“Kathlan!” Cynthia yelled, elbowing her way to the head of the quay. “Kath! Over here!”
The call jerked the sailor’s gaze up like a marionette. He raised a hand and let it drop to his side. Cynthia saw the bandage on his forearm and the bloodstain on his shirt, and felt guilty for what she was about to do to the poor, tired sailor.
“Heya, Cyn, you seen us come ‘round the point, huh?” He looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. If the ship leaked badly, the off watches would bail to keep her from foundering. They clasped hands briefly and lightly as his exhaustion warranted.
“Looks like one of the slimy bastards got a piece of ya,” she said with a wry grin, touching the bloody bandage of his forearm. “You must be gettin’ old and slow since they made you third mate.”
“Second mate now, Cyn,” he said grimly, turning around to watch as three canvas-shrouded bundles were carried down the gangplank. “Forsee took a burnin’ tops’l yard alongside her skull tryin’ to get aloft to cut the flamin’ canvas free.”
“Those filthy bastards,” she hissed. She wanted his first-hand account before a tavern full of drunken sailors amplified the facts threefold, but did not want to push him too hard. “Come on now and we’ll get that arm looked at by a physicker and get some hot food into you. Was it that whore-spawn Bloodwind that did this?”
“Naw, and I couldn’t be happier that it weren’t!” Kathlan made a quick sign of devotion to Odea and nodded back to the ship. “If the scourge o’ the Shattered Isles had been at the helm of that corsair, the Latharnia wouldn’t be still floatin’, to be sure. It’s plain luck we got away, and if that bastard had’a known his arse from his rudder post, he’d a had us sure and simple.”
“Well, come along then and tell me how you got away. I told Brulo I’d bring you by.” She jingled her purse as much to emphasize the fact that she was offering to pay as to add credence to her claim: “I had a good night playing Five Card Mango.”
“Well, I really should stay close to the Latharnia, in case the captain wants me…”
“Oh, you can’t fill a sail with that, Kath!” Cynthia laughed and clapped a hand on the man’s shoulder, ushering him through the crowd toward her favorite inn. “Besides, Brulo’ll send his lad to tell your captain where you are if you like. I told him to set up a private room for us so the crowd won’t bother you. You can have a bath and a pot of ale while I get dinner. I’ll even pay an extra crown for that fair lass Marcia to help you scrub!”
“Well, now that’s enough to make a man want to bathe on a right regular basis!” he laughed, quickening his suddenly less-tired steps toward the Galloping Starfish Inn.
Cynthia hurried to keep up, and began to wonder if Kathlan’s injury and exhaustion were as severe as they appeared, and if she were not the one really being taken for a sap. If she wasn’t careful, she was going to get a reputation as a meal ticket.
The crippled galleon lay lashed to the massive quay like a wounded whale beached to keep from drowning. Most of the town already knew what had befallen the ship; the old hermit who operated the lighthouse had seen it come around the point at roughly the same time as Cynthia, and all efforts had been made to bring the injured vessel into a berth with no further damage.
Observers and concerned relatives crowded the wide stone quay. Some pointed and some cried and others merely shook their heads and thanked the sea goddess Odea that all hands had not been lost, but none noticed the patch of inky water fifty yards from the dock that swirled and rose into the shape of a broad serpentine head.
Red coals burned in its watery eye sockets, disturbed only by the flicking of reptilian eyelids.Not a creature at all, but magic and seawater woven into the semblance of a serpent, it lurked like a prowling crocodile and scanned the crowded waterfront. The things it saw were viewed many leagues away by the sorcerous force that had brought it into being.
The watery spy’s glowing eyes watched the men leaving the ship, and then scanned the people crowded upon the quay. The great head turned, still barely above the water’s surface, gauging the faces, hearing the voices and tasting the anger that filled the thick sea air, the words too distant and soft to discern.
The coal eyes turned once more, scanning the rest of the harbor, assessing the other ships as prey, ensuring its own continuing anonymity, or merely taking in the view. One last look swept over the damaged ship, then the fire within the watery thing’s eyes faded and its shape melted away into the sea from which it had been wrought.
“Nay, it weren’t as bad as all that,” Kathlan said, reaching for another roll and a slice of roast lamb. He split the roll, stuffed the meat inside and took a bite, following it with a swig of Brulo’s best ale. “Some plankin’ on the bulwarks, a few seams recaulked and maybe a single cracked rib replaced and she’s right as rain. That and the riggin’, o’course.”
“She looked a lot worse when she came around the point. It must have been one of Bloodwind’s ships; none of the freebooters use that flamin’ tar.” She tried once again to shift the conversation to her own liking. Bloodwind—the devil who had killed her parents—had become her obsession, and she scrabbled for any tidbit she could glean as to his whereabouts, how many ships he commanded, or even if he still lived. She sipped her ale carefully, smiling at Brulo when he took the empty pitcher and replaced it with a full one. The pot-bellied innkeeper of the Galloping Starfish didn’t usually do his own serving, but he had known her father and she’d been his best customer for years.
“Oh, aye, I suppose it was one of his flunkies.” Kathlan tapped his freshly bandaged forearm with his eating knife and said, “I’d be sportin’ a lot worse’n this li’l scratch if someone with some salt had been at the helm of that corsair. Capt’n Jellis knows them waters, mind ye, and that’s what saved our hides, but anyone what’s passed through the Shattered Isles as many times as me knows that bar ain’t passable.”
“The one between Chum Cay and Brighton’s Reef? I thought you could get through that cut at mean low water.” She glared at him as she sampled the meat, chewing thoughtfully and hoping he wasn’t lying to her just to liven up the story. “All you need to do is cut close to the reef and tack back out. Hell, you can see the sandbar!”
“Aye, you can when you’re not starin’ right into the risin’ sun, lass.” He drained his cup and poured himself another. He knew as well as any that she had never actually seen the Shattered Isles. All of her knowledge had been gleaned from hearsay and her grandfather’s old charts, both of which were less accurate than first-hand knowledge.
“I told you they jumped us at first light, didn’t I? The capt’n had ’im to leeward after we struck rails with ’em, which put us in a bad spot since our fors’l was in flames and them corsairs can beat two points sharper than any galleon on the sea. We hit hard enough to stop him dead in the water, though, and the captain made it east of the sandbar before they got their heads out o’ their arses. Then he just let her ride north so it were between us and them.” The man speared a roasted potato dripping with meat juices and took a bite before placing the remainder on his plate. “That corsair captain cut a line straight for us. I guess he thought we was still south of the bar.”
“So he ploughed right into the shallows?”Cynthia’s jaw dropped. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! Did they ground her hard?”
“Damn near broke her back, is how hard!” Kathlan slammed his hand into the edge of the heavy table for a demonstration, rattling the dishes in emphasis. “Hit like an ogre humpin’ a whale, I tell ya! Heard timbers crack from a quarter mile off. Mayhaps a stay give way, too, though she didn’t lose any of her rig. She was still hard on the bottom when we was over the horizon.”
“Lucky they didn’t try to board you when they were alongside,”Cynthiaoffered, sipping her ale again.
“How in all the Nine Hells did ya think I got this?” the sailor protested, cracking his forearm with the flat of his knife again, proving that it was less tender than he had let on. “Why, them buggers was like rats comin’ over the side. I was tryin’ to cut their grapple lines when I got this. The feller’s aim was wide though, so I just took one prong of the hook I’d just freed and fed it to him,” he paused and raised his tankard before saying, “through his eye.”
“Not a better place for it, I don’t think,” Cynthia agreed, raising her own cup to clank with his. They both drank to the pirate’s demise and she continued with, “And I think the Lady of the Sea was smilin’ on you that morning to put such a dunce at their helm.”
“Aye, that Odea had a hand in the feller’s choosin’, I have no doubt,” he agreed, returning to his meal in earnest.
“Mmm, and I can imagine Captain Bloodwind will have a few particularly terse words with the fellow for grounding one if his ships so hard.”
“Aye, that cod-brained captain may decide to just leave his ship grounded and call her an island instead of goin’ back to face Bloodwind.” He speared a slab of lamb and wrestled off a corner before saying, “Not that I’d mind if the feller was in a shark’s belly, as sure as this poor li’l sheep is in mine!”
They both laughed and drank and laughed some more, and the evening wore on with Cynthia hanging on every word that passed the sailor’s lips.
The plink and patter of water wore on Bloodwind’s nerves like a rasp on a slate shingle. He suppressed a shiver despite the torrid air; the temperature had nothing to do with his chill. His island lair was volcanically active, which had earned it the name of Plume Isle and influenced his decision to make it his home port. Its harbor—a sunken caldera—and the tar pits on the west flat were two of the three things he needed. The last was secrecy, and the deal he’d made with this cavern’s denizen had ensured that for as long as he gave her what she wanted.
“What do you see, Hydra?” he asked, squinting through the haze at the flat stone bench and the shrouded figure across the chamber. “Have you found it?”
One thin finger rose from a fist like a tangle of walnut husks. It twitched once then retracted; not an answer, but enough to quell Bloodwind’s impatience.
His hands wrung a short braided leather cord that rarely left his grasp. He wound it around his hand until it came taut, tugging a flame-haired girl at its end toward him. A collar of purest gold hung around her supple neck, a miniscule treasure against her flawless features. He examined her in the ruddy light, willing her smooth skin to distract him from this loathsome place and the hideous creature that dwelled here.
The slave girl stepped closer without resistance. She didn’t flinch when he ran the back of his knuckles down her cheek, neck and finally her slim shoulder, brushing away the thin dew of sweat. Perhaps she gave a faint shiver, but she no longer tried to resist his touch. Yes, years of his attentions had taught her very well. Only her eyes showed that she still had a will of her own, and even that was slowly, inexorably bending under his care. He reached for her chin to pull her face around, then stopped as a wheezing rasp from across the chamber snapped his desire like a twig.
“I see…” The voice stung like black ice crystallizing in his ears. “I see…”
“You see what, Hydra?” he demanded, stepping forward against his revulsion. “Where is that blasted galleon?”
“Safe, my captain,” the sorceress finally answered. The crimson glow silhouetting her form faded to the torchlight that illuminated the rest of the cavern, and when she turned and stepped forward, Bloodwind could only thank the Dark Gods for the barrier of darkness that kept her features hidden. “The Latharnia is docked in Southaven; its crew and cargo are both, for the most part, intact.”
“Blast that incompetent Nolak!” he seethed, jerking the tether savagely and eliciting a yelp of shock from his slave.
“If you wish, my captain,” Hydra said, her voice the rasp of an aged crone, “but I must rest and… refresh myself.”
The hint of laughter in that comment turned Bloodwind’s stomach. “It was not a request, Hydra, as you well know. The Latharina—is she crippled badly, or will she sail again?”
“I saw only light damage. Some minor leaking, a burned foremast.” A decrepit claw covered in blotched skin twitched in dismissal. “She will sail again in a fortnight.”
“Well, that’s at least some consolation. If she sails again, she’ll eventually pass through the Shattered Isles, and she’ll pay the toll for damaging the Blackheart.” He turned away from the tottering figure, tugging absently on the leash in his hand. “As will that useless whelp Nolak.”
“What of my payment, Captain?” Hydra hissed, lurching forward and gripping the slim girl’s arm in a vice of leather-covered bones. Black nails clawed at the milky flesh, drawing a gasp of horror from the slave’s supple lips. “Forces have I wielded for you this day. Energies have I expended. Tides moved to raise the Blackheart from the shoal that would have kept her prisoner for days! Every harbor throughout the Southern Ocean did I delve at the cost of my own blood!”
“Not this one, Hydra!” Bloodwind snapped, jerking the line taut as if to play tug-of-war with his prize. The girl wrenched her arm free more as an act of revulsion than an attempt to join her captor, but the black nails left creases in their wake. Thin trails of blood welled from the scratches, and the pirate captain snatched a kerchief from his ornate doublet and pressed it to the injury.
“If you have marred her flesh permanently I’ll hold back your payment until you rot into a pile of bones!” He peeked under the cloth at the tiny rents and glared at the sorceress.
“Give me my payment, Captain, or the apple of your eye will bear far worse blemishes than a few thin scratches!” She turned and slashed at a thick column of living stone, her nails leaving trails of molten rock. “Our continued coexistence is based on one simple premise, Captain: you feed my hunger in return for the use of my powers. Do you wish to dissolve our partnership at this time?” He could feel the festering grin within the darkness of her hood.
He glared at her openly, knowing he needed her just as much as she depended on him. If he thought for a moment he could continue his piracy with half the efficiency without her, he would kill her in her sleep. Unfortunately, two decades of raiding among the Shattered Isles had made the merchant captains wary. Yes, he still needed her, damn it to the pits of all Nine Hells.
“Stay here, Hydra. I will get your payment.” At her nod, he tugged his treasure up the slimy stair to the portal of her deep cavern.
He threw the bolt, said a few words to the men standing on the other side, and exchanged the tether in his hand for a wrought-iron chain. He pulled savagely and returned to the depths, heedless of the damage his brisk pace did to Hydra’s payment. When he reached the last step, he handed the chain over to her pale, skeletal claw. The gagged young man at its end was bruised and bleeding from several bad falls, but it didn’t matter; his fate had been sealed the moment he’d been taken prisoner. Bloodwind had dozens like this one. Too old to be of any use, they were all kept alive at minimal expense for a single purpose: to keep Hydra sated.
“Thank you, my captain,” she hissed, a faint flicker of torchlight daring to glint off the horror dwelling within that deep, black hood. “This will do nicely!”
“Find me another galleon to raid and I’ll give you two more just like him,” he said, turning away and ignoring the boy’s frantic struggles. “But you’ll only get the second one after we bring home a hold full of plunder! Understood?” He glanced back as he climbed the stairs, and instantly regretted it.
“Oh, I understand, Captain Bloodwind,” she said, her voice rising over the muffled screams of her prey. “I understand you all too well.”
The thick oaken door sealed out the noises as his guard handed over his treasure’s leash, which calmed his nerves somewhat. He started up the next flight of stairs, banishing the image of the last few moments as he flung orders to his men. “Bring Captain Nolak to me when he arrives. I wish to discuss his future.”
When Kathlan’s head lolled to the point where he dipped his nose in the lamb gravy, Cynthia decided that most of the pertinent details were safely in her head. She paid Brulo as the serving girl cleared the dishes, and took one more sip of ale. As she stood to leave, an older but quick-moving man entered the room. He grinned at her, his merry blue eyes squinting from beneath bushy white eyebrows.
“How was everything, Miss Cynthia?” he asked, trundling forward like a gleeful old elf, wringing his flour-sprinkled hands on his apron and patting the handles of the knives in the tooled sheaths at his hip.
“Excellent as always, Rowland,” she assured the old cook, extending a hand. His grip felt like a bag full of sticks, but his hands were still strong and nimble after wielding his knives in kitchens and galleys throughout the Southern Ocean for almost thrice her lifetime. “I just wish I could lure you up the hill. Marta’s a fair cook, but I hate to have to come all the way down here for a really good meal!”
“Oh, you lie like a rug, girl!” he said with smile. “Besides, you couldn’t afford me. I’m chargin’ Brulo twice what your old gran-dad used to pay me for sea wages!”
“Aye, and he’d be worth it,” Brulo said, frowning in feigned disapproval, “if he’d stay in the kitchen and not pester the customers.”
“Just payin’ my respects to the gran-daughter of my former employer, Master Brulo. No harm in that. The kitchen won’t go up in flames if I leave it for a minute now and then.”
“Ha! There ain’t a sailin’ man in Southaventhat ain’t worked for Cynthia’s family at one time or ’nother, you old bean boiler!” Kathlan roused from his slumber long enough to join the conversation. “If they all paid their respects every time she passed, she’d never be able to walk from West Street to the yards in a single day!”
“My point exactly!” Brulo agreed.
“Well, then consider it payin’ my respects to a potential employer then.” Rowland glared at Brulo sideways, sparing a wink at Cynthia. “I very well might follow her up the hill someday, you know. Company’s better up there, and someday Cyn here’s gonna be head of that family, and there’ll be more ships afloat under her flag than her gran-dad ever dreamed of!”
“Not until someone takes care of that bastard Bloodwind,” she said, the muscles of her jaw clenching like ropes. “He’s bleedin’ the whole south coast dry, and nobody even knows where he lairs.”
“Aye, some say he’s retired and just livin’ off the cream o’ what his men take in,” Rowland said, his eyes squinting in a far-off glare of hatred. “They say he’s got twenty ships workin’ the Shattered Isles now, and a seamage of his own to hide ’em in the fog and shift the winds in their favor.”
“It ain’t natural, that’s fer sure,” Kathlan put in, slurping ale and wiping his mouth on his bandage.
“Aye, I remember the days when yer family’s ships sailed without harassment through the islands, Cyn. Them days are gone, I guess.”
“If I had my way, Rowland, those days would be back in a heartbeat.” She clapped his shoulder. “I’d sell off every part and parcel my grandmother ever put a copper into and build a fleet of ships to rival any on the ocean! And I’d have you as my own personal chef aboard the flagship, as sure as seagulls squawk!”
“Well, now that’s somethin’ I’d like to see, Miss Cynthia,” Brulo said with a smile and a firm clasp of his cook’s shoulder, “but for right now, I’d settle for not lettin’ my customers starve to death while they wait for their dinners, so I’ll have to be biddin’ you a good night.”
They all laughed at the irrepressible innkeeper and said their goodnights. Cool night air and the scents of the harbor greeted Cynthiaas she left the inn, clearing her head with one deep breath. Southavenwas quiet at this time of the night, despite her grandmother’s opinion that all sailors were a bunch of drunken rowdies. Only when a ship came in after a long voyage did a crew truly tie one on. No, Southavenwas just a sleepy little port with a sleepy little populace. There were no dangers lurking in the dark alleys, and no slavers waiting to kidnap and sell a girl into a life of servitude or worse.
At least, that was what Cynthia had always thought.
This evening, however, a shrouded figure skulked through the alley behind the Galloping Starfish, its attention directed more than casually toward Cynthia. The shape moved to the razor edge of light created by the nearby streetlamp and watched her until she was out of sight. It did not follow, but turned its attention back toward the inn.
The figure jerked suddenly and a few tiny pebbles arced through the night air to rattle on a window of the inn’s second floor. Shadows moved across the window, then the lamplight dimmed and the stout oaken frame creaked open. A shaded face peered out into the night, as a complex four-note whistle sounded from the darkness below. The figure in the window held out a slim tube and dropped it without hesitation. The window closed even before the tube popped into the hand of the shadow below. In a wink the figure vanished, and Southaven reverted to the sleepy little town that Cynthia had always believed it to be.