“Cast off dock lines and secure all stations, Chula,” Cynthia ordered as she stepped aboard Peggy’s Dream. “The Pride’s already out the channel. We’re behind.”
She ignored the quizzical look on her first mate’s face as he acquiesced. Peggy’s Dream had three times as many provisions to stow with only twice the crew of Orin’s Pride; of course they were behind. But before he could give a single order, he looked beyond her shoulder, and she saw his eyes widen. She cringed.
“Capt’n! You can’t be leavin’ me here!” Paska’s usually demanding tone was pleading as she ran up the gangplank and aboard the ship, her young son, Koybur, bouncing on her hip. The native woman grasped Cynthia’s arm, clung to it desperately. “You can’t be goin’ on dis trip wi’out a proper bosun!”
“I’m sorry, Paska,”Cynthia said, hating the tremble in her own voice.
The last few days had been hell, her emotions pitched high and low like a storm-tossed ship. First there had been the depression from believing her unborn child was dead, killed by the mer. It had struck her like a physical blow to find out that she had a son—alive, but abducted to fulfill some mer prophecy for bringing a lost city back to life. She did not know whether to be heartened or distraught. She had a son; the future she and Feldrin had planned, the names they’d considered, the dream of a family, hung like a golden ring just out of her grasp.
She longed to embrace that dream, but she dared not hope. Her wedding to Feldrin had provided the only ray of light during the tumultuous time. She had worked through the night organizing the rescue mission with Feldrin, poring in vain over ancient mer scrolls for some reference to this city they sought—Akrotia. Feldrin had tried to get her to come to bed—it was, after all, their wedding night—but after an hour spent tossing and turning, imagining the worst, Cynthiahad risen, dressed and gotten back to work. Her thoughts were muddled with grief and fatigue, which she kept at bay only through sheer determination. The last thing she needed right now was this particular confrontation.
She turned, and, to her own surprise, voiced a calm rebuttal. “My decision is final. I won’t be responsible for endangering little Koybur, and you can’t leave him. Please, Paska, don’t make me order you ashore.”
“You’re leavin’ me, but you’re takin’ me husband!” Paska countered, her voice rising. Koybur began to whimper, as if he, too, resented being left behind. Cynthia felt her determination begin to crack when Chula stepped forward and placed a hand on his wife’s arm. Paska tried to shake off his grip, but he held her firmly.
“If you be pleased, Capt’n Shambata Daroo, let me be talkin’ to ‘er fer just a moment. We’ll be off de dock in a trice.”
“Thank you, Chula.”Cynthia turned away and heaved a deep breath, her hand on the rail to steady herself as she slowly made her way aft. Behind her, Paska raged at Chula in their native tongue, while Chula answered in his usual steady tone, though it was now imploring.Cynthiaseriously wondered who would win the argument. Aside from the normal running of the ship and their first mate-bosun interactions, she had never heard Chula tell his headstrong wife what to do. Eventually, though, Paska fell silent.
Cynthia cast a glance over her shoulder, and wished she hadn’t. In all their time together, Cynthia had never seen Paska cry, but now she stared up at Chula, tears brimming in her eyes. Before they spilled over, Paska turned and retreated quickly up the dock, wiping a hand across her face.
“Cast off!” Chula ordered, his voice harsher than she had ever heard.
Cynthia watched in anguish as her loyal first mate turned back to his duty and away from the woman he loved.
“Here she comes.” Feldrin watched Peggy’s Dream emerge from the towering mangroves that protected the entrance toScimitarBay, and head out the channel through the reef. Silvery wings whizzed around his head and Mouse landed on his broad shoulder, down from his perch high in the rigging. But the seasprite didn’t chatter or cheer as was his wont. In fact, his mood was as subdued as Feldrin had ever seen. The loss of the baby had affected him deeply, and Cynthia’s single-minded resolve in planning this trip had the little sprite worried, as it did Feldrin. Partners in misery, Mouse moped around Feldrin, who patted the sprite with real affection; Mouse had saved his life, without a doubt. Besides, the sailors considered the seasprite to be good luck. He turned to Horace, who stood beside him at the rail. “Ease the sheets a bit ’till she comes up. Cyn’ll be comin’ over.”
“Aye, sir.” Horace snapped off a few orders, and the two great gaff-rigged sails were eased to leeward until they began to spill wind, which slowed the ship markedly. In short order, Peggy’s Dream had rounded the reef and was gaining on them. Horace shook his head as he squinted up at the Pride’s rig. “Can’t say as I’m happy with that mainmast, Capt’n.”
“Aye,” Feldrin said as he followed his first mate’s gaze to the damaged spar. A ballista bolt shot by the Clairissa had transfixed the huge spruce mast, cracking it but not fracturing it completely. Removing the bolt without causing further damage was impossible, so Dura had cut it off even with the mast, then fashioned two wide, bronze straps to encircle the mast above and below the bolt, tightening them with a wrench longer than she was tall. The mast would hold in fair winds, but if they encountered a blow, it could split up its length. “But it’ll have to do for now. The Dream’s carryin’ some extra spars, so if it looks too bad, we can replace it at sea.”
“Aye, sir,” Horace said with reluctant acceptance.
Feldrin turned toward the open sea and swept his glass across the horizon out of habit. He stopped and held it steady to watch a heavily rolling galleon two miles to leeward. “Whoever’s trimmin’ her sails sure needs a lesson, ay?”
“He’s probably sayin’ the same about us right now, sir, though I see what you mean,” Horace agreed. The ship’s topsails were sheeted poorly, and her yards were braced at odd angles. She was heeling too hard and the sails were spilling wind. “At least we’re doin’ it on purpose.”
“Well, maybe the first mate’s trainin’ a new bosun.” Feldrin smiled and clapped Horace on the shoulder as they turned toward Rhaf, the Pride’s former helmsman, now boatswain, as he tried to cajole the crew into trimming the sails to his satisfaction. He needed a bit of seasoning, but there was no other more qualified. “Which is what you’ll be doin’ as soon as—”
With a roar, a spout of seawater rose in the wake of the ship and deposited Cynthia Flaxal Brelak on the aft deck. The water slithered away from her like a living thing, leaving her completely dry.
“I’ll never bloody get used to that,” Horace muttered before he turned away to snap orders to Rhaf.
Feldrin smiled at his wife. Rather than her customary sarong, she wore a white blouse and a trim blue skirt belted tightly at the waist. A rigging knife hung from her belt, but no weapon. She didn’t need one; the sea was Cynthia’s weapon.
“All squared away on the Dream, lass?” he asked, offering her his arm.
“As much as can be with only a day to prepare. We’ll probably be another three days sorting it all out, but we won’t die of hunger or thirst. We’ve got enough timber and cordage to build another schooner, and more weapons than we could ever use. I’m sure we forgot a thousand things that we’ll need.” She took his arm and tried to smile. She failed.
“Let’s have a chat with our li’l firebug then, shall we?”
Cynthia shut her eyes for a moment, then sighed. “Let’s go.”
Feldrin ushered her forward, feeling the strain in her measured steps, the tremble of her hand on his arm. He knew how hard she was taking the abduction of their son, and wished he could help her bear the burden. There was so much he wanted to say to her, but the armor of her determination was something he could not breach, not yet. It wasn’t that he felt no distress himself—he longed to wrap his hands around every mer throat and crush them to pulp—but, as a sailor, he knew how to force himself to rest and eat, how to conserve his strength when it was calm so he could tap those resources during the storm. Cynthiajust kept going without relent. She hadn’t slept last night, despite his pleas, she drank enough blackbrew to float a skiff, and ate barely enough to keep her on her feet. They had all been through a lot lately. His peg leg was a visible testament to his own ordeal, but although Cynthia’s scars weren’t visible, they hadn’t healed nearly as well.
Watch over her, Odea, he prayed silently. Even though he wasn’t particularly religious, he figured that Odea had made Cynthia what she was, a seamage, and he expected the deity to damn well watch over her own creation.
Cynthia negotiated the steep companionway down into the ship, and Feldrin followed more slowly. He was still learning how to walk with the peg leg, and though keeping his balance on a rolling deck came as naturally as breathing, stairs were a challenge since his knee no longer bent. Cynthia waited patiently for him, and they walked aft through the door into the main hold. Here the space was crowded with stores, supplies, repair materials, weapons and the closely packed hammocks of the forty additional crew they carried for this voyage.
In a nook off to the side, Edan sulked on a cot, his ankles bound in iron bands linked by a chain to a bolt set deep into the ship’s frame. He glared at them, his carrot-red hair fairly glowing in the lantern light. Above his head hung a small cage enclosing Flicker, his firesprite companion. She looked no happier to see them than did her master.
Edan kicked his feet, rattling the chain. “You said you’d take these off me first thing this morning,” he said sullenly.
“I said once we were out to sea, Edan,” Cynthia corrected him. “Now, we’re at sea.”
“I figured that much out for myself,” he said impudently. “Will you take them off me now?”
“Yes, but first we need to discuss something,” Cynthia said.
“Oh, great. Another discussion. What did I do wrong this time?”
Cynthia took a deep breath. Feldrin’s own anger flared, but he restrained himself before he said something he might regret. Really, he couldn’t blame Edan for the comment. It seemed that every time he and Cynthia “discussed” something with the lad, Edan came out the worse for it. Not that he hasn’t deserved it, Feldrin thought. This, however, should be a pleasant surprise for the boy.
“Nothing, Edan,” Cynthia said patiently. “I know you think we’re keeping you captive, demanding your help in the rescue of our son. But we want to explain how we’ll repay you for your help.”
“Repay me?” Edan narrowed his eyes.
“Yes. We’ve decided that we owe you something for helping us get our son back. The mer fear fire more than anything, so your skills will be an asset if it comes to a confrontation.”
“A confrontation; you mean another battle.”
The undercurrent of fear was obvious in Edan’s voice, and Feldrin clamped his jaw down hard on a sharp retort. He’d known the lad for a coward even before he’d become a pyromage; that was what made him so dangerous. But they’d agreed that Cynthia would do the talking here, since Edan didn’t respond well to Feldrin’s type of encouragement.
“Yes. We were told that the mer who stole our son have allies, so we’re preparing for anything, including battle. You’ve chosen to help us, and we’re prepared to compensate you. We’ll set you up wherever you want to go with enough money for you to live for a very long time.”
“Money?” Edan’s eyes widened, then narrowed again in suspicion. “How much money?”
“Ten thousand crowns,” Cynthia said, “and we’ll take you any port city you choose.”
Edan’s eyes popped at the offer, though his expression sobered when Cynthia continued.
“Considering the fact that you destroyed the emperor’s flagship and killed almost twelve hundred of his sailors, I’d suggest that you choose someplace far away from the Tsing Empire, but it’s up to you.”
“That’s…very generous.” Edan sat back with a look of utter shock on his face.
“Bloody right it’s generous, boyo!” Feldrin said, no longer able to keep silent. He had disagreed with Cynthia on this, but had relented. Edan’s actions had implicated Feldrin and Cynthia in the destruction of the Clairissa, potentially forcing them to flee the empire as well. Having to bribe him to help them when others were willingly risking their lives made him want to backhand the lad. “So you’d better just—”
“Feldrin?” Cynthia’s tone stopped his tirade, but did not quell his temper.
“Just keep a close watch on that li’l fire demon of yers this time, lad,” he said quietly, fishing a key from his pocket. “If this here ship burns, there ain’t nothin’ between you and the sea but the clothes on yer back.” He bent down awkwardly with his stiff leg and twisted the key in the anklets, then straightened.
Flicker made an astonishingly rude gesture.
“Don’t worry about Flicker,” Edan said, rubbing his ankles, then standing. He reached up and lifted the firesprite’s cage from its hook and glared at them both. “Just tell me where I’m sleeping and stay out of my way.” His face flushed and his hair seemed to grow even brighter red. Feldrin felt a wave of heat wash over him, and Cynthia staggered under the assault. He steadied her arm, but she shook him off and glared at Edan, her hands clenched at her sides.
“Don’t you dare do that!” Cynthia raged. “Not when you’re near me, and, in fact, not when you’re near anyone except an enemy. Do you understand? Unless I say so, you’ll keep your power dampened, or you’ll find yourself in a skiff with a single oar for company!”
The close quarters sweltered with heat and moisture as she and Edan stared each other down. Feldrin knew her power was barely held in check. Finally, Edan lowered his eyes.
“Fine. I’m…” The pyromage took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”
“Good,” Cynthia said. She took Feldrin’s arm in a seemingly casual gesture, but he felt her lean against him for support, her body trembling. “Now, we’re short a bosun on Peggy’s Dream, so we’ll transfer you over there and you can have that cabin.”
“So you can keep an eye on me?” he asked in a mildly sarcastic tone, though Feldrin could tell that the lad was trying to curb his belligerence.
“Absolutely,” Cynthia agreed. “But as a precaution, not as a hostage. I want you to practice your skills, Edan. Hone them. Learn control. I can help you with that when it comes to manipulating the winds, and I can also douse any fires you might set accidently when you’re practicing with fire. I’ve also brought along a number of things I thought you might want.”
“So be thankful you’ll be under Cyn’s thumb and not mine,” Fedrin growled, “’cause I’d just have Horace throw you overboard if you set my ship aflame.”
The comment earned him a swift glare, but Feldrin didn’t care. Cynthia was playing with fire here, quite literally, and he prayed to the gods that she didn’t get herself burned.
Sam lifted the viewing glass, steadied it on the topmast hounds, and watched the two schooners rounding the reef off Plume Isle. Her vantage was from high atop the mainmast of the galleon First Venture, the prize she and her cannibal crew had taken the night before. She had hoped to pass by Plume Isle unseen, but it seemed that fate had deemed otherwise. At least, she thought anxiously, we’re downwind. If they decided to pursue her, a downwind run was just about the only point of sail a galleon could come close to matching a schooner for speed.
Unless the sea witch uses her magic… She clenched her lip between her filed teeth until she tasted blood, willing the two schooners to continue heading south.
Three figures came out onto the deck of Orin’s Pride, and she recognized them immediately. Even at this distance, the huge frame of Feldrin Brelak was unmistakable, and the woman at his side could only be the sea witch, Cynthia Flaxal. The smaller figure with a brush of fiery red hair, she knew all too well.
Whenever she recalled their time together, she felt a strange warmth in the pit of her stomach, a physical memory of their lovemaking. Why that one experience had affected her more than the many times she had lain with Parek confused and troubled her. She had told herself that it had been just an act on her part, a ploy to hide her true motives. But now, feeling her stomach clench and her heart pound as she watched Edan in the distance, she had to admit that she had felt something else. Something deeper. Edan’s intensity had overwhelmed her, broken down her defenses and quelled the hatred, the ruthlessness and malice that made her a pirate. She couldn’t deny it; there was something there, something worth pursuing.
And he was a pyromage. She’d seen what he’d done to the emperor’s flagship. If she could figure out a way to control him, to wield that power for herself…together, they would be invincible.
A shout from below snapped her reverie, and she looked down. Below her lay the broad deck of the First Venture, still stained with blood from the ship’s former crew. Sailing in the ship’s lee was the relatively small ship she had stolen from the seamage’s very own docks, the double-hulled Manta, hidden from the schooners by the galleon’s bulk. But what drew her eye was the squabble that had broken out among her crew of cannibals. Though it probably wouldn’t come to blows, she would have to quell the discontent quickly and decisively if she was going to maintain control. She sighed. The crew was paying more attention to the two men involved in the disagreement than they were to sailing the ship, and it showed: the ship was sliding off course. The cannibals paddled their own small crafts to other islands on raids, and they had quickly learned how to sail the simple rig on the Manta, but the rig on First Venture was vastly more complicated. Teaching them even the basics was difficult. Add the lack of a common language, and the task was nearly impossible. But some of them caught on quickly to her pantomiming and, though the yards were not braced evenly and only two of the topsails were sheeted properly, they were nonetheless underway.
Another shout between the combatants compelled Sam to move. She tucked the viewing glass in her belt and started down the ratlines, quelling the perverse desire to leave her new friends and chase after the schooners aboard Manta. Catching up to them would be easy; what to do when she did was the dilemma.
“Why are you even thinking about this, Sam?” she chided herself. The schooners continued on a southerly course, and she breathed a sigh of relief. They were not after her. But even so, a wild, insane plan began to develop in her mind.
The decks of the schooners had been laden with supplies, more than someone would take on a short excursion. The seamage and her entourage were leaving Plume Isle, fleeing the imminent wrath of the emperor. She had half-expected this, and it was gratifying to see her conjecture fulfilled. Now was the time to strike. She would take her prizes back to Parek and convince him that their opportunity was at hand. They would plunder Plume Isle before the emperor’s fleet could return. When the warships arrived, there would be nothing left of the seamage’s stronghold but ashes and rubble.
“The schooners are away, Miss Cammy!” Tim called as he burst into the great hall.
“Thank you, Tim.” Camilla leaned back in her chair at the head of the table and brushed an errant lock of hair out of her eyes.
Sheets of parchment, pens, ink wells and sealed packages littered the expansive wooden surface. She looked at the letter she was drafting, then to Count Emil Norris, who sat in the next chair, diligently writing his own letters. They had been working almost non-stop since yesterday on the documents that would be sent to the emperor, and they were nearly finished. Camilla was copying out letters onto fine parchment that already bore Cynthia’s signature, expressing to the emperor her deepest sympathy on the loss of his men and ships, explaining the dire misunderstandings and the mer deceptions that had led to the attacks, and reaffirming Cynthia’s allegiance. Emil was preparing his own account of the events, stressing that the seamage had been away from the island and was in no way connected with the mer attack on the Fire Drake, and that she had, in fact, tried to intercede, at great personal loss. Currently he was trying to address the burning of the Clairissa, and had chewed the end of his pen into a nub in his consternation. Camilla pitied his task; after all, his own daughter, Samantha, had provoked the attack, though she doubted that he would include that particular bit of information in his letter. As if he felt her gaze, the count looked up at her, then over at Tim.
“Is Tipos ready?” he asked the boy. He reached for a cup and frowned when he saw it was empty. The silver blackbrew pot, too, was empty.
“The Flothrindel is packed and ready, Father, but Tipos says he won’t wear the clothes you sent down for him.” Tim chuckled and shook his head. “He says they make him sweat.”
“Well, he can’t parade around Tsing in naught but his skin! He’s got to—”
“I’ll talk to him, Emil,” Camilla said, rising. “He can’t leave until all the letters are ready anyway.” Her muscles were tight from prolonged sitting, and she stretched her back, twisting and turning until her corset creaked. She noticed Emil’s eyes stray toward her, then dart back to his papers. Suppressing a smile, she straightened her gown. For years she had dreaded the stares of Bloodwind and his captains; more recently, Edan’s gaze had thrown her into a panic. But when Emil looked at her…
“Perhaps I should go to Tsing myself,” the count said. He shuffled the pile of letters into an orderly stack. “If Tipos refuses to dress like a civilized—”
“Don’t worry, Emil.” Camilla patted his arm, leaving her hand there for several heartbeats more than was necessary. “I’m sure he’ll agree to wear them once I explain how important this is. Besides, we’ve discussed this; you must stay until the next imperial expedition arrives. If you’re not here to act as mediator, Cynthiawill have no one to speak on her behalf, and no one will believe her version of the events that led to the loss of the emperor’s ships, even if it is the truth.”
“You’re right,” he said. He looked up at Camilla and sighed, then rubbed his eyes and dabbed his pen in the inkwell again before leaning once more over his letter. “We’ve amassed enough evidence here to present a convincing case to His Majesty. I just hope it’s enough.”
“It’ll be enough,” she assured him, though in her deepest heart, she wondered. Her life had been so good here for the last two years. Was all that about to end? Shaking her head, she forced the thought away, suddenly realizing that Tim still stood there, watching them. “Come on, Tim. Let’s go talk to Tipos about putting on a pair of trousers.”
Emil grasped her hand and held it for a moment. “Thank you, Camilla, for giving me your trust.”
She smiled, not knowing what to say, and he released her. She felt his gaze warm her back as she took Tim’s hand and led him from the room.