouse; and of course Sergio, who was the best man. The doctor and the nurse from the hospital came too.
Jennifer’s guests were amazingly diverse: His Majesty King Guillame Georges VI of Pallas Athena; His Royal Highness Prince Charles and his consort Princess Jennifer, who was the matron of honor; her mother and her brother Max, who gave her away; the saleswoman from the dress shop; the cook and the desk girl from the motel; the children from the bowling alley; the street musicians from the carnival, who admitted to being tipped off by Max to come to the rescue; and lastly the street painters from Bali, who were immensely proud of not having to be tipped off by Max. Max had to consequently endure a lot of teasing. Even Anna Maria and Ignacio came, last minute, with a gift – a tiny crystal tiara on a miniature red velvet pillow. The real crown jewels had been delivered back to Max by Sergio.
They were married by the old priest from San Julian who had married Dag’s parents, and he thought, as they said their vows before him, that their marriage promised to be a much happier one.
They honeymooned in Europe, and at last Jennifer got to teach Dag a few things, mostly about how to handle rich people. She also taught him how to speak French. Prince Charles lined up a concert tour, once he got back to his own country with his own young wife, so then they went all over doing that. Dag got over his stage fright, but he still liked to have Jennifer sit where he could see her, and the audiences liked it too, because he always sang better when he sang for her.
It always surprised him how much people liked to hear him sing. He found that he was most comfortable when he wasn’t dressed up too much, and his fans liked it too because somehow they could see the Caribbean through the music when he played that way, as if he was sitting on the porch at Tio Emilio’s house in San Dominique.
Only once did the nightmares come back to trouble him. They were staying in a small family-operated inn in Switzerland, and Dag woke up drenched in sweat, remembering Robuchon with the gun. Perhaps it had been the distant rumble of an avalanche that had jarred his subconscious memory; he didn’t know.
He sat up and looked down at his wife, making sure she was all right.
Jennifer was still sleeping peacefully, her dark hair spread across the thick feather pillows. Dag carefully laid his hand on the soft fabric of her nightgown, over the smooth curve of her stomach. Something tiny moved inside, and he let out a sigh of relief. Jennifer was all right, and so was the baby. He loved the baby already – he could hardly wait four more months until he could see it.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered, feeling the tiny thing bump against his hand. “I’ll take care of you.”
He lay back down and slipped his arms around Jennifer, and she smiled and snuggled against him in her sleep. Everything was going to be all right. His family was safe, and it had just been a dream. Dreams weren’t real.
Dag closed his eyes. Real life was much better anyway.
Eres Mi Amor
Dag: Umi o wataru sabita coin
ima wa iroasete
toki o koete kataridasu
kogidasou kami no shima e
uchiyoseru nami no you ni
densetsu ga yomigaeru
deai to wakare kurikaeshi namida nagashi
itsuka wa kizuku hazu sa
Tatoe kinou wa kizutsuki mayoi
jibun miushinatta to shite mo
ima o ikinuku koto wa
kitto kanarazu asu e tsunagaru
Sou sa daremo ga hitori de umare
kodoku na tabi tsuzuketeiru
arukidaseru hazu sa
itsuka kimi mo
(Break for Dialog)
ima futari ga kono basho ni iru imi mo
wakaru toki ga kuru sa
Version 2 – Dag:
ikiteku koto wa
yarinaoseru donna toki mo
tatta ichido no inochi
kitto dare mo ga ikasareteiru
hito o aisuru tame ni
umaretekita to iu no nara kanarazu
Eres Mi Amor – rough English translation
Dag: This rusted coin that’s crossed the ocean
Now it’s lost its luster
It has crossed time to speak to us
Far away Columbus rows out to God’s Island
Rolling like the waves, the legend is reborn
Repeated meetings and partings, crying tears
Someday you will discover
Even if yesterday you were hurt and wandering
And lost sight of yourself,
Survive right now
And certainly, definitely you’ll get through to tomorrow
Yes, everyone is born alone
and continues on a lonely journey
But you should be able to walk forward
Someday, even you
(Break for Dialog)
Even the meaning of the two of us here and now
The time will come when we’ll understand…
Version 2 – Dag:
To go on living isn’t perfect
But you can start over anytime
There’s only this life
Surely everyone is given the chance to live
In order to love someone