Warning: Includes a nasty war and references to various nasty things that happen therein, physical violence, threats of sexual violence, and what I can only describe as a sorta-kinda-BDSM relationship between consenting adult women.
Feedback: email@example.com . If you would care to drop me a line, I will respond in your choice of salty pirate talk or series of haikus.
He said, “My name is Hasak, and I am going to rule these islands.”
She said, “My name is Darren, and I am going to punch you in the nose.”
And this she did. Blood bubbled out juicily from Hasak's nostrils, dribbling down his chin and fouling the front of his second-hand chain mail shirt. He staggered backwards, smashed his head against the lintel of the nearest hut, and toppled. And that was the end of another would-be overlord.
Our village had been conquered four times in three days. The first set of raiders took all the young men, the ones with the muscle to row a warship. The second set took all the men older than twelve and most of the women as well. The third set took what food was left- sacks of flour and jugs of oil and piles of dried fish. The fourth set wasn't very impressive. Just a few men with old armour and rusty weapons. All of them, even their leader Hasak, had a sort of mangy hangdog look about them, as if they didn't really believe that they would get away with what they were doing. But they still rousted us out of the huts, all ten of us, and half of them held us at swordpoint next to the drying posts while the other half rooted around in the village for something they could use.
All of Kila was like that, back then. It was a year into the civil war, and the various factions had stopped even pretending to make alliances. The islands had become a patchwork of tiny realms and protectorates and baronies, whose borders shifted daily. Every minor lord with a tin-pot navy was scheming for control. That meant assassinations and poisonings in all the larger towns, and bitter sea battles over the trading routes. Out in the poorer parts of Kila, where I lived, it meant that mauraders were common as ants. If you were wakened in the middle of the night by the sound of scratching from a storage hut, it was an even bet whether it was a raider or a rat. It wasn't a good idea to go and check.
I don't know if I can explain why we were all so calm when Hasak arrived. It's true that, by the time he came, we had almost nothing left to lose. But that doesn't necessarily matter, you know. I once saw a woman go ballistic, attacking a soldier three times her size with her nails and teeth, because he tried to take away the last thing she had: a battered baking tin. But that all happened later. When Hasak came, as I say, we were all very calm. I remember a sword somewhere near my throat, and the hand of the raider who was holding it shook so badly that it scratched skin more than once. But that didn't bother me. I had been through worse. Even the smaller children didn't cry. I can't tell you what all of them were thinking. All I can remember, myself, is a kind of dullness. I'd been through this time and time and time again, I knew how it always ended, and I knew that nothing was going to change this time around.
But that was before Darren showed up.
We had our backs to the harbour; that's why we didn't see her ship arriving. I did see a sort of red flush in the corner of my vision, but it didn't mean anything to me. These days, of course, everyone knows that she's coming when they see the red sails. But back then she was just getting started. It wasn't like now, when a chill settles over crowded taverns when someone whispers her name. And even when I saw Darren that first time- when she tromped into the centre of the village, flanked by her crew- I wasn't exactly impressed. She looked strong, of course. Always that. Muscled shoulders poked from her sleeveless vest; her cutlass was the dark steely grey, with nicks and pit marks, that means long use. She and the crew- there were eight of them at the time- they all moved the same way, sort of steady and purposeful. You had the feeling that an earthquake wouldn't tip them over. But their clothes of grey-blue wool were weatherbeaten and their boots were crusted with salt and their faces burnt brown. They looked like cursed mariners touching shore for the first time in a hundred years.
Still, Hasak was afraid of her. You could tell that, even as he drew himself up and issued his challenge. And her expression barely changed when she knocked him out with that single punch. Afterwards, she shook her hand out slowly, giving a long, meaningful look around. The rest of the raiders seemed to remember that they had important things to do elsewhere and headed fast for the trees, abandoning their leader where he bled by the huts.
We were left in the village square, next to the drying nets, with the salt-crusted mariners. They were the fifth bunch of raiders to take us over in three days, and, I thought to myself, it was beginning to get a little old.
Darren clearly put Hasak's men out of her mind, even as the last of them were ghosting away. She finished looking around, scratched her head, spat thoughtfully, and then said “Regon.”
It was obviously an order, because a sailor- brawny but short- detached himself from the group and made a quick tour of the huts. Meanwhile Darren leant against a drying post. Her hands were in her trouser pockets and her eyes- grey-blue as her clothing- were fixed on the thatch of a nearby roof, as if it was the only thing in the area worth her attention.
That irritated me. So did the casual way that Regon was turning over baskets and raking through wreckage. And so did the way that the ten of us were tamely standing, there, waiting for them to finish. “He won't find anything,” I spoke up. “They've already taken it all.”
She gave me a cursory glance, and then dismissed me as Regon came jogging back to her side. “Bare as a whore's arse,” he reported. “There's not enough here to get them through the month, let alone the winter.”
“That's what I said,” I pointed out.
Now her eyes settled on me again. “You. Are you in charge?”
I wasn't, but it struck me that I might as well be. I was, by far, the oldest- except for Klea and Aegle, both of whom were too ancient to do much other than mutter through toothless mouths. So I nodded.
“You'll starve if you stay here, you know,” said Darren.
The irritation was building. “If that bothers you, you could always give us supplies.”
She nodded absently. “I would, if I thought you would be able to hang on to them. But you can't. So I'm going to take you somewhere else. Someplace safe. Have your people pack whatever they still have- then we'll get you on the ship.”
“Like hell you will,” I said.
A number of the children looked at me in surprise. To be completely frank, I was a little surprised myself. But more than that, I was sick of being bullied. So I took a step forward and crossed my arms and stuck out my jaw and said “Like hell you will!” again.
It sounded better the second time. Even so, I was expecting at least a few snickers from the watching crew. I didn't get them. Regon gave a small, tight grin, but it was one of painful understanding more than anything else. On the other hand, I could tell that I now had Darren's full attention.
“I'm not a slaver, kid,” she said. “Nor a murderer, nor a rapist. I know there's no proof, and you'd be an idiot to trust me if you had any better options. But you don't. I'm your only chance. So even if you're scared-”
“I'm not scared,” I answered, “and I don't give a good goddamn whether you're a murderer. We're not getting on that boat.”
There were murmurs around me. The other children obviously felt differently. Darren jerked her head at them. “You stay here and you'll die,” she said. “All of you. You realize that?”
“That's not the point. Whether we stay or go is our choice. You've got no right to make it for us.”
“You've got no right to make it for them ,” Darren pointed out, with maddening accuracy.
“Fine. I'm not coming with you.”
Darren looked impatiently at the sun, checking the time. “I'm not forcing you, I'm offering -”
“So leave me alone.”
The skin of her cheeks twisted and I realized that it was a small, rather bitter, smile. “No. Sorry. I don't let people die for stupid reasons.”
“Well then,” I answered.
We stood for a few moments, assessing each other. I was trying to think of a way out of the impasse when that little maverick part of my brain took over and announced “I'll fight you!”
The children's curious looks turned into stares of open shock. Darren seemed a bit taken aback herself. “You're a kid,” she said.
“I'm twenty,” I retorted.
She drew her cutlass, slowly. I got the sense that she was doing it to give herself time to think. “Do you know how to fight?” she said at last.
“No. Well, not really. I've fought fish. I mean, I've killed fish. I mean, I've fished. This is a fishing village,” I explained hastily.
The doubtful crease in her forehead was turning into a deep trench.
“Oh, come on,” I said, trying to encourage her. “Just fight me.”
“What do you want to fight with?”
“Swords. What else? Crochet hooks?”
“Do you have a sword?”
“Of course I don't,” I said impatiently. “You'll have to lend me one, won't you?”
The silence after I said this lasted a good few minutes.
“I'll tell you what,” she said in the end. “Why don't you take mine?”
“Oh, no, I couldn't possibly-”
“No, no. Really. I insist.”
Our hands met briefly as she passed the cutlass over. Her skin felt cool and dry and rough and made me shiver a little. To take my mind off of that, I gave the cutlass a few experimental swings. It swished through the air in a very satisfying way, and I nodded and took the closest thing to a fighting stance that I could.
“I'm ready,” I said, and then thought of something and looked back over my shoulder.
“Don't try to interfere!” I announced grandly to the cluster of villagers behind me. “This is my battle!”
Klea muttered something through a gummy mouth that might have been agreement or might not have been. Either way, it didn't matter much. None of them had any intention of interfering- that much was clear. The younger children actually took several steps backwards, clasped their hands behind their backs, and dug into the sand with their toes.
Darren was waiting, her arms resting loosely at her sides. I took a deep breath and then aimed a slash at her arm. I expected her to dodge it neatly, and she did. What I didn't expect was that her hand would dart out to grab my wrist and give it a single hard shake. The cutlass clattered from my grip.
“Surrender?” she said. And then she said something less polite when I seized her ear with my free hand and twisted as hard as I could. She grabbed my other wrist and forced it down, then swore again and jumped backwards when I lunged for her shoulder with my teeth.
Darren didn't want to hurt me, of course- that was her handicap, and I made full use of it as I twisted a hand free and went for her ear again. But now she was done playing. She wrestled one of my arms behind my back and forced me to my knees. I butted backwards with my head. She bore down on me, pushing me down full length on the ground.
She was panting. I could feel it in the way her breath hit the back of my neck. “What is wrong with you?” she hissed in my ear.
“I'm tired of being pushed around, that's what's wrong with me!” I tried to buck her off. She gave a frustrated grunt and bore down harder, making my chin scrape against the dirt.
“Look,” she said. “Just calm down and I'll let you up.”
“You let me up and I'll kill you.” I sort of snarled as I said kill . Darren just gave a snort, clearly unimpressed, so I went after her with my teeth again. This time they clamped down on something soft. I clenched my jaw, forcing my teeth as hard into the flesh as I could; twisted my head from side to side, and tasted copper blood.
When she swore that time, she used words I had never heard before and I hoped I would be able to remember them all later.
She was hissing with pain as she tried to tear her arm free, and when I hung on, she gave me a quick cuff on the side of the head. I let go immediately. It didn't hurt that much, but I thought that I had made my point.
“Darren,” I heard one of the sailors say. “Hate to interrupt you, but- tide's changing.”
She was frozen for a second, her breathing still heavy. Then she forced me down heavily with her uninjured forearm- so that she could get a hand loose, I supposed. There was the rustling of cloth as she rummaged in a pocket, and then a leather cord slipped around my wrists and was pulled taut. Her weight came off of me and I scrambled to my feet, but she kept a firm hand on my bound wrists. A few of the sailors had sly grins, but they quickly straightened their faces when Darren glared.
“All right,” she announced- breathless, but clearly trying to get things back on track. “Someone take her on board. I'll see to the others.”
The stocky sailor- Regon- came forward (a little gingerly, I thought) and took hold of the leather lead. As soon as she let it go, she was turning away again, ramming her cutlass back in its sheath. Putting me out of her mind, once again. Well, I was having none of that.
“Hey!” I said, stomping twice on the ground.
She flinched as she looked back at me. Her face was almost pleading. “What?”
I jerked my chin in the direction of Regon. “Tell him to tie me to the mast,” I instructed her.
Darren's eyebrows flew up her forehead. “Tell him to do what ?”
“Tell him to tie me to the mast,” I repeated slowly.
Her mouth opened and closed twice. “You want to be tied to the mast?”
“That's not the question,” I said, as reasonably as I could. “The question is, do you want me running around your nice orderly ship like a lunatic? Knocking over barrels and throwing wineskins overboard and trying to bite your fingers off? The only sensible thing to do is to tie me to the mast.”
“You wouldn't do that,” she said- with more confidence than she felt, I could tell.
I grinned nastily. “Wouldn't I?”
Her face was an interesting study, right then. There was disbelief, but then as the seconds passed, she came to realize that I meant it. And then I saw her realize that the seconds were ticking past and that she didn't have time to sit around debating. She made an intriguing sound, somewhere between a moan and a snarl (I was to hear it quite a few times in the coming days) and she threw up her hands.
“Fine,” she said. “Fine! Have it your way! Regon, you heard her. Tie her to the goddamn mast. Tie her to anything she wants to be tied to. Tie her to the anchor for all I care. But get her on the bloody boat, now! ”
Then she was striding off, and the children scampered at her heels like puppies. Regon tried to lead me away gently, but I set my heels in the dirt so he had to yank me along. Inside fifteen seconds, the cord was digging into the skin of my wrists and I'd stubbed a toe and there were sore spots in my back and my knees were scraped where I had knelt on the path.
And I was fantastically happy, and not quite certain why.
Regon was tight-lipped to begin with, but we got quite chummy while he was tying me up. We talked about our favourite knots, and about fly fishing, and the weather and the best way to cook oysters. Everything but the war, really. I think that we were both sick of discussing it.
The small boat moved steadily back and forth between the ship and the shore, ferrying crew and passengers back and forth. The other villagers climbed on board the ship clutching a few possessions under their arms- Klea and Aegle had torn shawls and a few pots and pans; the children had broken toys, shiny clamshells, that kind of thing. All of them gave me quick, curious glances as they walked by the mast. Regon had done a careful job. Rather than tying my arms around the pole (which we agreed would be too uncomfortable), he had lashed me there with a few turns of rope around my waist, and then tied my hands in front of me. I was sitting cross-legged on the deck, the sails shielding me from the worst of the sun.
Darren boarded the ship last, looking surly, and stomped across the deck to where I sat. I squinted up at her. Her left arm, the one I had bitten, was heavily bandaged. I wondered whether someone had stitched it up, and, if so, whether they used a sail needle.
“Hello,” I said.
She gave me a long, unfriendly look, and then dumped a bundle on the deck next to me. “These are your things. We picked them up for you.”
“That was very thoughtful,” I said, because it was.
She looked at my tied hands, and her expression softened. “I just want to help, you know.”
“I know.” I did.
“So...can I let you loose now?”
I smiled at her again, less savagely than before. “That's up to you,” I said. “Do you mind me running around the place like a maniac, foaming at the mouth and doing my level best to knock every member of your crew into the drink?”
Darren blew out a breath, running a hand through her dark shaggy hair.
I shrugged (as best I could, under the circumstances). “I did warn you, you know.”
“You warned me,” she repeated. “You know something? Have it your way. I don't have time for this. We need to get moving.”
“Go ahead. I'm not stopping you.”
She gave me a last uncomfortable look, but then the breeze freshened. All sorts of interesting things happen on ships when the wind gets stronger. Masts and booms groan disturbingly and sails ripple out and sailors go bouncing all over the place trying to do twenty things at once. Darren forgot me immediately.
“Teek!” she called. “Hoist the small boat up, then weigh anchor. I want to be across the strait by sundown tomorrow; we're too damn exposed out here. Spinner, find something to feed those kids. Not too much. It'll be a rocky passage and I don't want to have to swab out the entire hold.”
She took the tiller herself, and she was so absorbed that I don't think she even noticed how I stared.
When the others were fed, someone brought me up a portion. The soup was watery but there were scraps of mutton in it, a taste I'd almost forgotten. I cradled the warm mug as I sipped. It was getting cold.
As I was tipping the dregs down my throat, a clamp-clamp-clamp of boots on the deck told me that Darren was stalking back over to the mast. Then there was a shring as her long knife came out of its sheath.
“Hey, hey, hey,” I objected, as she knelt down with the blade in hand. “I haven't been that bad.”
“Just shut up and hold your arms out.”
I pulled back, trying to wrench my wrists away from her. My mug went clattering to the deckboards as we wrestled. “You're not cutting these ropes.”
“Yes, yes, actually I am. You're a kid. This is insa- WAUGH!”
I had bared all my teeth and snarled at her, and she flinched away. Clearly, when I bit her earlier that day, it had left an impression. So to speak.
“Look, time out,” I said. “You're new to this. I understand. But it isn't complicated. You can't let a prisoner roam around the ship. Not when she's trying to kill you.”
Darren made a small, exasperated noise as she sheathed her knife. “I don't care if you try to kill me! You're about the size of badly nourished kitten! You ought to be in a place where some farmer's wife can make a fuss over you, not trussed up on a tub of a trading ship-”
Her eyes wandered as she spoke, and that's when I drew back my heel and kicked her in the pit of her stomach. Not hard. She gave a little whoosh and sat back, blinking. After a second she asked: “What the hell was that for?”
“For getting maudlin. I'm not a kitten.”
“I just meant that you're tiny.”
“Hey,” I said defensively. “Do you have any idea how many assassins are short?”
“A lot , is the answer.” She didn't seem convinced. I lowered my tone. “A hell of a lot.”
“Kid-“ She pulled herself back up to her knees.
“In fact, you know what kills most pirate queens?”
“I'm not a-”
“Monkeys,” I intoned darkly. “Damn monkeys are much better with a knife than you'd ever-”
Her half-moan-half-snarl was strangled as her hand clamped across my face, over my mouth. I could feel the fingers quiver next to my skin as she just- barely- kept her temper in check.
“I'm not a pirate queen,” she said tightly. “You're not an assassin, and you're not a prisoner, and you have to get a grip, kid, because the world is going up in goddamned flames. You think it's funny to make yourself helpless? I could cut your throat, here and now. You understand that?”
I moved my head to the side, just slightly, and as I had expected, she let me go right away. Wimp . The wind was cooler on my face where her hand had been pressed against it.
“Let's say I do understand,” I said.
She spread her arms- well?
“Darren, captain, sir, whatever- I'm on a ship being taken the gods know where. I'm helpless. If you want to cut my throat, I'm not going to be able to stop you. Are you really saying I'll be safer if I don't talk about monkeys?”
Her jaw worked a little as she thought about that, but all she said was: “It's usually safer to do as you're told.”
I snorted. “That doesn't make you safer,” I said. “It just drags things out. Trust me, I know.”
That was more than I had meant to say. I closed my mouth with an audible snap before anything else could escape. Darren's eyes were on me, thoughtful, and there was the teetering moment of anxiety that I knew so well. The one where you've already revealed too much, and you know that if someone asks the right question...But one thing you could say for Darren, even then: she didn't go after people's secrets. She shifted her gaze to the pine wood of the mast above my head, and stared as though nothing else in the world mattered more. When she spoke, it was quiet: “I could just as easily tie you up below decks.”
The relief was so strong, I had to blink twice before I could concentrate again. And blink twice more before I realized the total insanity of what she was suggesting. “All the others are below decks, right? The other people from my village?”
“Then they could untie me.”
She blinked, not getting it. “Um- yes. I guess they could.”
I sighed. “Then it wouldn't be a very good strategy to tie me up below decks, would it?”
There was a long pause. It was sunset. Darren's brooding face was half yellow and half pink.
“Is it all right to give a prisoner a blanket?” she asked at last, and with a hint of desperation.
I thought that over, carefully. “I think so.”
“Would you like a blanket?”
She came back with one after a brief disappearance. It was rough wool, and, like all the other cloth on board the ship, it was greyish blue. Did they get a special deal on grey-blue dye, I wondered, or was there an entire herd of grey-blue sheep running around naked somewhere?
Awkwardly, Darren folded the blanket around me, tucking the edges between me and the mast. I smiled up at her. “Thanks.”
“You're welcome,” she answered, and, with a last bewildered look, headed below.
I woke halfway through the night, when the wind rose. Wavelets slapped the side of the ship every few minutes, sending cold briny mist through me. The blanket was sodden. The knots that bound me had swollen in the wet and were digging into flesh. I was trying to decide whether to scream for help when I heard her trudging up from below. She knelt down beside me and felt my chilly cheek.
“This is ridiculous. I'm taking you down.”
Under the circumstances, that didn't seem so wholly unreasonable, but I hedged. “You could take me to your cabin?”
“I don't have a cabin,” she said, as she picked at the rope on my wrists. “How big a ship do you think this is?”
“Damn.” I bit my lip. “Do you have- barrels? Crates?”
“Okay. So go down and stack some crates around a corner and that can be your cabin. And you can bring me down to that.”
There was a little choking sound then, but her face was invisible in the dark. I couldn't point with my hands tied, so I nodded at the steps.
“Go on. Get to work. I'll be here when you're done.”
And- staggering a little, as though she was drunk- she went.
It took Darren an hour to shift things around in the hold. The ship was a small two-masted trader- light and manoeuvrable, but without much in the way of living space. As Darren had told me, there were no closed cabins below. There wasn't even room to hang a hammock for each crew member. If the weather had been a little warmer, they would all have been sleeping on deck. As it was, they were crammed together in the open hold, along with water barrels, boxes of biscuit and dried meat, a tiny brazier for heat and light- and, of course, the eleven children and crones from my village. Any time you moved anything in the close-packed space, you ended up treading on someone's foot or ramming someone's skull. Darren told me all this, with some exasperation, as she brought me down to the tiny corner she had cleared behind a stack of biscuit boxes.
“You're more trouble than anything else that's ever been aboard this ship,” she said, prodding me behind the wall of boxes. “And I carried cobras once. And they laid eggs.”
“Poor baby,” I told her, or rather I told her “P-p-p-p-p-p-p-p-oor b-b-b-b-b-aby.” My teeth were chattering so hard that I thought they would splinter.
Her complaints broke off; she looked at me in concern. “You're soaked.”
I didn't try to shoot out another pithy rejoinder; I just glared up at her.
“Gods in heaven, I'm an idiot,” she said, the self-reproach returning to her voice. “Wait here a moment.”
She disappeared. My legs folded beneath me and I flopped onto the deck in the tiny cabin, feeling my wet clothing ooze into the wood. I wanted to call out to her, ask what she thought she was doing, leaving a prisoner alone below decks , in the nerve centre of the operation- but the thought of saying anything made my jaw tremble faster. I curled into a tighter ball. My sopping tunic squelched.
Darren was talking when she came back in, her arms full of blankets. “...don't know what the hell I was thinking, leaving you up there in the cold. I mean, you're obviously out of your gourd, and I know you asked for it, but that's no excuse. I should have-”
“Oh, damn it!” she said, and stooped to wrap one of them around me. She sounded disgusted but I could tell, even before she said another word, the disgust was for herself rather than for me. “Look, warm up a second, then we'll have to get your wet things off. I mean, I won't get them off, you'll get them off, I'll leave you alone to-” She glared through the decks at a heaven she couldn't see. “Blast and bugger and damn. I'm so bad at this.”
“At what?” The dry blanket was making a difference already. I could feel my fingers again.
“At- you know. Helping-” She grew awkward. “Never mind.”
She was flustered and I didn't want her that way, so I quickly changed the subject.
“How many spare blankets do you have lying around, anyway?”
“Not enough. That one is mine. The other one is Regon's.”
“He didn't need it?”
“He's not big enough to stop me from taking it, so it worked out fine.” She sounded better now. “Are you going to get difficult if I ask you to take your wet clothes off? I'll get out of the way.”
Get difficult , she said, and I felt a bit annoyed. Hadn't I been difficult ever since we met? Lord knows I was trying hard enough. How much could one woman give? “No, I'll take them off. But you should find a rope.”
The desperation was back. “Oh, what now ?”
“Well, you have to tie me up again.”
“ Why, in the name of every god in creation, would I need to tie you up again? ”
“Just think for a second, captain. You're going to be sleeping next to your prisoner- what if I suddenly decide to cut your throat in the middle of the night?”
“Who the hell said that I'm sleeping next to you?”
“This is your cabin. Of course you're sleeping next to me. So you need to take precautions-”
“...precautions, to make sure that your vengeful prisoner-”
“- my UNARMED prisoner-”
“- don't forget naked- your vengeful, unarmed, naked prisoner-”
Even in the dim light, I saw her tear at her hair. “I brought you a spare tunic! Just what kind of sick bastard do you think I am?”
“A pirate queen. A pirate queen who far too trusting, given the circumstances.” I thought about patting her tanned cheek, but it seemed too soon. “Go get the rope. I'll change while you're gone. Don't be too long though- you look tired.”
That was the first day. Darren, I learned, snored like a bull calf, and I made a mental note of that as one more thing to address when the time was right. In the meantime, I just draped a blanket over her face.
Things got into a pattern pretty quickly after that, and stayed that way for all of the week-long crossing to the mainland. I spent my nights down in the tiny improvised cabin with Darren, and she slept (snores burbling from beneath the blanket) pressed against the biscuit boxes so that she wouldn't brush against me accidentally. For that entire week, I don't think she touched me once while we were sleeping. That was an incredibly good score, considering that we were sharing a space about the size of a rowboat.
By day, I was fastened to the mast again- but I wasn't tied, either there or down in the hold. Regon had unearthed a short, broken length of anchor chain and an old padlock and improvised a fetter for my ankle. It made things easier for all concerned, though Darren still winced each night when I held my foot out to her. At least she had given up arguing- probably because she was too busy.
Looking back, I can see that we had a fairly easy crossing. The wind was strong and steady; the trading ship made light of its cargo as it sluiced through the waters of the channel. But at the time, it seemed to me that we were always on the verge of disaster. Darren and her crew were never still a moment. Every hour of the day, from dawn to dawn, they were charging to and fro, frantically hauling at things and letting things go and throwing some things over deck and pulling other things on board. If there was ever a lapse in activity, then there would come a cry from a man on the masthead or another on the poop deck and they would all charge off again.
On top of that, all of the children from my village had voracious appetites, and most of them had weak stomachs, and none of them ever managed to get to the rail on time. The crew had to sluice the decks down at least twice a day. The children who weren't sick spent their time chasing after rats, or investigating interesting smells, or shrieking complaints when they were told they couldn't go swimming. Yes, the crew had a busy time.
It made me tired just to watch them, as I sat comfortably on deck, shaded by the sails. I used to rest my chained ankle out in front of me. Darren was always nearly tripping over it as she barrelled purposefully from one side of the ship to the other.
“She works hard for a noblewoman,” I remarked to Regon halfway through the crossing. He was leaning against the mast beside me then, sharing my shade, but he sat bolt upright when I spoke.
“Who the hell said she was a noblewoman?”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Practically all the captains of trading ships are nobles,” I pointed out.
“But not all of them,” he floundered.
“Oh, please. I've seen her use a sextant.” (It was well worth watching- her utter focus as she stared at the sun.) “How many peasants know navigation?”
He looked unhappy. “Oh, damn,” he gulped.
That didn't make any sense. “Why is it such a big secret?” I asked. “She's probably- what, a younger child from one of the great trading houses? And she went rogue after the war started? Started running cargoes for herself rather than her daddy? That's got to be a dead common story these days.”
“It is,” Regon admitted reluctantly. “But Darren's different- I really can't tell you any more about it.”
“What?” I said casually. “Does she have a price on her head, or something?”
Silence. Dead, panicked silence. Ever so casually, I angled myself so I could see his face.
“So she's been banished, huh?”
The way his face fell told me everything I needed to know.
“Do you have nothing to do, Regon?” panted Darren, as she charged across the deck again. “Really? Honestly? Because I'm sure I could find some use for you. For one thing, I need a new anchor.”
Regon shot to his feet, hurrying away from me without a backward glance. He might as well have hung a sign around his neck that said I TOLD THE PRISONER SOMETHING I SHOULDN'T HAVE. Fortunately, Darren was no more perceptive than usual that day.
“What about you?” she asked me. “Getting bored?”
“Not particularly,” I told her as I studied my ten brown toes.
“Kash was thinking of trying to cook tonight,” she said. “Bold man. He could use someone to seed the raisins for duff. And there are fish to scale.”
“Ah, but I'm your helpless prisoner, remember?” I said. “Prisoners don't work. Unless they're slaves. And I don't think you're tough enough to make that kind of arrangement stick.”
I gave her my special insolent stare, and waited. The moments crawled as she looked down at me, lips parted- for a second she glanced away and I thought she was going to give in- but finally, FINALLY- about TIME- her face hardened all over and she spoke with a snap in her voice.
“Prisoners don't have to eat, either,” she said. “I've been damn patient with you, kid, but it's time for you to give something back. I'll send Kash up here, and you do what he tells you.”
I wanted to give her a proud hug, but I just grinned instead. “You've got it,” I promised.
She kept shooting glances at me for most of the rest of the night- first when Kash and I were scaling the mess of trout, and then when I cajoled a reluctant Regon to sit and eat with me. Perhaps she suspected that I was pumping them for details, gradually piecing together the story of her life- her early years, her career as a trade captain, everything right up to her exile. But if she did, she didn't interfere.
While I'm at it, I might as well set the record straight: It's not true that Darren was banished because she was caught sleeping with a woman. No matter what you've heard.
She was a noble, after all. And when nobles marry, it's to forge alliances and spawn heirs. Love doesn't come into it, of course. But neither does sex. No Kilan noble in history went to marriage as a virgin- especially not the younger children of the great houses, who are put to work captaining the merchant ships almost as soon as they can count. They grow up surrounded by sailors and sailor-talk, doxies in taverns and dock-front whores, and since their lives are a hard grind otherwise, they take every chance they get to forget about it for a while.
And they're not shy about sleeping with their own sex, either, at least when nothing else is on offer. What else would a captain do when he's becalmed for a week in the dead centre of the ocean, with forty other men about and only a ragged memory of the last time he saw a woman's breast? And everyone knows what's going on when a young countess- cloistered in her father's house and waiting for marriage- takes a “favourite” from among her serving girls. No-one even blinks an eye when they emerge from the brat's private bower horribly late for dinner, pink and giggly and staring at each other's navels. There's nothing shameful about a noble wanting something and taking it. That's just part of life. As long as it's done with gusto and bluster and sheer cheek, nobles can admit to wanting anything.
Darren's father Stribos had been notorious in his own youth, as I learned later. “A woman for duty,” he always said. “But a boy for pleasure, and a goat for ecstasy.”
So you see, no-one would have batted an eye if Darren had rutted every whore in the shipyards, chased servant women around the halls, or even if she had thrown a peasant girl on the banquet table and spanked her in full view. At the very worst, it would have been seen as a rough joke- a bit immature perhaps, but all in fun for a person of her rank.
No, Darren was banished for falling in love.
“We was going overland,” Teek told me softly. He was leaning against the mast, all his attention apparently fixed on the rope yarn he was spinning between calloused fingertips. Our heads were close together so I could hear him. “Darren had a tip, like, there were sable skins going cheap well upcountry, and we was going like blazes before someone beat us to it. We got there first and bought'em damn near out- a fortune in fur, for the cost of a wagon of apples. But everything started going wrong, like, on the way back to the ship.”
I'd spent several hours cajoling Teek into telling this last part of Darren's story. He was taciturn and stolid, nothing like Regon whose tongue ran away with him if I gave him a little encouragement. But I found Teek to be a better informant. For one thing, Regon swore that Darren had never made a mistake in her life, and would carve huge chunks out of his own memories if they seemed to show otherwise.
“She'd spent every coin she could on sable, leaving just bare enough to feed and supply us on the way back home. A gamble, that. She lost. Seemed the whole country was trying to slow us down. Winter shut in fast. There was a mudslide and we had to detour, then Regon, he got sick, and one of our mules broke its leg. Thing after thing. Tried hunting but there was nothing around but half-starved squirrels. The captain cut our rations but she had to beef ‘em up again when bandits closed in and we barely had the strength to wield a sabre. We was two weeks going upcountry, and we'd spent seven coming back and we was nowhere near the coast. Ah, if you'd seen us! Ribs like washboards and the hunger-glitter in every eye, and we had to pull the wagon of furs ourselves, because we'd eaten the other mule. But then we happened on a valley.”
Teek had suffered badly in the hungry time- I could tell that from the way his chin wobbled when he told me how they were finally saved. The valley was shielded from the worst of the weather, and held a thriving town which had no shortage of anything. Teek's chin wobbled worse as he described cheeses the size of wagon wheels, and hams that must have come from pigs as big as oxen, and mammoth tubs of butter and deep cream puddings.
“The captain, she was near to screaming,” Teek went on. “She was hungry as any man there. Hungrier, for she'd pushed herself harder. And it was all she could do not to fling herself at the nearest string of sausages. But the trader in her was raving at the thought of what she'd have to pay for it.”
“I thought you were out of money.”
“And so we were. But remember, we had the furs. Any village that knew its business, seeing starving men, would've taken our wagon and tossed us some stale loaves and the heels of the cheeses. I knew that, we all knew that, but we were past caring. All but Darren.”
I was already getting riled up. “Those bastards!”
He chuckled, knotting the end of the yarn. “Ah, but it didn't happen in the end. Because she was there, you see.”
“Name of Jess. She was the beekeeper, in summer time- got the honey for the village from a few dead trees. But in the winter she also kept a bit of a school, and she helped with birthings. This and that. What I mean- they all listened when she spoke. And she spoke loud when the whisper first went round that they could get our sable for a biscuit and a half-cup of sack. She spoke loud and not a one stood against her. They took us into the inn that night and gave us such a supper that we could have rolled the rest of the way home. Didn't ask for so much as an acorn in return.”
“That's a bit better,” I said, relaxing.
“Bit better? I should say so. Captain gave ‘em a fair payment in fur, of course. We stayed a week and the inn was full so the captain went to sleep on the beekeeper's floor. And they went about the village together and they talked ‘til late. You could see the lamps in Jess's windows burning well after dark.” Teek paused a second, brooding. “Might ‘ha been the food after all the starving, but it seemed to me that Darren was happy as she'd ever been, and she's not the happy sort.”
“You don't say,” I murmured- and then “So what happened?”
“We went home. Loaded the sable, sold it, made a fortune. Captain's father was pleased as could be.”
“Yes...but what about Jess ?”
“Coming to that,” he said, unhurried. “I don't know properly- wasn't always with the captain- sometimes I was sailing on other ships- but seemed to me that she headed for the mainland every chance she damn well got, afterwards. More than once she came back from a journey with crocks of honey in the hold. And a stunned sort of funny sort of a grin.”
I smiled myself. “So then what?”
His face darkened. “She got her courage up- the captain, I mean. Invited Jess to visit the House of Torasan. Her house. To meet her family. Damn fool move, or a damn brave one. Both.”
“Did they know?” I asked. “About the two of them?”
“You could hardly have missed it, the way they looked at each other. But her father, her older brother- they could pretend, you understand? They could pretend not to see. Few times she tried to tell them and they cut her off before she'd gotten out three words. Gave her the if-you-know-what's-good-for-you speech. Well, the writing was on the wall- the choice she had to make. And she made it. Middle of a state dinner, with nobles from all over Kila tittering at the tables, she called Jess up to dance. Then kissed her full in front of her father's throne.”
I pumped an arm in the air. “All right!”
Teek sighed. “Then she went straight to her room, she and Jess, and they grabbed what they could- knowing they only had as much time as it would take for the ink to dry on the banishment scroll. They were ‘bout halfway done when the soldiers came and threw them out the front gate. She was left with almost nothing- the clothes on her back and a bag of copper.”
“Ah, well, then, the captain went to the dockmaster- and she'd once paid for a doctor for his son, so he wasn't too quick to desert her. There wasn't much he could do, but the captain managed to talk him out of an old trading ship which was holed and abandoned on the beach.” Teek glanced around at the ancient deck. “She and Jess patched it as best they could, and then together they sailed it away from the islands. They came safe to Jess's valley, and there the captain retired from the sea. Helped Jess make honey.”
“That's nice,” I said fondly, pleased with the happy ending, before I realized- “Hey, wait! What happened?”
Teek put down his coil of yarn and propped his chin on his doubled-up knees. He followed a gull with his eyes as it screeched its way along the bottom of the horizon. “Land soon,” he commented.
“Teek, tell me what happened next , or for the love of sweet mandarins I will tie your thumbs in a knot!”
Teek's face stayed impassive, staring out to sea. I was taking a breath, ready to make a new and better threat, when the voice spoke right beside my ear: “I left her.”
My head spun. Darren was crouching beside me, her jaw tight.
“Is that all you wanted to know?” she said. “Fine. I left her. That's the end of the story.”
Teek gave me a pleading, warning look; I ignored him. “But why?”
Darren didn't answer. She stood and contemplated the sky, with what appeared to be loathing. “Teek, relieve the helmsman,” she said presently. “And if any overpowering need to tell stories should strike you while you're back there, let me know so that I can whack it out of you.”
Teek scuttled off, bowing his head as he went past her. I didn't blame him. Darren was properly angry this time. It hummed off of her in hot red waves.
I pulled myself up and leaned casually against the mast. “I made him tell me,” I pointed out.
“Oh, I know.” Her voice was dark and icy. I pressed on anyway.
“You have to realize, you're a pirate queen now. A public figure. Your life is going to be an open book. If you can't-”
“Shut up.” She spat out the words like they were poisonous. “You damn idiot kid.” She raised her voice, roaring to the whole crew: “ Land bloody ho, you stupid bastards! ”
Sure enough, there was a green fuzz along the horizon. Trees.
She gave me one of her quick angry looks. “Shut up and sit down and don't get in the way. Or if you think you're a slave, find something useful to do. Either way, stop distracting my men.”
I studied her back as she stalked off. It was rigid with fury. I had touched a nerve. About bloody time.
“She doesn't mean it,” Regon told me, apologetically, as he made a rope fast.
“She does mean it,” I said, flopping back down into my comfortable position. “But that's all right. I was being obnoxious.”
“Oh, it's not you. She's always like this when we're going into this harbour.”
I soon found out why Teek had been called back to the helm. The ship was heading into a long inlet, with high cliffs on either side; a bewildering pattern of rocks and shoals poked out of the water. It looked like a sunken graveyard, and any half-sane person would have backed gently out and sailed the other way. Darren's fingers, rattling irritably on the gunwales, betrayed her nervousness, and even Regon looked a bit uncomfortable. But Teek was stone-faced, almost bored, and his hand was sure on the tiller as he wove the ship between jagged chunks of granite. I still found Teek sort of dull compared to Regon- and Darren of course- but there was no denying that he had his uses.
The cliffs gave way to shores of soft sand as we neared the inlet's end. Forest surrounded us on three sides: oak, aspen, and alder. This was waste land, that much was clear. Yet- I blinked- there on the coast was a dock, roughly built from large pine logs. It was big enough for only one ship- this, then, was Darren's secret harbour. But it wasn't entirely a secret. Beyond the dock, I could make out tents pitched in the shelter of the trees, and wagons, and smoke from cooking fires. Someone knew that Darren was coming.
The “someone” turned out to be a small woman with freckles across her nose and a searching, intent expression. Her hair was pulled back in a single dark braid and her hands rested in her pockets as she waited on the beach for the ship to moor. I looked back and forth between her and Darren, who was now leaning against the gunwales, her face sour and grim. They couldn't have been much more different. Where Darren was long and lean, this other woman was short and sturdy; where Darren was tanned and tough, she was softer, her face winged with laughter lines. She was dressed in a tunic and trousers of brown russet wool- anyone could see she was a landsman- where every salt inch of Darren screamed of the sea. Yet there was the same strength in both of them- though, when their eyes finally met, it was Darren who looked away first.
Regon was a short distance away, gulping from a flask. I reached to the full length of my chain and tugged on his shirt. “Is that Jess?”
He finished swallowing, sighed, and offered the flask to me. I took a pull. What was inside tasted something like sour apples and something like tar; it made my lips tingle and I licked them again and again.
“Not Jess,” he answered then. “That's Holly. Jess's wife.”
Holly was organized. A large cauldron waited at the far end of the dock, and Holly had set things boiling there as soon as the ship appeared at the far end of the inlet. By the time mooring was complete, smells were wafting out of it that made the smallest children roll and squeal. More landsmen, dressed like Holly, ducked into the tents and brought out wooden bowls and spoons. Then they helped lift the children, one by one, down from the side of Darren's boat; hoisted Klea and Aegle down as well, and took them all off to be fed. They did it so matter-of-factly that it was plain that this was well-oiled routine.
Regon tried to unchain me so that I could go with the others, but I beat his hands away and we had a brief, whispered fight- trying not to attract the attention of Darren, who was still prowling around like a wounded cat. In the end, he gave in, left me where I was, and tossed a chunk of dried beef. Huddled by the gunwales, I nibbled it, as I listened to Darren and Holly. They were pacing up and down the dock as they talked, and I could hear the tension in Darren's voice. She was reining in her frustration.
“Only ten this time?” Holly was saying. “The war must be over.”
“You know better.” Darren growled. “There are ten because they're the only ones left after their village got stripped.”
“I was kidding. Humour? Levity? Remember how that works? No? Well, there's one good thing. We'll be able to find places for all of them quite easily-”
They wandered out of hearing range, and as I waited for them to come back, I wondered idly what kind of “places” Holly and Jess were finding for Kilan refugees. I'm a cynic at heart (long practice) and normally I would have assumed that they were selling them off to silver mines or brothels. But I didn't believe it. Darren and Holly- and the rest of Darren's crew, if it came to that- had something about them that made my inner cynic shut up and sit down. There was just no grain of pretence or deception about them. They never for an instant tried to be anything but what they were. Darren was, I truly believed, doing the best she could for other people, purely because she believed it was right. I had never seen anyone do that before.
The voices came nearer again. “- but you'll be wanting to load the supplies first?”
The beach next to the dock had been lined with boxes and coils of rope, sides of beef and barrels of oil and wine and even chickens squawking their protests in wicker baskets. Darren and her crew ate surprisingly well while at sea. Now I knew why.
“I've told Jess before,” Darren snapped. “She doesn't need to do this.”
Holly didn't seem insulted by Darren's crust. “We know that you do important work,” she said. “Is it so strange that we want to help you?”
“You do enough. I'm not asking for more.”
“Darren, you never do ask.”
Their footsteps kept coming closer. Too late, I realized they were heading up the gangplank. I took one desperate look around, found nothing to hide behind, and quickly arranged myself a casual position by the mast. Then I plastered my most innocent expression over my face. Who, me? Eavesdropping?
Darren stopped dead when she saw me. Then she gave a slow, measured sigh. “You just don't give up, do you, kid?”
“I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about,” I said, twitching my ankle so that the chain clinked on the deck.
“It's not what you think,” Darren said to Holly- whose posture had gone rigid all of a sudden. “I'll explain later.”
“In the meantime,” Holly said, a bit too calmly, “introduce us.”
“What? Oh, right. Holly, this is-” She paused. “Well, I'll be damned. Kid, what is your name?”
I clinked the chain a little faster. “Really, captain. You should know the name of someone you've been sleeping with for a week.”
I could almost see the frost forming in Holly's hazel eyes as she trained them on Darren.
“NOT what it sounds like!” Darren repeated frantically. “Let's just sort out the cargo and I'll explain-” Grabbing Holly's arm, she hustled her back to the gangplank, but spared me a look over her shoulder. “I'll deal with you later.”
“Promises, promises,” I muttered, and settled in for a nap on the sunny deck.
I was woken by the tramp of boots on the deck beside me. Not sea-boots- there were hobnails clicking against the wood. Instinctively, I snapped my knees up to protect my stomach, but there was no need. The footsteps came to an abrupt halt beside me, and a soft hand touched my shoulder.
I blinked upwards. Holly was crouched there, a bundle under one arm.
“So,” she said. “You're her hostage. Or her slave?”
“Yes,” I said, maybe a bit more defensively than necessary. “And if you're here to try to talk me out of it, you might as well get lost. I'm having a hard enough time dealing with her insecurities. I don't need you to get into the act.”
Holly smiled wryly. “You two make quite the pair,” she commented. “No, I'm not here to talk you out of it. I just thought that you would need a few things if you're to be on this ship much longer.”
She placed her bundle on my lap. Blinking with confusion, I unfolded it. An old ivory comb and a small neat pocketknife sat at the centre. The bulk of it was clothes: a couple of linen shirts, a woollen overtunic, loose trousers, a warm cloak. All in shades of brown and deep cream and russet red; all well-made and sweet-smelling. Nothing like the rough, slapdash, “oh-well-that's-good-enough” outfits that Darren and her crew made shift with.
“They're mine,” Holly said apologetically. “I didn't have the time to make anything new. But you're about my size. If you tell me just what you want, then I can run you up something of your own, and you can collect it the next time Darren's ship comes in.”
I found my voice at last. “Why are you doing this?”
She held a shirt up against me, to check the fit. “I know Darren. And I know a thing or two about women- and a thing or two about life, as well. I know what you're up to. It may work out or it may not, but nothing else has worked with her up to this point. By the way, do you have a name?”
I never really know when a casual question is going to stir up the old dread inside me. This one did. My stomach twisted painfully. “Not one that I want to keep,” I said.
She studied me. “What are you running from?”
“Nothing,” I said automatically.
Holly didn't bother to tell me that I was lying. There was no need; we both knew it. She simply held my gaze.
“I don't want to talk about it now,” I whispered, in answer to her wordless invitation. “Thanks, but- I'm not ready. I don't think I could get it out.”
“Well,” she said, “all right.” She was reluctant to let the subject drop, I could tell, but, as she re-folded the clothes into a neat stack, she contented herself with asking: “Darren's treating you properly?”
“You know Darren, you said. What do you think?”
Holly smiled, but it was a little sad. “Darren's noble to the bone. Too much so for her own good.”
“I know. Oh, how well I know.”
“...well, then. Is there anything else I can get for you? In the meantime.”
“No, that's- Wait.” I sat up straighter as a thought struck. “While we're on the subject of names. Do you think you could give me one of those?”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Are you sure?”
“Yep. Just pick one. Something in your own language. I need something that doesn't come from Kila. Something new.”
This was sheer impulse, but it made sense to me. Holly didn't seem surprised in the least. It was the first time I encountered her ability to take strange things in stride, and I've often been grateful for it since.
“How about ‘Lynn'?” she said at last.
My first reaction was to tell her that it wasn't much of a name. Not much of anything, in fact. But then, I realized, that was the point. There was a reason that I was shedding my entire identity, taking on a new one that was fresh and unmarked and clean. Lynn was a blank kind of name. Perfect for someone who was starting from scratch.
“Lynn,” I said, tasting it. “Yes, that's fine, that'll do. Thanks. I'll keep it. What does it mean, by the way?”
She grinned- a real one this time, which showed little white teeth.
“It means, ‘Kid'.”
Darren was restless before she had been on shore an hour. She would have preferred to set sail again the first instant the supplies were loaded, but sundown was approaching and she was too much a sailor to risk the rocky inlet in the dark. Instead, she grudgingly told the crew that they would spend the night in the little cove.
Regon and Kash made up for the lost time by unshipping the rudder and scrubbing it clean of barnacles and dangling wisps of seaweed. As they did it, Darren stomped around and around them, giving lots of advice that they clearly didn't need.
“Talks a lot, doesn't she?” Holly observed, as we watched from the ship. “She always thinks that things are going to fall apart without her. Here, have some more cider.”
“She's a noble,” I shrugged, as she refilled my cup. “You're not Kilan- you might not understand. Blood is right and blood is rank ...”
“ Blood alone is rulership ,” she said, finishing the quotation. “I've heard that. Sometimes, Darren needs a gentle little reminder that things don't work that way around here.”
“I can imagine.” I raised my voice. “Darren, will you leave those poor men alone? They've got it under control!”
She glanced up at me, irritated. “I'm making sure that-”
“You're just stepping on their feet.” (By now Regon and Kash were hiding their smiles.) “Give them some room.”
Darren folded her arms crossly, but she also backed off. As she wandered further down the beach, I could hear her muttering something about checking the stores.
Holly and I watched her go. “I've never really understood it,” she said presently. “It doesn't seem to make much sense- this obsession with blood-lines.”
“It doesn't,” I agreed wholeheartedly. “But that's how it is. The most important thing for any Kilan lord is to make sure that their line continues. They can lose their thrones, you know, if they're childless.” A breeze touched the aspen, and I shivered. “For Darren's father to have had to banish a full-grown child- that must have been quite the kick in the teeth.”
Holly sipped her cider. “Is it very dangerous for her to do what she's doing? I mean, going back to the islands after her banishment?”
“Yes,” I said flatly. “She's an exile. In the eyes of the nobles, she isn't even human. They could do anything to her and still be within the law. Kill her. Sell her. Paint her green and show her at fairs. Anything.”
Darren's restless prowling had taken her near the stern of the ship, and something there caught her attention. She squinted, then backed away and took a good look. Then she marched back towards us with purposefulness in every taut line of her body. “Kid?”
“It's ‘Lynn.' And yes?”
“You want to explain why my ship has the word BADGER painted in giant letters on the stern?”
“Oh. That's the ship's name now.”
“You NAMED...my ship?”
“A pirate queen's flagship needs a name.”
“My only ship! My ONLY ship! Not my bloody flagship! And what kind of a name is Badger ?”
“Not sure; I was in the throes of inspiration. But it definitely looked like a Badger . Regon agreed.”
She wheeled. “Regon, you're part of this...this conspiracy?”
“Well,” he said reasonably, as he tossed a barnacle over his shoulder, “someone had to do the actual painting. She couldn't reach.”
“She told you to paint BADGER on the ship, and you just trotted off and did it ?”
“Not right away,” Holly said, raising her cider cup. “He had to wait for Lynn to write down the letters first. And then she had to get the paint from me.”
The noises that Darren made right then sounded like a kettle that had been left too long on the fire.
“Now look,” she said. “Who's in charge here?”
She tromped off with the last tatters of her dignity. Holly waited until she was out of earshot before speaking.
“She hasn't figured it out yet,” she murmured. “Has she?”
“Give me time,” I protested, stretching out my arms luxuriously. “It's early still.”
“True, but I find it's better to get them over the hump as soon as possible. More cider? It's getting a little chilly.”
It was very late when Darren came to our makeshift cabin, and her eyes were red-rimmed with drink. As she unbuckled her cutlass and set it on the floorboards, her movements were slow and deliberate. I sat up in my blankets, and waited.
At last, she said: “You know that we're leaving tomorrow.”
“So...you'll be wanting to get down on shore.”
I tugged at a fistful of my hair- how long was this going to take? “I'm your chained, helpless prisoner,” I pointed out for the sixtieth time. “How am I supposed to do that?”
She rubbed her forehead as if it was aching. “What if I suddenly decide to be merciful, and let my chained, helpless prisoner go free?”
“Oh, I don't think you'll do that,” I said absently, tugging at my hair again. There seemed to be a bit too much of it; it was shaggy at the back. “I need a trim here,” I told Darren. “Lend me your dagger?”
She drew it automatically, and then there was the shade of a smile. “Isn't it a bad idea to give a dagger to a slightly deranged prisoner?”
“There, now. Who said you were unteachable? You'll have to do it for me.”
Darren lifted her hands. “I'm not going to do that!”
“Because it's dangerous, that's why not.”
“Come on, I trust you.”
“I don't. Besides, you don't have all that much hair as it is.”
“I like it short.”
“You look like a boy. But if you insist , I've got some scissors around here somewhere.”
She rooted around- it took her a minute or so. The shears that she came up with in the end were long and blunt and rusty and didn't look any safer than Darren's well-sharpened dagger, but she seemed happy with them, so I let it pass. I scooted around so that my back was to her. Absent-mindedly, she braced a doubled-up knee against me, to get leverage, and I leaned against it.
“I mean it,” she said in between deliberate snips. “Even if I'm ruthless and pitiless, I might decide to let you go.”
I cocked my head thoughtfully. “You could, of course. But you're a pirate queen. The captain of the formidable Badger. Even if you feel in a merciful mood, you can't do something that would erode your fearsome reputation.”
“Hold still. I nearly chopped off your ear. And even pirate queens let prisoners go sometimes. I'd think.”
“Hey, which of us is the expert on pirate queens? Besides. By now I'm so bitter about my captivity that, if you ever let me go, I would probably just raise an army of deranged ex-slaves and come after you. And kill you elaborately when you least expect it.”
“Hold still, I said.” She grabbed the top of my head in one big hand. “Someday you're going to have to tell me what you're bitter about. How do you kill someone elaborately, anyway?”
“Well, I have a few ideas. One involves marmalade.”
“Another involves ten underripe mangoes and a rat on a stick. You said ‘someday', by the way.”
The snipping stopped. “I never-”
“You said I would have to tell you someday what I was so bitter about. And I will. But someday isn't today. Good thing that I'm not going anywhere.”
There was the familiar sigh, and then she brushed wisps of hair from the back of my neck. “I still don't see why you want it so short.”
“Because I like it short.”
“For the love of- look at it.”
She held out one of the larger locks, and I studied it gravely. “Yes,” I agreed, after I felt I'd given it all the attention it deserved. “Yes, that is my hair.”
“It's so pale,” she said. “It looks like-” and from her frown, it seemed that she was summoning up every ounce of poetry in her soul. “It looks like wheat or something.”
“Look at you, spouting compliments to captives,” I said. “That's a pirate, all right.”
She smiled in spite of herself. Then she looked down at her hands.
“I know you,” I told her softly. “You're not a woman who just picks up slaves casually. And you're not a woman who would get rid of them casually either. You're not going to let me leave.”
She wasn't there when I woke up. Even while sleeping, I had braced myself, expecting her to have an eleventh-hour change of heart. It would be just like her to stick someone else with the job of getting me off the ship, and to go and lurk in the bushes herself until it was done. But Holly wouldn't be Darren's stooge- I hoped- and Regon and Teek were both at least a little bit afraid of me. Kash and Spinner, more than a little. If Darren wanted me gone, she would have to do it herself.
So I didn't panic as I looked around the empty cabin. I combed my hair, drank some water (Darren had left a flask), and then did some deep breathing exercises, waiting for the combat.
But after a few minutes I felt the thrum beneath my hand where it rested on deck, and then next moment my heart was leaping in my throat. Motion- the Badger was underway, moving under full sail. We were outside the narrow inlet, sweeping through the open seas.
Regon's face peeked through the doorway. “Are you decent?” he asked dutifully.
“You're supposed to ask that before you look in, you know,” I pointed out, as I tossed the blankets aside. “Where's the captain?”
“It's her turn at the tiller,” he said, as he stooped to unlock my ankle chain. “She wants to know if you're so cowed and terrified that she can force you to help with the cooking.”
“I don't know,” I said doubtfully. “Is she looking very ruthless?”
His smile looked like a crease in an old saddle. “Most ruthless that I've ever seen her.”
“Then I'm duly cowed. Let me get at the supplies and I'll see if I can make a duff that tastes a little better than Kash's boots.”
The weather was worse on that second crossing, and we were heading into the wind, but everything around me was so fascinating that I barely noticed.
It only took me a week or so to get the hang of the cutlass. In terms of structure, a cutlass is like a big butter knife, and it's not much harder to use. Within a few days, I could make it swing and whistle through the air in a manner most gratifying, while Darren stood by tolerantly (if she was in a good mood), or disapprovingly (if she wasn't).
“If you really want to be able to fight,” she would say, “I mean really , then you should be working on your upper body strength.”
“But where's...the fun...in that?” I would pant in reply. “Watch this, I'm going to do the stab-behind-the-back thing.”
Darren had argued that, by now, I must be sufficiently terrified of her to not try to escape during the day, at least. I had agreed, after due consideration, so I was unchained as I pranced around the deck wielding Darren's weapon. It made a nice change. Before long, though, I discovered something much more interesting than the cutlass.
Darren, in the rare moments when she wasn't busy, had a habit of staring out at the horizon pensively. (It was on my list of things to break her of.) When she was standing and staring, her hand often slipped into her pocket and pulled out a coil of thin leather cord, which she would work between her fingers, tugging at loops of it, winding it into elaborate knots.
It was this leather cord that she must have used to bind me on the day when we first met, and, now that I thought about it, it was a little strange that she had had it so readily to hand. So one night when she was sleeping, I pinched it from her pocket to have a look-see.
There was a full moon that night, and the dim blue glow trickled down from the galley stairs, and through gaps between the warped planks. I positioned the cord in the best of the light. It was braided sinew (from a bear, I later discovered), smooth and shiny with use. Uncoiled, it was a few feet long. At either end, a small bone bead kept the braid from unravelling. I tugged at the ends experimentally.
“Not for playing,” Darren's voice came sleepily from the blankets.
I tugged at it a few more times anyway. It was incredibly strong. “It's a garrotte, isn't it?”
I made a loop in the sinew and imagined slipping it over a man's head. He would buckle almost immediately when it was tightened; you could kick him in the back of the knees to hasten the process. Then when he fell, his full weight would be added to the strength of the pull. This garrotte wasn't wire; it wouldn't cut the windpipe right away. But it was a weapon you could use to focus your strength, or to make up for your lack of it. To defend yourself or to kill.
Darren propped herself up on one elbow. “Lynn, please.”
I coiled it carefully and handed it back before I flopped down beside her. “Teach me to use it?”
Her eyes had slipped shut again; groggily, she shook her head. “'Snot like a cutlass. No way to practice with it safely...”
“How did you learn?”
“Post,” she yawned. “Padded post.”
“So we'll set up a padded post. Honestly, do I have to do all the thinking around here?”
Darren didn't answer. Her chest rose and fell. Then she said, “If this ship gets boarded, we're all dead.”
There was the self-mockery in her tone. The anger directed only at herself. I waited, and the next words were halting.
“I'm scared shitless every time I leave that harbour. Every time we head back to Kila. Every time...”
I waited long minutes, motionless, but there was nothing more. She slept, or more likely, pretended to sleep. I didn't see any prospect of doing that myself, so I filched the garrotte from her again and practised knots.
I'm not stupid. And more than that, my mind works in a particular way. Whenever I get to a new place, the first thing I check to see is how well it could be defended, if it came to that. The Badger , as I've said, was a trader. It was light, fairly fast, but not exceptionally so. Darren's only choice in Kilan waters was to stay far away from any other ship. A workable strategy if she was just passing through now and again. But she was making repeated trips between the islands and the mainland, rescuing refugees. The sea she had to cross was crammed with galleys, and each of those galleys had a crew twice as big as the Badger which was itchy for action and hungry for plunder. They'd go after the trader whether or not they knew Darren was captaining it. And if someone did figure it out- well.
It was just a matter of time, and she knew it.
Her men knew it too, and I couldn't figure out why they were following along so tamely. They had all sailed with Darren for years before her banishment, that was true. But was that enough of a reason for them to keep heading straight into the centre of the storm? Were they like Darren, possessed by some kind of stupid guilt that made them incapable of looking after themselves? Were they just do-gooders at heart? Or did serving on the Badger offer opportunities for profit that I hadn't yet seen?
At long last, I just asked Regon: “Why the hell do you follow her? What's in it for you?”
He scratched in the stubble of his beard for long moments before he responded. “I dunno,” he said.
Which made me suspect that I'd been overthinking the whole thing.
Darren shrugged when I told her. “That's Kila for you. Those sailors have been told all their lives to jump when a noble whistles.”
“They love you,” I objected.
“Oh, piss off.”
She was tense that day.
That wasn't surprising. As we got closer to the islands of Kila, she was just getting worse and worse. She slept badly, and rarely sat still for an entire meal. Halfway through, she pause in mid-mouthful, as if the bread or beef or beans had suddenly rotted on her tongue, and push her portion away and wander off to the rail. The rest of us would look at each other, and then return our attention to our food.
It wasn't bad food, either- I cooked now more often than not, since I still wasn't up to some of the harder work shipside. But she almost never finished. Teek and Regon would divide her share between them.
I knew our destination. I had ferreted it out of Spinner early in the voyage. We were headed for the far side of the islands, to work our way along the coast from Isla as far as the granite cliffs. Along the way, we would pick up anyone who wanted rescuing and then ferry them back to the mainland, to Jess and Holly and their protective hands, to their valley full of peace and plenty. It was a longer trip than the Badger had made before, I gathered, but the need was becoming acute on that side of Kila. War galleys were being sunk by the dozens and anyone with a pulse was liable to be conscripted as a rower. Teek and Regon had stories of the things they had seen: seven-year-old boys chained to oars, old men being dragged from their beds as they begged to be allowed to die at home, families murdered over a few dried fish.
During the daytime, I mostly managed to keep Darren distracted. But one evening, I caught her vomiting over the rail when she thought no-one could see. I know what it looks like when you vomit from sheer terror. There's a lot of bile in it. I brought her some water. She took the cup from me and stared blankly at the ripples on the surface.
“You must think I'm an idiot,” she said abruptly.
“Well, frankly, Mistress, yes. But you're the very best kind of idiot.” I tugged at her sleeve. “Come on. Bedtime.”
After she chained me up that night, she paced up and down the tiny cabin- two and a half steps either way.
“Okay,” she said at last. “How about I take your shoes?”
I was getting dizzy watching her. “What will that accomplish?”
“So that you can't run. Hard to run without shoes. You'll have to stay on board where the decks are smooth. So I won't ever have to bother with chaining you to anything.” She nodded, satisfied. “I think that'll work. Don't you think that'll work?”
There were a few seconds of silence.
“Don't you?” she asked, crestfallen.
“It's a good plan, Darren,” I told her, as gently as I could. “It's a very good plan.”
Her shoulders sagged. “But?”
I lifted a bare foot, and wiggled my toes at her.
“Oh cripes.” She sank down and raked her fingers through her hair.
“It was a good plan,” I said, still trying to reassure her. “You're getting closer.”
“You don't wear shoes? Ever ever?”
“Fishing village, remember? It's not as if the nobles came through distributing footwear.”
“It wasn't your fault.”
“I know it wasn't my fault.”
“Well, don't be embarrassed. You'll think of something.”
The next morning, we reached Isla.
If I have a special sense, it's the ability to detect trouble. I might not be good at getting out of the way once I've sensed it- and in fact, some would argue otherwise- but I do know when it's coming. And I knew, that day, what we were going to find. I knew it before the charred husks of huts showed up against the green of the horizon. Before a thing that looked like a whale skeleton reared above them- what must once have been a granary.
As the ruins of the village grew nearer, Regon joined me silently at the rail- then Kash and Monmain, and finally all the crew except for Teek, who stood as ever, solid and implacable, at the tiller.
The final touch was the seal carcass that had washed up on the village beach. It slapped heavily on the damp sand as the tide rolled it a few inches forward, a few inches back. Gulls, tearing at the eyes, hopped daintily whenever the corpse moved beneath them.
There are dead villages, and then there are villages that happen not to have any living occupants. Isla was dead, carrion. No-one would live in this boneyard until a century's worth of trees had grown and fallen and rotted to soil above it.
Monmain and Kash, sombre as gravediggers, put down the anchor. Long before they were done, Darren was lowering the small boat into the water, trying to work both winches herself and generally making a hash of it. Teek, still silent, joined her, and then the others, one by one. When Kash, the seventh, climbed in, his weight pushed the gunwale of the small boat almost level with the sea. Regon shook his head warningly at Spinner and me, the only ones left on deck, and pushed off from the Badger with his oar.
Spinner and I looked at each other. We had identical, skull-like, uncontrollable grins.
“It shouldn't take them long,” Spinner said.
“No,” I agreed. “But we might as well keep busy.” I had stolen a set of bone dice from Darren the night before, and now I took them from my pocket. “Come on, have a seat. Do you know how to play koro? Never mind, I'll teach you.”
The small boat came clanking against the Badger 's side before we were done with our second round of koro. Spinner wasn't a very quick student, and my mind wasn't on the game either.
Darren was on board first. She virtually rolled over the side, her chest heaving like a half-drowned swimmer. At some point, in her pain and rage, she had bitten her own arm, and a trickle of blood was making its way unhurriedly down from the puncture marks. She went straight for the tiller and gripped it with both hands. To try to stop herself from hitting something, I guessed.
Without warning, she drove her own head against the wood, three times- crack, crack, crack.
I started forward, unthinking, but Regon caught my elbow.
“She just hit bottom,” he muttered in warning. “I don't know if anything can bring her out of it. Apart from a damn good bollocking.”
Darren was still folded over the tiller, her whole torso wrenching in silent sobs- or mybe she was just gagging. “Well, then,” I said, “a bollocking she shall have. See if you can keep the others out of the way.”
Once I'd gotten her down to our cabin, I tried to start the conversation off. “So, Mistress, you-”
“Not one of our better-”
“- shut up,” she went on without pause, “shut up , don't say anything, don't say one goddamn word, dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit-”
“If I were Jess,” I began, “I would be bloody furious round about now.”
“Do NOT say that name.”
“ If I were Jess ,” I continued, raising my voice, “I would be furious . And why? Because you left me in the first place to go and chase ghosts and corpses around Kila? No, if I were Jess, if I knew you that well and loved you that much, I would know you were too damn noble to let people hurt when there was something you could do to prevent it. I would understand that if you stayed in the valley, surrounded by peace and happiness and crocks of honey, it would burn you up inside until you couldn't bear living.”
Her fist crashed into the wall, and then she winced and discretely shook it out. I let her take a second before I went on.
“Jess understands. She does , Darren. So does Regon. So do I. So does everyone. You couldn't have made a different choice and continued to be yourself. You had to come back to Kila.” I paused. “You did a number on that fist, didn't you? Give it here.”
Darren must have been dazed; she let me take her hand and inspect the shreds of skin dangling from her raw, bloody knuckles. I clucked impatiently, found a handkerchief and began to wrap it.
“But here's the thing, Darren , ” I continued. “If I were Jess then I would understand why you couldn't spend your life with me. But I would be royally, mortally, pissed if you just threw that life away.”
Mechanically, she pulled her hand away from me. “I'm not-”
“ You are, Darren . Never mind the fact that you throw yourself into every suicidal situation you can find, you won't even give yourself permission to live. No matter what you do, who you help, you twist yourself in knots- you hurt yourself, Darren - thinking of the people you didn't help.”
“I never do enough,” she said; her voice was hoarse, from a throat scraped raw. “It's never enough-”
“ You cannot save all of Kila by yourself.”
“It's my damn responsibility to-”
“ You cannot save all of Kila by yourself.” Now I was screeching. “ You stupid, beautiful, heroic, sulky, overgrown child, you cannot !”
I broke off, my chest heaving, and rubbed my face with the sleeve of the linen shirt that used to belong to Holly. Darren's eyes were wide and baffled. From the deck, there was total quiet, where there should have been creaking and grunting and swearing and the bark of orders, and I wondered how many of the men were listening in.
“You do as much as you can with the tools you have,” I went on once I'd caught my breath. “If you want to do more, you have to be more.”
“Be what?” she said, sarcastic and kind of rude. “A pirate queen?”
“Sure,” I said steadily. “You could do that, you know. You could capture other ships, larger ships, warships, and build a fleet. Recruit renegade sailors to defend you as you go about your good works. Loot the flotillas of rich merchants to provide for the poor. You'd end up in some morally suspect situations, for sure, but you could also help more people. You might even help end the war. Or you can just keep doing the smaller jobs in the Badger, with men you know and trust. It's up to you, but whatever your decision, don't beat yourself over the head with it. You don't have to take the world on your shoulders, just because you're a noble.”
It actually seemed to be sinking in. She let out a long sigh, and I suspect that a few unhelpful thoughts and emotions went out with it. Her eyes closed, and her face became almost mild. And I felt my guard slipping. That was a mistake.
“I was a little distracted when I came on board,” she said, as if casually, “but I thought I saw you and Spinner playing something. Knucklebones?”
“No,” I said, surprised, “we were playing koro.”
“You can play koro,” she said.
“Of course I can play-” I began without thinking. Then stopped. The bottom dropped out of my stomach.
Darren's eyes were open just a slit. “You can play koro, the ‘Game of Kings.' And you can read, and write. Well enough to spell Badger , at least. And you don't mix up your pronouns and you don't swear every time you open your mouth. You're awfully well-educated, Lynn. At least for a peasant girl who grew up in a fishing village in the centre of bugtussle. There are things that you're not telling me.”
A million panicked voices were yammering away inside my skull. I had only moments to think of a distraction, and the one that I came up with probably wasn't my best ever.
“Hey, look!” I blurted, pointing behind her. “Pie!”
Well, that didn't work.
“Really, there are all kinds of possible explanations,” I said, talking a little too fast. “Maybe I'm not a peasant at all, did you ever think of that? Maybe I was born to a rich merchant family in Kafiru and was educated along with a nobleman's daughter. Maybe the civil war started when I was thirteen and my parents smuggled me out to a distant village in the care of a faithful retainer. Maybe the faithful retainer eloped with a fisherman's wife of loose morals and took all the money and abandoned me there.”
She was inspecting my face as though there was writing there that she had to decipher a word at a time.
“Maybe I'm just a really smart peasant,” I concluded. “ You don't know.”
“You are...” she started wonderingly, and then shook her head and started again. “You are a very strange little person, do you know that, Lynn?”
I shrugged. “But you wouldn't have it any other way, right?”
“I wouldn't go quite that far,” Darren said slowly. “But I don't hate it. I definitely don't hate it.”
As an invitation, it was lukewarm at best. But patience is not my strong suit. Without giving myself the time to think about it, I closed the distance between us. She only took one step back- probably because that step took her up against the wall. But the panic on her face seemed like the good sort. I assume you know what I mean when I talk about the good sort of total, mindless fear.
“Lynn,” she said. “Are you-”
“Yes, yes, yes I am,” I answered, slipping my hands into her trouser pockets. “The question is, are you?”
She licked her lips.
She didn't move.
That was enough of an answer
This would have been a much better distraction, I realized, belatedly, once my lips were on hers. But I only dwelt on it for a moment, since other matters now required my full attention.
As you can imagine, I overslept the next morning. When I first woke, the hold was hot and damp rather than cool and damp and I judged that it was about noon. The blankets beside me were empty, but the depression where Darren had rested was still warm to the touch. She had gotten up not long before. I grinned into the blankets, turned over and went to sleep again.
My second sleep wasn't nearly as pleasant as the first. There were strange sharp-edged dreams that rattled back and forth in my brain, pictures that didn't attach to each other: bitter-green fish with teeth like icicles, men with rats instead of hands. The visions all blended and fell, blended and fell, rolled over me in a great dark wave, and I was left somewhere dark and airless, with one thing, one thought thudding at my mind like the beat of a drum: They will find you, they will get you back, they will find you -
The heat was more oppressive, now. The heat was terrible.
“Leave me alone,” I could hear myself saying, “damn your blood, can't you just leave me alone?- ”
“Wake up. There's no time.”
My eyes snapped open. Darren was a blur of furious motion around the cabin: snatching up her cutlass, sheathing a long dagger in each boot. Each motion quick and precise, never a fumble. You might think it strange that she wasn't afraid, but there's always an air of unreality right before violence erupts. That five minutes before a battle are like the five seconds after you fall out of a boat, when you feel like you might just be able to walk on water.
As soon as she saw me looking, her hand flew to a pocket and came out with the key to my leg chain. She threw it down beside me and it bounced three times against the boards, tink- tink- tink.
“Get loose,” she tossed at me as she raced for the stairs. “Hurry up.”
Still half-asleep, I sat upright, groping for the key. I wanted to refuse, yell at Darren, demand an explanation- but then there came a roaring in my ears, as though I had suddenly recovered from deafness, and a wave of sounds crashed at me. That hollow booming from the curved side of the ship- that was another ship alongside, colliding against us. There were creaks and howls as the men from that ship poured onto ours, battle roars, the shring of cutlasses, and then a thud I could feel through the planks as a body hit the deck hard. All of a sudden, I was wide awake, and all of a sudden too, Darren's suggestion didn't seem so completely ridiculous. I knelt down and fumbled with the chain on my ankle, but my hands were sweating and the key slipped from them. I scrabbled on the bare planks, felt metal- but the next second felt it slipping sideways into a crack between two planks- and under my searching fingertips, it fell all the way through.
The key was gone. Unbelieving, I rattled the manacle on my ankle. It held firm, of course. I wouldn't have settled for anything less. I scooted along the length of the chain and yanked at the end where it was bolted to a deck support. Regon had assured me that it wouldn't come loose. Unfortunately, he was right.
I was beginning to wonder whether perhaps I had been a little bit stupid when a body came crashing down the stairs from the deck, landed heavily on its side, rolled twice and lay still.
It was Darren. There were two bloody slashes on her that I could see, one along the ribs and one on her shoulder, plus the bruises and scrapes from her trips down the stairs, and a swelling, gory lump. But there was a quivering beneath her eyelids. She wasn't gone yet.
Yet. Yet. Shadows at the doorway paused, looking down at Darren's body, and moved away. The battle was still crashing away overhead, and whoever our attackers were, they had decided that they could deal with Darren after they brought down the rest of the crew. That gave me time. Perhaps five minutes. Five minutes to figure out how to save Darren when I was unarmed, chained to the deck, and half the size and weight of any of our attackers.
Blankly, I stared at the floor. There were footprints on it, Darren's footprints. The waves must have been high that day, wetting the decks up top, because, when she had rushed around the cabin getting her weapons a bare quarter-hour before, she had left footprint-shaped puddles of seawater. A quarter-hour before, Darren had been upright and walking; now she was prone on the boards. In all likelihood, someone would tramp down in five minutes and casually stab her where she lay.
Those two pictures on top of each other- Darren whole and walking, Darren prone and bleeding- nearly made me scream at the top of my lungs.
Yet it was those patches of sea water that gave me the idea.
It was absolutely and without question the stupidest idea I had ever had, and six months before, I would never have considered doing such a thing. Not to save my life. But this was Darren's life- and that was different. I don't think I hesitated more than ten seconds.
Reaching out, I moistened my fingers, then brought them to my face and scrubbed my eyes. Within a few seconds, they were stinging viciously and though I couldn't check on the effect, I was sure that they were red and swollen. My clothes were next and as I tried to rip the cloth, I muttered curses that Holly's cast-offs were so well-made. I had to settle for tearing off a few buttons so that the shirt showed more than it should have. Last was my skin and here again I didn't give myself time to think. I scratched three nails along the length of my face, from forehead to chin, leaving open scratches that were soon beaded by tiny drops of blood. I bit my shoulder close to the breast, not managing to break the skin, but the tooth marks looked deep and convincing. I wanted to try for finger-shaped bruises on one wrist, but now the clamour on deck had quieted. There were shouts, some laughing voices, but none I knew and I wondered briefly how many of Darren's crew had died- but now footsteps were approaching the steps again. No time for more artistic touches.
I was tearing up already, but just in case, I dipped my fingers in the brine again, and flecked a few drops on my cheeks, just below my eyes. Then I huddled on the boards, my arms crossed protectively over my stomach, and lay like a dead thing.
It took supreme effort not to look up as whoever-it-was reached the bottom of the steps, but I managed it.
“She's still out,” said a man's voice.
“From that little tap?” said a woman. “She always was a wimp.”
Her accent was refined, cultured. This was another noblewoman, the captain of the attacking ship.
“Want to wait for her to wake up before you finish it?”
“I don't think that's necessary.”
There was a creaking step as one of them moved forwards. That was my cue. I let out a choking, terrified sob.
I wasn't prepared for how fast the woman moved. Half a second later she was at the cabin doorway, bloody rapier upraised. My panic wasn't all an act as I scrambled backwards, away from her, as far as the chain would allow- cowered against the side of the boat, and peeped at her from behind my fingers. She assessed me, and the tip of the rapier lowered.
“Darren's got an on-board whore?” she asked lightly. “I didn't think that she had it in her.”
I wet my lips before stammering out, “Is she dead?”
She glanced over her shoulder. “Nearly. Oh, by the way-”
One second she was nowhere near me, and the next second she had given me a vicious cuff on the side of the head, and the pain was like red-hot pincers. My hand flew to my ear, cradling it, as her face loomed over me. “I am the Lady Mara, of the house of Namor. Don't let the formalities slide, just because we're on a boat.”
The circumstances didn't bode well for my relationship with Mara in any case, but I truly think that I would have disliked her- instinctively, immediately- wherever and whenever we had met. It was the voice, the spoiled sweetness of it. That, and something about the eyes.
“I'm sorry, my lady,” I said automatically. My teeth were chattering, in spite of the heat. “But- please- my lady, are any of the others dead?”
There was a flicker of interest in those eyes now. “Just one, unfortunately. The big one with ears like a monkey.”
Oh, Kash. I didn't let myself show any sign of the grief that came stabbing that moment- especially as Mara continued to talk.
“We're not supposed to be wasting sailors these days- they're in short supply, or something like that. We're supposed to conserve them during fights. It makes things horribly boring. But now I'd like to know-” There was a flash of that viper-fast movement again, and then she was holding my chin tightly between finger and thumb. “Just why exactly are you interested, little girl?”
I closed my eyes for a whisper of a moment, rummaged around me for all the hatred and fury I'd ever felt in my first seventeen years, and forced it all into my voice: “I want them dead. I want them all dead. Especially her .”
She patted my cheek. It felt like getting slapped. “Be careful what you wish for, now. I'm going to kill her, yes, but you may end up looking back fondly on your time here. There are worse jobs in Kila these days than being chained to Darren's bed. Such as being chained to mine. And that's one of the few careers open to you at the moment.”
I let a trickle of injured hauteur enter my tone. “But Lady Mara, you don't understand, you can't do that!”
She grabbed me by my injured ear this time, and I couldn't stop myself from crying out as she yanked it upwards. “What makes you think you can tell me what to do, peasant?”
“But...that's...just...it!” I pled, blinking the tears out of my eyes. “Not a peasant- I'm not a peasant...”
She let go of my ear. I hit the boards with a bump, my hands hovering protectively near my face.
“Talk fast,” she said.
“I've been here almost four months,” I said quickly. “She kidnapped me, that pirate- she kidnapped me from the north island. From Bero.”
Her hands slapped down on my shoulders; her fingers dug in; she drew me close. “The House of Bain rules Bero,” she said. “Are you trying to make me laugh? Everyone knows that the lord of Bain only has one child.”
“That's me,” I said, through my rattling teeth. “I'm Ariadne. I'm his daughter.”
There were five frozen seconds then. I wondered whether she was going to laugh in my face. But then her legs straightened as though they had springs.
“Captain?” came the voice of Mara's crewman, from outside the cabin. “Everything all right?”
“Fine,” Mara said, her eyes not moving from me.
“The pervert's moving around a bit here, you want me to finish her?”
“No!” I cut in hastily. “No, please, you can't!”
Mara's hand twitched, and I flinched back, but she controlled herself. Even if she didn't entirely believe me, she couldn't risk inflicting more damage on the heir to such a powerful house as Bain. She had to content herself with saying, “I thought I pointed out that I dislike being told what to do. Besides, you want her dead.”
“My father has to execute her,” I said desperately. “Because I've been- taken, I've been sullied- he has to execute her himself to take the stain away. Please, he'll pay anything if you bring me back to him, and deliver her alive.”
She studied me. “I have a contract to get rid of Darren,” she said. “She's embarrassing her daddy. Now what do you think will happen to my reputation if I don't make good, hmm?”
“Darren is of the house of Torasan,” I said, with more than a little distaste. “Stribos is a miser and the bulk of his wealth comes from salmon fishing . My father Iason of Bain will take any fee you name, and triple it, and fill your ship with silver besides. Please,” I said, gathering strength for the ultimate appeal. “ I am his only child . If it's known that I'm gone, he'll lose everything.”
There was a faint smile on Mara's lips now. Her hand moved, and I flinched again, but it just ruffled my hair lightly.
“You stay put, now,” she said. “Don't move a muscle.” Then she moved outside the cabin, and her steps creaked up the stairs, followed an instant later by the more hulking steps of the other sailor. I closed my eyes, slowed my breathing, and listened as hard as I could.
“If that girl is really Ariadne,” came Mara's oily tone, “then she's worth her weight in diamonds.”
“Yes, but-” the man's voice hesitated- “do you believe her, Lady Mara?”
“I'm not sure,” Mara admitted. “Maybe I should check and see whether she can play koro.”
The voices moved further up the stairs, and away. Gingerly, I touched my ear- it really hurt, though I'd had worse- and then edged across the floor to Darren. Stretching the chain to its full limit, I just managed to reach her. Most of her injuries looked worse than they were. The only dangerous one was the bump on her head. It was fever-hot, and sticky with blood, but she'd live.
“Ow,” she muttered.
My fingers froze. “Were you listening?”
“Do you know this woman? Mara?”
“Distant cousin. Bounty hunter. Totally insane. Is it true, what you told them? About you and the House of Bain?”
I sighed. “No. And- yes. And no. It's complicated. Can we go with ‘no' for now?”
“I met Lord Iason once,” she murmured. “Didn't like him. He smiled too much.” Her breath went in and out with a painful rattle. “I remember though- his hair. Very pale. Like wheat.”
“Darren,” I said firmly, “focus.”
I hauled her into a sitting position and checked quickly for broken bones, then did my best to comb blood-stiffened hair away from her forehead. “You're a mess. Never mind. Are you listening?”
“Gah,” she said, with a shake of the head. I decided to take that as a “yes.”
“Darren, that barrel has oil in it- no, not that one, that one- the one I'm pointing at- would you look up, please?- thank you- yes, that barrel there. I need it. Get the bung out for me.”
Oh, well. Sometimes pirate queens need a bit of extra encouragement, and don't we all? I took her face between my hands, carefully, and kissed both of her eyes. The sound she made was something like a squeak.
Then I turned her head to the side, careful not to touch the lump again, and spoke right in her ear. “Get on with it, Mistress.”
Grey-blue eyes, wide and staring in the dark. Then, without warning, they narrowed. Focused.
Her boot-heel lashed out and struck the bung of the barrel neatly in its centre. It shot back into the barrel's depths, and oil began to spill over the floor in long, slow gloops . I scooted over to the puddle, took a handful of the stuff, and carefully rubbed it over my ankle and foot. I took another handful and dribbled it into the space between the shackle and my skin.
Darren had the idea, now. “Flex your foot,” she said. “Straighten it as far as you can.”
I flexed and she took the shackle between calloused hands. “This might hurt,” she warned.
“I know. Do it fast.”
She yanked. There was a single wrenching second when I thought my tendons would all snap and the flesh rip, but then my greasy foot shot out of the cuff. Darren flew backwards, just managing to catch herself on her elbows.
We both froze, listening. There was a creak creak on the planks near the stairs, as though someone was hovering indecisively. Mara was still dithering. We had a little time.
I helped Darren up again. She moved jerkily, wincing once she was on her feet. “I don't think I'm going to be able to do much fighting,” she warned.
“You don't have to,” I said. “Just come here a second.”
I plunged a hand in her pocket (she squeaked again) and as I had hoped, my fingers closed on the garrotte. They hadn't noticed the thin coil of sinew when they disarmed her. I tied a careful slip-knot in it, as I had been taught, and then pulled it over my head.
I handed both ends to Darren, and watched her eyes widen as she realized what I was asking her to do. I hastily held up a finger. “Don't argue! Just try not to faint when we go up there.”
Her hands were shaking. “Lynn,” she said, “oh hell and damnation, Lynn, this is such a bad idea.”
“It won't be if it works. Besides, I don't have a choice.”
“I guess not,” she said, and then she licked her lips. “You know- you remember that day, back in your village? When you told me that I didn't have the right to make the choice for you? Have you been getting your revenge on me ever since?”
“Nooooo,” I said doubtfully, drawing out the word. “Or maybe I was in the beginning- but- I've always known that choices are overrated. Back when I was living in that godforsaken fishing village, I had to make choices all the time. Where to look for food. Where to hide when the raiders came through. That sort of thing. But none of it mattered. Nothing I could choose to do would improve things, or save anyone, or change anything. I had plenty of choices, but I had no control. It's been like that all my life.”
“And after I took you?” Her face was bare and inscrutable in the darkness.
“After you took me, it was exactly the opposite. Can't you see that?”
“I think so,” she said slowly. “I think I do. So you don't want a choice about- well- whether to stay with me?”
“Let's say that I don't need one.” I did my best to smile at her, though my throbbing ear was sending hot jolts through my head. “How about we get this over with?”
Painfully, she straightened her back. “Once we start with this, we can't stop for a break. It might get kind of intense.”
“I can handle it,” I promised.
She studied me. “Yeah, you can, can't you?” she said. Her shaking hand brushed a loose hair from my cheek. “Guess I just need to worry about myself, then. Let's get on with it.”
She wound the garrotte around her left hand, and took my shoulder in her right. Then- her striding, me stumbling before her- we headed up the stairs.
The sunlight was blinding- could it be much later than noon? For a second, I could see nothing but a white glare and misty shapes moving up and down on the bobbing deck. Then things came into focus: Darren's crew, disarmed and bound, were kneeling next to the rails. Teek had lost half an ear, and Regon was bent over a stomach wound, but those were the worst injuries. Mara's crew was grouped around them. Mara herself leaned casually on the tiller- deep in thought, it seemed. Kash's body- huge, sprawled, leaking, horrible- lay propped against the mast. The whole scene was overshadowed by the war galley lashed to the Badger's right side. When I staggered, and caught at the cord around my own neck, I wasn't acting. The swaying deck, the spray, the bright splashes of blood over the boards, made everything seem more than a little unreal- a dream of a dream, the memory of a memory.
Darren, fortunately, was on top of things. “Get back!” she roared, and the sound made every hair on my head stand erect. “I can cut her throat any second I choose. GET BACK! DROP YOUR WEAPONS!”
At least five men lunged forwards instead. Mara clearly hadn't briefed them on the situation- but her voice rang out, “STOP!”
Her men were still instantly, recoiling. Mara walked up herself, using the tail of her shirt to wipe blood from her rapier.
“Well, well, Darren,” she said. “This is unusual behaviour for you.”
“I'll do it,” Darren grated, and her hand twitched. “One pull, and your big payout is in two pieces on the floor.”
“When you were a child , Darren, you wouldn't even hit your dog...”
Darren gave the garrotte a vicious yank. Actually, she didn't put any extra tension at all on the cord- she had tied the sinew to her wrist, and she yanked at the slack. But I gave a strangled gasp at the right moment and it must have seemed convincing enough, because the mocking look fell from Mara's face.
“You piece of scum,” Darren said, “you think you know anything about me? How have you been spending your time since the war began? Chasing down petty criminals and begging my father for scraps? You were a bitch when you were a child, Mara, and that hasn't changed, has it? You always need someone's feet to lick.”
For the first time, the smugness in Mara's eyes was gone. There was a tiny flame licking there.
“Big words,” Mara said, “for someone whose only ship is an eight-man trader.”
Darren laughed. “It's not in my interest to convince you of anything, Mara. But bear in mind that I made it past Iason's defences, his blockade, his entire navy, and got out again, with his daughter in my bed. Let's say that I have...resources.”
“You expect me to believe-” Mara began falteringly, and that falter said everything. The story was, of course, ludicrous. The House of Bain, at the time, had the best coastal defences of any state in Kila. It still does, as a matter of fact. But every word from Darren's mouth carried conviction. It was her stance, her swagger, her- everything.
Darren laughed again. “You think I'm frightened of Iason? I don't do anyone's dirty work these days, Mara. You're the bitch of the great and powerful, I am the pirate queen . And you've taken on more than you can handle.”
It was all I could do to not burst out cheering. Then Darren gave the cord another yank, and not cheering became easier.
“Now,” Darren said. “Are you prepared to lose a windfall like this?” She patted my head again. “Because if you want her, you can have her. I can get a new one. You'll just need to let me and my men go on our way.”
Mara barked a startled laugh. “I must admit, Darren- somewhere along the line, you developed balls of pure iron.”
Darren shrugged. “I think it's a fair enough trade. She's worth a king's ransom, of course, but I took her for more personal reasons- and let me say, she doesn't disappoint. You might want to try her out a few times at first before you take her home. I'm sure you can convince her not to tell.”
This was getting to be a bit much. Trying to look as though I was wrenching at the tight cord, I found Darren's hand and pinched her as hard as I could. She yelped, and then had to continue “YEES- that's the deal. And you've got ten seconds before I close it.” She raised her hand, the one with the end of the garrotte, to show what she meant, but she didn't apply pressure again.
The seconds ticked by. I could hear my own heartbeat.
“Very well,” Mara said at last. “How do you plan on doing this?”
“First step's easy. Unbind my men.”
Mara gave a short nod to her sailors, and several of them stooped by Darren's crew. It's a peculiar thing about sailors that they never cut ropes when they can untie them, so it was several minutes, as sweat-beats prickled on my forehead, before Darren's six surviving crewmen stood up. Regon was still hunched over his wound. He gave me a shaky smile.
“Now. Back up. All of you. Onto your own ship. Mara, you'll be last, and you can have her as soon as you cross over.”
One by one, they began moving. Even Mara was headed obediently backwards. The plan was working, so far as it went- the problem was, as I was beginning to realize, that it went no further. If Darren didn't let go of me, then Mara wouldn't back off. If Darren did let go of me, she would instantly lose her bargaining chip. There would be nothing to stop Mara and her men from swarming back over the Badger . None of our sailors had the strength for more than a token resistance, and Darren was already swaying on her feet.
This plan wouldn't accomplish anything. Mara, her hands raised, shuffling slowly back towards her war galley, knew that. Darren knew that too- I could tell when her hands suddenly sagged.
Which meant- I swallowed twice, and my head felt light and dizzy and heavy all at once- which meant that it was time for something drastic.
“Darren,” I whispered, my breath barely stirring the air, “can you hear me?”
“Yeah. Look, this is-”
“Doomed, I know. I have an idea. Loosen the garrotte, push me at Mara just as she's stepping over the side.”
The first of Mara's men were stepping over the rail, back onto their own ship. Darren's voice was tiny, desperate: “Please don't ask me to risk your life-”
“You're not,” I assured her, hoping that she wouldn't question that statement further. “Just- just trust me, okay?”
The sun beat down. Mara's sailors hopped the rails, one by one.
Finally Mara stood alone, Darren a few feet away, me between them.
Darren put her hand between my neck and the cord. Slowly, she loosened it. A smile was creeping around Mara's face.
“Step up onto the rail,” Darren instructed. Her voice was shaking, but not so you'd notice. Not unless you knew her well. “Step up, and- she's yours.”
Mara stepped, adjusted her balance, held out a hand. The nails looked like claws.
The loop of the garrotte lifted up and over my neck. Darren's hand reached for my back, as though she was going to push me- but it was just a caress. Her fingers still shook.
I stepped forwards, and Mara's hand closed around my wrist and pulled me up-
I'm not Darren. Never have been, never will be. Sacrifice comes as easy to Darren as navigation, but Darren, you see, is noble. Noble in the true sense, noble in her core, completely free of any kind of meanness or selfishness. I myself never wanted to suffer for others. I did enough suffering on my own behalf. I thought it was enough if I dealt with that.
What I found out, that moment, is that sacrifice is easy if you have a good enough reason.
I could still imagine Darren's hand on my back. It was enough.
The instant that Mara pulled me up, to the ship's side, I grabbed her around the waist with one arm- then locked my knees behind hers and bent them. Her balance was thrown; one foot came off the rail entirely. She staggered, tried to jump down to the deck of one of the ships, but I held tight and pushed off with both legs. Together we slipped, stumbled, down the canyon between the two ships, bashing against the sides, and then into the water. Shouts from above us, screams which I ignored.
Mara was lashing out, her scream a furious gargle. I snaked my arms around her and went limp, a dead weight, pulling us both under. The waters closed above our heads- a green milky spill with the sun bobbing on the surface. Our heads clanged against barnacled wood. Mara was tearing at my arms, striking at any flesh she could reach, but within a few seconds even the blows seemed very distant.
Then it grew darker. Darker, darker...
There followed a wonderful glorious time of nothing. It was soft and dim and peaceful, something like being dipped in black cream. But it didn't last. There was a terrible, crushing blow to my chest- like a mule had kicked it, a boulder dropped on it, like a bull had pinned me against a wall and was pushing, pushing, pushing. The black around me shattered into spiky pieces with razor edges that glittered before they embedded themselves at the back of my brain. I was forced to take a long strangled breath, which felt like inhaling a million red-hot tacks. My whole chest bucked. And the next instant, the donkey kicked me in the chest again. I only managed to give a weak gurgling kind of sound in protest.
“Breathe, damn you, breathe, breathe, breathe-”
It was Darren's voice and she didn't sound good. Through the headache and the chestache and the everything-else-ache, I tried to flop my hand a little to reassure her. My hand ached too, I discovered.
“Will you open your eyes, damn you! Damn you ! Open your goddamn eyes or I'm not going to be responsible for what happens next!” She was still pounding on my chest- it hurt as much as ever- and her words came out in time to the blows. “You- stupid- bloody- idiot- KID!”
My chest was about to cave in. I made a huge concentrated effort, and managed to pry one eye a slit open.
“Darren, stop, she's awake,” came Teek's voice, deep and reassuring- and then his horn-hard hands were there too, gently prying us apart. “It's all right, captain. You can stop. You can stop.”
She was breathing more heavily than usual. Has she been running, screaming, or crying? All three?
Without warning she lunged, twisted her hands in Holly's spare shirt, hauled me up, and gave me a bone-splintering hug that almost stopped my breathing again. Just as quickly she let go and I flopped back to the deckboards.
“ Ow ,” I complained, opening my eye a little wider this time.
Her face- red, her hair- wild; her eyes- wild; her tunic- damp and salt-crusted; her face- oh, this is pointless. You know. Or at least, you know if you've ever felt anything like it. It was the pure explosion of feeling, at least half madness, that makes you drunk and dizzy and elated and terrified all at once, and which, once felt, you want to feel forever. She took my face gently between her hands, and that was it, that was the moment, when the game was over for Darren, formerly of the House of Torasan. She had been claimed, and she knew it, and she was no longer interested in resisting it.
It had taken her long enough. But it was worth the wait. I let her ride out the emotion for a minute before I asked the obvious question. “Where's Mara?”
Darren made a subtle thumbs-down. “Spinner and Teek and I had a little fight over who was going to go in after you. By the time we got in, it was over. She must have swallowed a lot of water, screaming that way.”
“What about her crew?”
Darren glanced up, ruefully, and I followed her eyes. Mara's sailors were, again, on the deck of the Badger , but this time they were drawn up in respectful ranks, watching Darren attentively. They were obviously waiting for orders.
Blood is rank and blood is right, blood alone is rulership ...No-one even had to explain things out loud. With Mara dead, her crew automatically looked to Darren- the only other person around whom they knew to have noble blood. She might be an outcast, but she was the best available- and the only one who could navigate.
“Solves one problem, I guess,” she admitted. “But what am I supposed to do with that monstrosity?”
“The war galley? Isn't it obvious, Mistress? That's the next addition to your fleet.” I let Darren help me sit up. “In fact, I think that we should name it after me.”
“What?” She glanced at me sideways. “The Lynn ?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of the Idiot Kid .”
A long, weary while later, Darren and I finally got to go back down below. But even then she was brooding.
“You know, Ariadne,” she began.
“Don't call me that,” I said, cutting her off. “That's not my name.”
“You know, Lynn , they'd all follow you if they knew that you were Iason's heir.”
I shrugged. “I'm not...”
One eyebrow lifted.
“...really,” I finished limply. “I mentioned that it was complicated, right?”
“Is this one of the things that you'll tell me one day?”
“Probably. I hope so.” I flopped onto the blankets, wondering if I did in fact hope that I could tell her. When had that ever been something that I wanted to do? Well, whatever. I shrugged all that part of me away as I said, “Aren't you forgetting something?”
I pointed to the length of anchor rope that I had brought to the cabin earlier, and she shrugged. “What's that for?”
“That is because you lost the key to the chain. Which was pretty bloody careless of you, if you want to know the truth.”
“YOU lost the key,” she said automatically, and it was only after a second that she added, “Um, what? ”
I held out my ankle. “Get knotting. And you'd better make it good if you don't want me to slip loose in the middle of the night. Show off some of that sailor ingenuity.”
“Oh, you're not going to make me keep doing this...”
“You really don't know the first thing about being a feared and dreaded pirate, do you?” I petted her dark shaggy head as she crouched by my ankle, knotting the tarry rope around it securely. “Never mind. I'll get you there.”
“IF I don't go berserk and throw you overboard.” She swivelled so that she could tie the other end of the rope to a deck support.
“No, I don't think you'll do that,” I said serenely. “Besides, you won't have to keep me tied up much longer. Just until we design the mark.”
Her face came up, baffled. “Until we design the what now?”
“Your mark. The one you're going to put on me.”
“Wait, wait, WAIT. Are you talking about a brand? Because there is no chance I'm branding you. Not a flaming chance.”
“Damn right you're not branding me. Ow. You're tattooing me. Once I've had a chance to come up with the design. I wouldn't want one that looks stupid.”
“Lynn,” she said, finished now with the rope, as she sat on the blankets beside me. “Why the hell do you want me to tattoo you?”
“Because it's the simplest way to keep me from escaping. You mark me so that if I run, anyone who finds me will send me back. So obviously I won't bother to run.”
“Lynn, what happens next?”
She had never sounded so lost. Part of me wanted to stop, take her chin, make her look at me, explain. Explain how she worried about all the wrong things; explain to her why her guilt was needless; how I knew both what she wanted to be and what she could be- or I would never have bothered with her at all. I know you're tired, I wanted to say, I know you think everything rests on you. If you trust me, if you only trust me, I can make things get better, I will make things get better; I won't accept anything less.
But I wouldn't ask her to trust me that way. Not yet- just as there were things that she couldn't yet ask of me. For the time being, I would carry the weight for both of us- and I would simply give her what she needed.
“I'll tell you what happens next,” I said, as I took her shoulder and eased her back with me onto the blankets. “You keep me on this ship for oh, at least a couple of years, as I become an expert sailor and a proven fighter. You capture more ships, and expand your fleet, and your fame spreads wider and wider. Eventually- after years in your service- I learn to believe in you and your cause, and, though I'm still bound to serve you, I become your most trusted captain. Together we turn your fleet into the most powerful fighting force in the east- feared by the rich and guilty and loved by the innocent. Admirals surrender as soon as they catch sight of your flag; entire armadas betray their leaders and flock to your command. In the end, you don't even have to fight to take the islands. Hordes of people demand that you take your rightful place on the throne of the High Queen, and they welcome you with cries of joy. And I'm at your side as you walk into the palace.”
She looked at me- and she didn't roll her eyes, for a change. “Is that what's going to happen?”
As though the answer really mattered.
I shrugged. “You tell me, Mistress. You're in charge, after all.”
Then I took her by the back of the neck and pulled her to me.
(To be continued in Part Two: “What She Said.”)
Return to the Academy