- Pages: 332 Pages
- Series: Seafire
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Razorbill
- ISBN: 9780451478818
An Excerpt From
Copyright © 2018 Natalie C. Parker
Caledonia stretched along the prow of the Ghost as the ship sliced through black water. At night, the ocean offered only a dark reflection of the sky above, and the promise of a cold grave below.
Her mother, Rhona, crouched near, a rifle balanced on her knees, eyes surveying the sea road ahead. “Our way forward is marred. Do you see?” she said.
Caledonia studied the eddies in the water, searching for the signs that meant there were rocks ahead, or a sunken ship, unusual swirls, or a sudden chop of waves. Rhona was always the first to spot them, but Caledonia was getting better.
“Rocks,” Caledonia said, and without waiting for permission, she turned and called to her father where he stood on the bridge. “Three degrees port!”
The Ghost nosed south to avoid the sharp danger. On either side, familiar outlines of small islands rose around the ship. These were the waters of the Bone Mouth, a series of islands and rocky protrusions that offered flimsy sanctuary to anyone brave enough to sail them. They were treacherous in daylight, and nearly impassable at night, except by Caledonia’s mother, Rhona Styx, captain of the Ghost. Under her command, they sailed as smoothly as if on open blue waters.
Years ago, Rhona liked to remind her daughter, they wouldn’t have needed such stealth. When Rhona was a girl, she sailed from the colder northern currents, past the towering Rock Isles, all the way down to the Bone Mouth without any more danger than the occasional storm. Then, so gradually few noticed until it was too late, a man named Aric Athair had grown a fleet of ships armed and armored for taking and killing. His fleet of Bullet ships stretched in a violent chain across the only way in or out of these expansive waters. Anyone on the wrong side of his notorious Net found themselves bent under the pressure of his thumb.
Now, after years of dodging Aric Athair and his Bullets, and facing dwindling resources, Rhona had decided the time had come for their small band to punch through the Net. For months, they’d searched for the best way. They’d studied the Bullet ships from a distance and determined the weakest point was at the tip of the Bone Mouth, where even Aric’s ships were loath to sail. The Ghost could make it, but first they needed food—fruit, nuts, and meat if they could get it—to supplement their stores for the unknown waters beyond.
Tonight, they resupplied. But tomorrow night, they ran for the very last time.
“You and your brother prep for the shore run.” Rhona’s red hair rolled behind her, battling with the wind.
A small thrill straightened Caledonia’s spine. From the age of six, she’d campaigned for the responsibility of shore runs to be hers. Only in the last year had her mother finally conceded and assigned her the task. But as much as Caledonia cherished the trust her mother placed in her on those occasions, she knew her little brother hated those long dark rides to shore. He would spend the entire night terrified of being so far from the safety of their ship. “Let me take Pisces.” Caledonia climbed to her feet and followed her mother. “We’re a good team. Besides, Donnally’s too young for shore runs. He’s only twelve turns, you know.”
Rhona laughed her grizzly laugh. “You know this from all your experience?”
Caledonia pictured Donnally’s eyes tight with fear, his mouth pressed into a stoic line as he struggled not to disappoint their mother.
“I do,” she answered.
“Cala, the only way your brother will learn is by your side,” Rhona said with a sigh, but there was no fight in her words.
Mother and daughter skirted the bridge, then took turns sliding down the companionway ladder to the deck below. Even in the moonless dark, they knew their way easily around the Ghost. The ship had become a refuge for families looking to escape Aric’s rule. As their numbers grew, every inch of the ship was transformed to meet a variety of needs—masts supported sails and laundry lines, the galley was transformed daily from a mess hall to a bunk room, even the deck was host to stacked garden beds and two goat pens. While more than a dozen men and women were still topside at this hour, most of the crew was asleep in the small cabins below. There were lookouts posted forward and stern and up in the nest, but here in the Bone Mouth, the Ghost had never come across one of Aric’s Bullet ships at night. Bullets were vicious and bold, but most lacked Rhona’s seafaring skill.
Caledonia spied her brother crouched behind one of the four mast blocks studding the centerline of the ship, an overlarge jacket hulking around him like a gray cloud. He had their father’s dark hair, their mother’s fair complexion, and a nose that curled up at the tip, giving him a look of perpetual surprise.
The lines of a blunted arrowhead tattoo half-filled with black ink peeked out from beneath his curls. A matching one was drawn on her own temple. It was custom on the Ghost for parents to mark their children with unique sigils in case of capture. The mark would give those children the chance to find their family again someday.
“I’ll take him next time.” Guilt nudged at Caledonia. Her mother was right. The only way to prepare Donnally for the world was to take him into it, but sometimes she feared for her little brother. The gentle pinch in her mother’s eyes said she did, too.
“Donnally!” Rhona called. “Hoist your eyes, son!”
Donnally started, rocketing awkwardly to his feet before he managed to spot his mother and sister. He trudged across the deck at a reluctant pace, dark hair flopping in his eyes. He schooled his features when he asked, “Shore run?” But the note of tension in his voice gave him away.
“Yes, but not for you. Cala’s taking Pi, which means I want you and Ares on watch. Clear?” Rhona pointed toward the nest.
Donnally nodded eagerly. “Clear,” he said, giving Caledonia a grateful smile.
Rhona pulled her daughter into her arms, planting a kiss on her head. “Get the job done.”
“And get back to the ship,” Caledonia finished.
By the time they dropped anchor near an island they called the Gem, Caledonia and Pisces were prepped and ready to go. They climbed into the bow boat harnessed against the hull of the Ghost and lowered it to the water as they’d done a dozen times before.
With quick strokes of the oars they covered the distance be- tween their ship and the island. Recently, Pisces had grown several inches. She’d outgrown her little brother, Ares, and shot straight past Caledonia, and her height seemed to make her fearless. Pisces’s shoulders were broad and strong, her skin a warm, pale brown, and she wore her hair in four long braids. As they rowed, her eyes were full of excitement, focused on the island and its bounty, while Caledonia kept one eye on the black ocean.
“It’s too quiet. I don’t like it,” Caledonia said.
Pisces pulled in a deep breath and tilted a ready smile toward her friend. “It’s peaceful, like being so far underwater you can’t see the surface.”
“That’s called drowning. Only you would find that peaceful.”
Pisces laughed quietly to avoid unsettling Caledonia further.
Together they moored their boat in a sheltered cove, securing it in a thicket of tall grass. The girls split up to make their work faster, agreeing to meet back at the cove when their sacks were full. The path down the shore was narrow, the ocean as dark as the night sky and nearly as flat. Caledonia moved along the rocky tree line, stuffing fallen coconuts and bananas and jackfruit into the canvas sacks draped across her shoulders. There was enough that she could afford to be picky, though the more she gathered, the longer they’d be able to sail. No one knew what to expect when they broke through the Net. They might need to sail for days or months, and they needed to be prepared for both. People once said that beyond the Net were wide-open seas and towns where children weren’t forced into the service of a tyrant, but it was a world
Caledonia could not quite imagine.
The tide was low and the waves sluggish, burbling and hissing as they surged and receded. In their wake, the sand glittered with the pearlescent shells of burrowing crabs and the slick backs of beached jellyfish. From the dense forest came the looping songs of insects and tree frogs. Perhaps she would return with meat after all.
Footsteps, hurried and heavy, sounded behind her.
Caledonia’s heart tripped, her hands stuttered on the strap of her canvas bag, and she instinctively slipped through a fall of vines. There had been no other ships in sight for miles. These footsteps must belong to Pisces. They had to.
Still, the cadence of the steps refused to conjure the image of Pisces running, long black braids flying behind her.
Even away from the Ghost, the rules of the ship still applied. Number one: Never be seen. Caledonia stilled her breathing, adjusted her feet, and disentangled herself from the bag full of fruit. She would be ready to run. She would be ready to fight.
The steps grew louder and slower. A dark figure appeared: tall, muscled, male. Instead of racing past as Caledonia hoped he would, the boy stopped a few feet from her hiding place. His skin was suntanned and slick with sweat, his vest and pants lined with guns and clips of ammo. His bicep was marked by a single scarred line that even in the dark was bright orange, saturated with the Silt in his blood. He was a Bullet, a soldier from Aric Athair’s army.
Aric conscripted children, dismantling families in order to build his empire. Rogue families like Caledonia’s had taken to the water rather than see their children stolen and transformed into soldiers. But because they’d run, if they were ever captured, none would be spared. Not even the children. People more readily offered their children up as payment when they knew the only alternative was death for all.
This Bullet couldn’t be much older than Caledonia, seventeen at the most, but the mark on his bicep meant he’d already killed in service to Aric.
She smelled the salt of his sweat and the sharp pinch of gunpowder and something unrecognizable and sweet. Caledonia shivered.
The boy didn’t look at her, didn’t seem to be aware she crouched so near, her fingers inching her pistol from its holster. Instead, he began to do exactly what she’d been doing. He bent down and collected fruit.
She’d never seen a Bullet this close; her parents did their best to keep the Ghost as far from Aric’s fleet as possible. Over the years they’d outrun dozens of Bullet ships and collected as many families from other ships and outlying settlements, all while staying out of sight.
Rule number two: Shoot first.
Her pistol was in her hand, finger curled around the trigger. When the boy turned his back and kneeled to inspect a coconut, Caledonia had the perfect advantage. She would only need one bullet.
She raised her pistol and stepped quietly out of her hiding place.
The boy froze, dropping the coconut as he raised his hands. “Whoever you are, you have me,” he said.
Caledonia didn’t respond, her throat tight as she considered pulling the trigger.
“Would it make a difference if I asked you not to shoot?” the boy asked, face forward and eyes on the ocean. “If I begged for mercy?”
“Killing you would be a mercy,” she told the Bullet.
“Maybe so,” he said, voice at once piteous and resigned. “At least, if you’re going to kill me, let me see your face?”
Caledonia’s pulse quickened. There was no time for this. Where there was one Bullet, there were a dozen or more. She needed to find Pisces and get back to the boat, and she needed to do it now. Shoot, her mother’s voice urged, but this was one rule Caledonia had never had to follow.
Sensing her hesitation, the boy shifted on his knees, spinning to face her. His hands remained steady in the air, but now he watched her.
Alarmed, Caledonia took an involuntary step back. “Move again and I’ll shoot.” She raised her aim to his head.
He nodded, star-pale eyes fixed on the barrel of her pistol. He had a long face with a jaw that looked sharp enough to be a weapon on its own. Blond hair, thick with sea wind and salt, framed his forehead like a crown. One ear stuck out a little farther than the other, but the effect was endearing. She counted two guns strapped to each of his thighs, which likely meant there were at least two others she couldn’t see. For the moment, she was the one in power, but she knew just how quickly that might change.
“At least if I’m to die, it’ll be at the hands of someone lovely.” His eyes charted a slow course across her face.
Warmth crept into Caledonia’s cheeks. “Where’s your crew?
“I—Can I point?” When Caledonia nodded, he did, back in the direction he’d come from. “Ship’s anchored off the northern tip of the island. Stopped for food.”
“One ship?” Caledonia asked.
“One ship,” he answered. “We were headed to the Net and moored here for the night. It’s a bad moon for traveling.”
He could be lying—he was probably lying—but this far from the Holster it could also be the truth. One ship on the opposite side of the island was survivable. As long as she and Pisces returned to the Ghost quickly.
But something had to be done about this Bullet. “What’s your name?” she asked.
The boy seemed to grow smaller under the weight of that question. “What does it matter if you’re going to kill me?”
“It doesn’t.” Caledonia’s finger found the trigger again, and again it stuck there.
A sad smile twisted his lips. “Lir. I’m called Lir. And I expect you’ll be the last to know it.”
He was so ready to die, and so young. Was he young enough to be saved? They said it didn’t take long for the children Aric took to succumb to the dreamy pull of Silt. Addiction made Bullets both loyal and mean. But they also said an encounter with a Bullet al- ways, always ended in one of two ways: either you died, or he did.
Shoot, my brave girl, she heard her mother’s voice whisper.
“I’m . . . I’m sorry,” she said, preparing to fire. Her fingers trembled. Now his eyes grew wide, his hands stiff and splayed in the air. “Please,” he said, “please, show me the mercy the Father never does. Take me with you. Whatever life you have, it’s got to be better than the one he forces on us. Please, help me.”
This was precisely why the rule was shoot first and not shoot as soon as possible or shoot when you feel ready. But she’d broken the rule and now this wasn’t a Bullet, it was Lir.
Lir, who desperately wanted a way out. Lir, who hadn’t hurt her.
Lir, who might be someone’s brother.
If it were Donnally on some other beach with some other girl’s gun to his head, wouldn’t Caledonia want that girl to help him?
“Stand up,” she said, lowering her aim to his chest.
Lir complied, and his expression softened when Caledonia moved in and pulled six guns and two knives from holsters on his thighs, calves, and back. Up close, he smelled even more like the ammunition he carried, but with a pinch of something too sweet. He kept his hands up as she worked, eyes marking every place she touched him. “Please,” he repeated. “I’ll never have a chance like this again. Please, help me.”
The ocean rushed toward them and away, the waves quickening as the tide began to roll in. It was the same tide that would carry all the families aboard the Ghost far away from this terrible life that turned children into warriors, that made Lir plead for his life on an empty beach in the middle of a moonless night. She could help him. And she wanted to, but it went against everything her mother had taught her.
Shaking her head, she pressed the muzzle of her gun into Lir’s chest.
Desperation surfaced in the tremulous bend of his mouth. “What’s your name?”
It wasn’t a secret, yet she frowned, refusing to give it up.
His smile turned mournful. “How about I call you Bale Blossom, then? It seems fitting.” His eyes raised to trace the frame of her hair. The smile on her own lips surprised her. It wasn’t the first time her hair had been likened to the deep orange of the baleflower, but it was the first time the comparison felt like a compliment.
“Call me whatever you like,” she answered. “I still won’t give you my name.”
“You don’t trust me. There’s no reason you should, but I’m going to show you why you can.”
Caledonia’s finger tightened on the trigger as he slipped one hand into his vest and produced a push dagger she’d missed. The handle was small enough to fit inside his grip completely while the black blade protruded between his first and middle fingers. He held it out hilt-first in the narrow space between them.
She snatched it, noting how his body had warmed the metal, and tucked it into her belt.
“How’s that for trust, Bale Blossom?”
Caledonia wished desperately for her mother’s wisdom. Rhona would know what to do in this situation. She would know how to do the right thing even if it was a dangerous thing.
But Caledonia had only herself.
“No one trusts a Bullet,” she answered. “But maybe I can help.”
“Are you going to take me to your crew?” Lir smiled sadly, seeming to know the answer before Caledonia had given it.
Rule number three: Never reveal the ship.
“No,” she said, resolute. “But I’m not going to shoot you.”
Lir nodded, the bravery on his face haunted by disappointment. Even in the dark of the night she could see his jaw was carved with dirt and old scars. His eyes glittered dimly, and his mouth settled into a hard line. The flash of hope Caledonia had seen a moment before had been swept away by resignation.
When he spoke next, his voice was hollow. “You should leave. Go back to your ship. Get out of here. I’ll hide or I’ll die, but I’ll do it under my own sail.”
She glanced in the direction of the Ghost, wishing it was as simple as taking Lir with her.
Lir followed her gaze, and before her eyes, he became as steady and as cool as the gun in her hand. He asked, “Do you know what we call this moon?”
“There is no moon tonight,” Caledonia answered.
“It’s the Nascent Moon,” he said after a quiet moment, all trace of that sad resignation gone. “It’s a time of potential and growth. A promise for things to come.”
He touched her cheek, and Caledonia gasped, her arm lowering. She felt his hand slide into her hair, felt a spike of delicious heat follow his grazing fingers.
“It’s the moon of beginnings and endings.” His voice found a malicious edge.
Too late, she realized if she’d missed one dagger she might have missed another.
His fingers tightened in her hair. A slaked smile surfaced on his lips.
And the blade sank into her gut.
Lir gripped the back of her head. As hot blood spread across her stomach, he held her close. Her knees buckled and her gun hit the ground with a thud.
“Thank you for your mercy, Bale Blossom,” he whispered, lowering her almost gently to the sand. Nauseating pain burned through her body. “And thank you for your ship.”
Caledonia screamed, fighting to stay conscious. If they heard her, they might escape. She clutched at her wound and felt sand against her face, rough against her lips. She knew there was pain, but all she felt was panic. She had to get up, find Pisces, warn the ship. She screamed again.
Footsteps. This time, she knew them to be Lir’s as he raced away, toward the Bullet clip that would soon find her family. She fumbled in the sand for her gun and fired three shots. It was still deadly dark, but she thought she saw him falter.
Even if those three bullets had missed their mark, everyone near the island would have heard the shots. Her family would have warning. They could escape, and as long as they followed the rules, they would.
Her nausea eased into a strange numbness. The blade, she realized, was still in her gut. A parting gift, and one that might just save her. Holding the knife in place to stanch the bleeding, she got slowly to her feet and began to stagger toward her cove and the bow boat, the only thought in her mind to see the Ghost safely on its way.
“Cala!” Pisces burst from the trees, her long braids swinging around her like ropes. “Oh, spirits, Cala!”
“Bullets.” Caledonia barely managed the word before falling again to her knees. “We have to hurry.”
Pisces nodded grimly and ripped a long strip of material from her shirt. The blade hurt even more coming out. Pisces worked quickly, binding the wound tightly before tucking her head beneath Caledonia’s arm and lifting her friend to her feet.
Together, the girls stumbled through the woods, taking the shortest possible path to where their little boat waited. Caledonia tried to run. With each step her legs felt weaker, her lungs more shallow. Her gut burned as she moved. Thorny plants clawed at their legs and arms, leaving small trails of blood on their skin. Thick vines slowed their progress even more. Before the ocean was visible again through the trees, the sound of gunfire ripped through the air.
Neither girl spoke until they’d returned to the cove. The boat they’d used to come ashore was still there, bobbing as the tide came in. But now, out where their family’s ship lay at anchor, a Bullet ship approached, flared with light.
It was an assault ship with a sharp nose and grooves along the hull where Bullets waited with magnetized bombs. The Ghost fought to weigh its anchor and gain speed, but the assault ship was already upon it. Bombs soared across the narrowing channel of water. A boom rent the air as the missiles exploded against the Ghost, ripping open the ship and knocking the breath from Caledonia’s lungs.
Flames spilled from a hole in the side of the hull. It was everything the girls had been taught to fear, to avoid, everything their parents had spent a lifetime protecting them from. And Caledonia had brought it right to their feet.
Screams replaced the sound of gunfire. Caledonia lurched, pushing past the pain and into the shallow water. She surged forward once, determined to swim, but her body faltered and she cried out in defeat. Her feet sank into sand, salt burned in her gut, and Pisces gripped her shoulders to pull her back to shore. “Caledonia, no!” she cried.
The two girls could do nothing but witness. No one would be spared.
It lasted less than fifteen minutes.
The sun rose higher. Screams and gunfire waned.
Then the Bullets began their gruesome work of dragging the dead to their ship and hoisting the bodies of the slain on the metal pikes studding their rail.
One body, placed at the very front of the Bullet ship, wore an overly large coat that puffed in the air like a gray cloud. The feet dangled in the wind, and Caledonia choked on the memory of leaving Donnally behind just a few short hours ago.
Caledonia shivered in the warm night. Blood seeped down her body, but the pain in her gut was nothing compared to the pain in her chest.
“How?” Pisces whispered.
Caledonia slumped to her knees. She shook her head, unable to confess the truth to her friend. She’d failed her entire family; she couldn’t fail Pisces, too. So she pushed the truth deep down, beneath her grief and her guilt and her anger.
“What do we do?” Pisces asked, her brown face bright with tears. “Cala, what do we do?”
Caledonia fixed her gaze on the Bullet ship, her ears on the final screams of her family. Fire reflected angrily across the black surface of the ocean. For all its darkness, it had failed to keep her family a secret. But so had she. Her heart hardened over the memory of Lir. He had taken her mercy and turned it red. Now she and Pisces were all that remained.
Taking her friend’s cold hand in her bloody one, she gave the only answer she could find. “I don’t know.”
Four Years Later
Just before dawn, Caledonia climbed into the aft rigging of her ship. The ropes were rough against her calloused palms as she scaled fifty feet of the mizzenmast, confident and sure, her hands and feet flying faster and faster, daring the sun to beat her to the top. The sky filled with the hazy blue glow of dawn, and Caledonia pushed harder, relishing the first kiss of sweat against her skin.
She’d scarcely reached her chosen perch when she yelled to the team of girls on deck below, “Haul!”
Eager voices repeated the command, and four sets of strong hands took hold of the lines and heaved. Along the mast, pulleys squealed and churned; Caledonia kept her eyes on the gaff beam moving toward her.
“Break!” She shouted as the gaff rose level with her chest. From it hung their treasured sun sail; hundreds of shiny black scales made to absorb solar energy and feed their engines.
The girls below began to secure the ropes while Caledonia moved to balance atop the beam. The morning wind that was so gentle on deck was bracing this far up, and a constant tension whirled in her stomach. Leaving one hand to grip the ropes, she stretched to retrieve the peak anchor and pull it down, snapping the cable in place.
The horizon was burning yellow now, and the approach of the sun brought a smile to Caledonia’s lips. Below, she could see Amina perched on the starboard railing, tracking her with shrewd eyes. It wasn’t necessary for the captain to secure the sail. Any one of Amina’s Knots could do this just as easily as Caledonia, but this moment was unlike any other aboard the Mors Navis, and Caledonia craved the feeling of the world at her feet.
“Trim to port!” she called.
The sail angled toward sunrise just as the first gentle rays slid across the surface of the ocean. Light climbed the hull to paint the girls in their boldest strokes for just a second before it reached the black plates of the sun sail.
It was like fire.
Light leaped from a hundred scales at once in vibrant yellows, oranges, and pinks; a cascade of momentary brilliance washed up- ward as the sun climbed higher in the sky, and at the top of it all stood Caledonia. Wind tugged at her sleeves and her hair, light washed over her from boot to brow, and she felt as alive as the ship beneath her feet, charged and powerful.
It lasted for only a moment, then that dazzling morning fire was gone.
Sunlight glittered calmly in the sail, creating fuel to power all the systems of the ship once known as the Ghost. Repaired and renamed Mors Navis, the large vessel was sharp and elegant, all of it skinned with dark, gray steel except for a few patches of wood and tar. Everything on the ship was a mixture of old-world tech and whatever natural resources they could find. And they made it work. The Mors Navis now carried a crew of fifty-three girls, six cats, and one goat. They’d made this ship both a weapon and a home.
Four years ago, this had been a fantasy. Trapped on a beach with nothing but a gut wound, her best friend, and this very ship in pieces, Caledonia could only dream of the day she had the means to stand up and fight. It had come sooner than she could have hoped, the morning Pisces looked at her square in the eyes and said she wanted revenge. It came as they bent their minds to the task of recovering their ship. It came one girl at a time. Caledonia and Pisces had stitched this ship and its crew together from odds and ends discarded by the world.
As Caledonia began her downward climb, she heard the bow boat drop from its hanging berth and hit the water. She saw it a moment later, pushing past the ship with five girls aboard and Red- tooth at the helm, the red tips of her blonde braids visible against the bright blue morning. That team would scout a few miles ahead of the Mors Navis, looking for trouble or opportunity. Caledonia paused, watching as Redtooth raised her hand in salute to another dark shape in the water before speeding away.
Some days it seemed the girl had been in the water since the attack on the Ghost. She’d risen before the sun that first, terrible day on the beach and walked straight into the ocean to drown her tears. When she came up for air, her sobs left jagged stitches in the hushed morning. Unable to move much on her own, Caledonia had no choice but to be still as her friend’s grief washed over her. That grief was like a fever, one Caledonia could feel burning in her own blood. As Pisces sought solace in the ocean, Caledonia hoisted her eyes to the sky and let her own tears drain into the hard sand. So much had changed in four years, but some things were very much the same. Pisces was in the water every morning as early as Caledonia was in the rigging. Just as Caledonia knew the surface of the ocean and her ship, Pisces knew what lay beneath.
Sunlight glinted off Pisces’s smooth head and shoulders before she dove once again, vanishing from sight. Caledonia recalled the moment Pisces had come to her with a razor in her hand and tears in her eyes. “I want it gone,” she’d said.
“You want what gone?” Caledonia asked as she cautiously reached for the razor, already afraid of whatever answer her friend was about to give.
“My hair,” Pisces said, voice quiet. Tears slipped down her cheeks. “It drags in the water. And I need to be faster.”
Caledonia began to cut, pausing every so often to blink away her own tears as she worked.
It had been the first of many sacrifices. But every one had made them stronger, brought them closer to the fight they ached for—to avenge their mothers and fathers and brothers and all the families aboard the Ghost. One day, they would take this fight all the way to Aric Athair himself.
“How’s the view this morning, Captain?” a voice called as Caledonia reached the deck.
Lace was always among the first to greet her, no matter how early Caledonia rose.
“As bright as your hair.” Caledonia faced the small girl, eyes appraising the pile of blonde curls that were as stubbornly cheerful as the girl who wore them. “What’s the news?” Caledonia asked, turning her steps toward the bridge.
Though on the younger side of her command crew, Lace had stepped into Caledonia’s trust almost as soon as she’d stepped aboard the ship. She was calm and competent, with a laugh as grizzly as Rhona’s had been. Her skin was pale as seafoam and her curls, while not rusted red, were defiant. It was strange to associate someone so young with her mother, but Caledonia found something comforting in their similarity of spirit, and she’d loved Lace immediately for it.
Lace matched Caledonia’s pace and began her morning brief of the day’s activities. She covered changes to the duty roster, maintenance issues, health concerns. Lace had a knack for reporting dismal situations without sounding dismal, a talent that was exceedingly rare. Most of it didn’t require Caledonia’s direct attention, but the last item on Lace’s list always landed heavy on the captain’s mind.
“And finally,” Lace began.
“And finally,” Caledonia repeated with a sigh.
“Vitals. Far says we’re down to beans and salt soup, and she can keep us running on that for five days at the outside.”
“It’s been five days for the past three, Lace. The soup is starting to look like water. Are you sure we can survive for five more days?”
Lace’s smile was as sturdy as the deck beneath their feet. “We’ve survived worse than thin soup, Captain.”
Five more days of meager fare would make for a weaker crew. Caledonia felt the pinch in her own stomach amplified fifty-two times. Beside her, Lace had grown unusually quiet. “There’s more?” All around them, the deck buzzed with activity. Laundry lines were pulled taut and covered with clothes, the five Mary sisters were oiling the cable cutters and their clips beneath the railing, and Amina and the eleven girls who made up her sharpshooting team of Knots crawled through the rigging to polish the plates of the sun sail.
Lace’s smile drooped when she answered, “We lost Metalmouth.”
“Dammit.” Caledonia stopped in her tracks, hands settling on her hips.
“Far thinks she got into some rot. Must’ve been bad to kill her.” That was an understatement. Goats were hardy in general, but Metalmouth had been named for the fact that she would have eaten the hull of their ship if she could. No goat meant no milk. Even less sustenance to go around. Finding a replacement wouldn’t be easy.
“Bright bits?” Lace asked, her smile resurfacing. “We’ll have meat for dinner.”
“Youngest first,” Caledonia spoke quietly. Her mind was already calculating the distance between them and the familiar waters of the Bone Mouth. If they changed course now, they could be there before they ran through their supply of beans. With any luck, they’d be able to forage on the islands and cast their lines for fish. “Gather the command crew. We’re changing course.”
Before Lace had a chance to comply, a whistle pierced the air. It was followed by a shout from Amina high in the rigging. “Bow boat on approach!”
“That was quick,” Lace mused, shielding her eyes to peer over the ocean.
The boat cut a straight line across the water, moving with strict urgency. It meant it was time to do one of two things: run or fight. Immediately, the Mary sisters mobilized the deck crew, readying the hooks that would latch the boat and raise it into its hanging berth. The maneuver hadn’t always been an easy one for such a young crew, but they hooked the boat on their first try and smoothly lifted the vessel from the water.
Redtooth was over the railing in an instant. Her blue eyes bulged like the muscles in her persistently burned arms as she made for Caledonia. “Captain,” she said, clamping one hand on Caledonia’s shoulder. “We found trouble.”
Caledonia could see the future in Redtooth’s eager expression. Trouble was code for a fight. Judging by the smile Redtooth couldn’t hide, this wasn’t just any fight. This was a chance to hurt Aric Athair, and that was impossible to walk away from.
“Can we eat it?” Caledonia asked.
Redtooth’s lips spread in a devilish grin. “Sure,” she answered. “We’re the crew of the Mors Navis. We eat Bullets for breakfast.”
The barge made a beautiful target. It floated on a glassy blue sea, covered in orange flowers turned toward the sun.
Under Redtooth’s guidance, they’d come upon the baleflower carrier only moments before. The long, flat deck was a riot of mature flowers ready to be plucked and processed and eventually dehydrated and turned into Silt. This ship was on its way to rejoin Aric’s AgriFleet along with other ships bearing harvested goods. He depended on these flowers, on the drug they produced, to force loyalty from his Bullets. They hungered for Silt almost as much as they craved Aric’s approval.
He would definitely notice the barge’s absence.
The day was clear, the air threaded with the distant, too sweet scent of those poisonous flowers, the seas agreeable.
Caledonia lowered her binoculars and turned to face the five girls of her command crew: Pisces, Amina, Redtooth, Lace, and Little Lovely Hime. Pisces was her second-in-command, while the other four commanded smaller crews of a dozen girls to oversee ship tech, training, navigation, and medical respectively. None but Pisces had been with Caledonia since her first raid on Aric’s drug fleet, but already these faces had found harder edges. Little Lovely Hime no longer hid her hands in the pockets of her apron, Amina watched the horizon as much as she used to watch the sky, Lace smiled with more determination than joy, Redtooth’s blonde braids were permanently tipped with red clay to signify she was ready for the fight, and Pisces spent so much time training in the water that her shoulders were always covered in fine sea salt. They were Caledonia’s stones: some small, some large, each powerful in their own way.
From where they stood on the command deck, they had a clear view of both the barge ahead and the crew on the deck below.
Caledonia met Amina’s steady gaze. In response, Amina raised her brown hand into the air like a sail, palm cupped. “There’s a killing wind from the west, and the spirits are hungry,” she said. “They will want blood. It does not matter from whom.”
It certainly did matter from whom, but Caledonia wasn’t in the mood to argue with Amina’s spirits. Instead, she asked, “How charged are we?”
“Eighty percent. Charging slower since our sun sail was gouged last week.” Amina’s voice carried fresh bitterness as she referenced their latest encounter. She turned thoughtfully toward the stern of the ship. “I’m working on a solution.”
Like most salvaged ships, the Mors Navis ran on solar-powered jets. Unlike most ships, they had a system of retractable masts with patchwork cloth sails stowed belowdecks. At a moment’s notice, the crew could erect the masts and convert the ship to wind power.
“Hime,” Caledonia said, turning to the small girl. She had endlessly dark eyes and skin the cool beige of a seashell. Her long black hair was braided to cover her mangled ear, the end of it tied in a simple blue ribbon. Her hands were folded quietly in front of her, a long apron blowing lightly over her pants and boots. “You need to get below.”
I want to fight, Hime said, her hands moving deftly.
Redtooth grunted her disapproval. “Not a smart move, little Princelet.” She absently rubbed at a small scar on her palm.
Hime’s cheeks flushed with anger or irritation—Caledonia didn’t care which, only that Hime removed herself from the deck and the impending fight. Everyone on Aric’s fleet was fed Silt. Even the Scythes, who were primarily responsible for tending the barges. And while Hime had been clean for nearly a year, the habit had long claws.
Amina laid a gentle hand on Hime’s shoulder, communicating so much with a simple touch.
Hime raised her dark eyes to the baleflowers on the horizon, and then looked away with a nod.
One ship in the open blue, a hundred possible traps waiting where they could not see. Bale barges were never alone. There’d be at least two Bullet ships scouting wide for attack, ready to rush back and protect the precious cargo at the first signal from the barge.
This battle would cost the Mors Navis, but the only way to bring Aric’s reign to an end was to weaken his hold over his Bullets. That required sacrifice—ammo, energy, blood. Caledonia was no stranger to sacrifice, but she preferred to make sure Aric’s would be greater.
She spun, facing the crew below her on deck. Caledonia required every girl on board to know their strengths and pull their weight. Some, like Far, would do more harm than good in a fight, but even with a few tucked safely below decks, the fighting force was forty-nine girls strong. They stood with eyes trained on her. They’d seen the barge and had their guns and knives already in hand, their faces sharp and eager. They knew exactly what lay ahead of them.
Raising her hand, Caledonia cried, “The only good Bullet . . .”
“Is a dead Bullet!” her girls shouted.
“Full speed!” The jets along the hull of the Mors Navis began to force water through their system. A plume of churned water rose behind them, and the ship surged forward.
Their speed was met by a flare from the barge, precisely as Caledonia had expected. It burst in the air like a great purple flower, then crackled and hissed as it faded to smoke. The countdown to Bullet ships began.
“You”—Caledonia pointed a finger at Lovely Hime—“belowdecks, don’t come out.”
Hime nodded and, with a final glance for Amina, slipped away.
Redtooth removed a small gray tin from a zippered pocket low on her leg and grinned as she dipped her fingers inside. She dragged red clay across her mouth, turning her lips into a bloody gash. Then, leaping from the bridge to the deck, she began organizing her raiding parties.
Amina was already halfway down the deck, shouting at her team of Knots to raise the masts and get into the rigging. No sooner were the masts locked in place than a team of girls began to climb, rifles strapped to their backs. They found positions among the bound sails and clipped into harnesses, ready to snipe incoming artillery. The crew was in their rhythm. Tin, the eldest of the five Mary sisters, called out a list of orders to the deck crew until each of the twenty girls had a gun in hand.
“I have the bridge, Captain,” Lace announced, tossing her sun-bleached curls as she turned to assume her position on the bridge. She was a bright spot among the crew, a sparkling citrine stone filled with warmth and light. Everything about her clung to cheer, from her ever-ready smile to the tattered lace she used to wrap her hands for combat. She was their Helm Girl, commanding the small bridge crew in Caledonia’s absence. And she was the only person on board Caledonia trusted in that role.
“You have the bridge, Lace,” Caledonia confirmed, leaving the shelter of her bridge and crossing the narrow command deck to stand at the very tip of her vessel, in full view of the barge. She stood with hands on hips, eyes trained on her target, red hair blowing behind her like a deadly storm, as her mother had done whenever danger loomed. Let them see she was not afraid.
Pisces appeared at Caledonia’s elbow.
“Cable mines,” Pisces said as she pulled a charm back and forth on the chain around her neck.
Caledonia nodded. In all likelihood, there was a web of sub- merged mines attached to cables and suspended in a perimeter around that barge. They would need to be disabled or triggered before the Mors Navis sent its raiding parties in to destroy the crop. But first they would have to locate them.
They were closer to the barge now. Through binoculars she could see tiny figures rushing to secure the blossoms.
“Can you do it?” Caledonia turned to her friend, hopeful the answer was both yes and no.
“I can.” Pisces dropped the charm. Seeming to sense Caledonia’s momentary indecision, Pisces rested her fingertips against the arrowhead that marked Caledonia’s temple.
In response, Caledonia raised her own fingers to the tattoo on Pi’s temple. Black and starting to blur at the edges, it was a simple circle with two lines slashed vertically through one side. For Caledonia and Pisces, the marks had become living shrines to their murdered brothers, a symbol of the family they avenged with every battle.
The girls rested this way for just a breath before Pisces left like a gust of wind, flying down to where her submersible gear waited. As Pisces suited up, Caledonia imagined her own heart pinched flat as the ocean. Caring was what set them apart from the likes of Aric, but at times like this, it was only a distraction. Caledonia steered her mind to the fight ahead.
“Bullets!” The cry came from the top of the rigging.
Where moments before there had been water and dusty sunlight, now there were three black dots, which would soon grow into ships. They approached from the starboard side, coming to the aid of the barge.
“Get the tow in the water!” Caledonia shouted.
The tow, shaped like an oversized bullet, was a handheld propulsion device capable of pulling a person underwater. Combined with a blue lung that recycled air, that person could stay below for hours. That person was always Pisces.
Pisces would submerge and drive toward the skirt of mines, then trigger them from a safe distance using her pulse gun. It was the worst job on ship, but Pisces gave no evidence of anything except steeled nerves as she pulled on her mask, secured her flexible body armor, and checked her blue lung.
“Keep your distance, Pi. Come back to us.”
Her tow ready in the water, Pisces leapt overboard. Then she was gone.
“Two miles to range!” Amina cried from her perch, eyes on the approaching Bullet ships. They were four miles out, but in two miles, they’d be close enough to open fire and hit the Mors Navis.
At this speed, that translated to minutes. And the crew needed each one.
On Caledonia’s command, the Mors Navis slowed, coming to rest a quarter mile from the barge. Her crew was busy tightening armor over shoulders and thighs, checking their clips, and watching the enemy ships reveal themselves completely: an assault ship, a crusher, and a mag ship. The assault ship was fast and would be heavily armed, the crusher designed for devastating impact, but the mag ship was the one that worried Caledonia. It would be armed with a system of magnetized harpoons. If they landed on the hull of the Mors Navis, they’d be able to hold her immobilized while the other ships attacked at will.
An explosion shot up from the water surrounding the barge. Pisces had found her first target and punched a small hole in the perimeter of cable mines. Now they waited for the second. To see how far the mines were spread apart, and to see if Pisces had survived the shockwave. On the deck of the barge, Scythes aimed rifles at the water and began to fire at Pisces.
These were torturous minutes. Caledonia inhaled slowly, scanning her crew. Amina hung in the rigging with the rest of her Knots, whispering a prayer to the sky. Redtooth crouched with her chosen raiding party in one of two bow boats swinging halfway down the starboard hull.
A second explosion spiked ten feet from where the first had been. Pisces was alive, and she’d just given them an entry point.
The barge would be theirs.
Everything moved at once.
Redtooth and her bow boats dropped to the water with a proud smack. Their engines roared to life, and the girls raised their plates of armor along the starboard side, locking them into a solid wall for cover from the approaching ships.
“Take them to the deep!” Caledonia lunged onto the cabin of the bridge, taking the shiny brass wheel from Lace and kicking the Mors Navis into high gear. She aimed her ship’s nose directly at the Bullets, and her girls gave a vicious battle cry. Their focused rage reminded her that though she might be the force that kept them all together, they were here by choice.
The assault ship fired. Two precious missiles streaked across the sky. Amina’s voice rang out, followed by gunfire. The Knots were sharp-eyed and shot each missile down midflight. They burst harmlessly in the air over the ocean.
Near the barge, another explosion erupted from the water. Red- tooth now had plenty of room to maneuver right next to the bale barge and plant the mines that would sink it. Caledonia’s job was to give them as much time as possible.
The approaching Bullet ships sped up. Wind sang through the ghost funnels mounted to their decks, creating a discordant, ethereal howl that sent an involuntary shiver down Caledonia’s spine. Soon, the mag ship broke away, sailing over the remaining distance to the Mors Navis, trailed by the heavy-prowed crusher.
This was to be a halt and hit—the mag ship would move behind the Mors Navis, hook her with magnetic anchors, and hold her there while the crusher came in full tilt to hit her broadside. The Mors Navis was as tough as her crew, but she was shallow in the draft. A strong hit from a ship like that could topple her. Caledonia revved her jets again and turned her nose toward the mag ship, offering the smallest target possible.
“Cable cutters ready!” Tin’s order traveled down the line as girls prepared for the inevitable. She and her sisters commanded the deck with seamless efficiency. “Fire!”
Guns and rifles fired, the air turned gray with smoke, but the mag ship was undeterred.
With only feet to spare, the mag ship turned broadside and skated across the water to pace the Mors Navis. A small crew of Bullets greeted them with leering, hungry faces and a dozen gun barrels. The girls raised a wall of shields, and gunfire sparked against it. Before the girls could recover from the onslaught, the mag ship slipped into their wake and fired five magoons.
The hull of Caledonia’s ship was a patchwork of metal and wood stitched together with heavy, waterproof seams of black tar. If even one of the mags hit wood, they stood a chance. But Caledonia heard the magnetized tethers attach one by one to patches of metal and knew they’d need grit over luck. She kept her ship’s pace, but steered slightly toward the barge to buy a few seconds.
It didn’t matter. As her crew traded fire with that of the mag ship, the five tethers connecting the two ships drew tight.
The Mors Navis began to slow.
Amina and the Knots turned their guns on the mag ship and opened fire, desperately trying to clear the way for their own crew to get over the rail of the Mors Navis and cut the magoon cables. The Bullets fired relentlessly. Shots sparked against their hull and soon found flesh and bone. Blood darkened the deck, the air thick with smoke and shouts and cries. Caledonia watched the scene unfurling with a sinking heart. Clearing the way for the cable cutters to dislodge the magoons would take time they did not have.
The assault ship drove forward now, heading not for the Mors Navis, but for the barge and Redtooth. That meant that the crusher— fitted with a deadly metal wedge on its nose—would turn on the Mors Navis. A direct hit from that ship would sink them for sure.
This was a perfect trap, but traps only worked when you thought your opponent couldn’t surprise you.
“Amina!” she cried, and Amina slipped down the ropes to join Caledonia on deck. “Time to give your new web a try.”
Shots hissed around them as the two girls hurried to collect Amina’s latest design—three charges that could create a web of electricity. Anyone caught between them would get a deadly shock. But it required each charge to land within twenty feet of the others.
“Work fast,” Amina instructed, calmly calibrating the charges and loading the three guns. “If they detach before we get all three in place, it won’t work.”
In the distance, the assault ship was closing in on the barge. Time pushed at Caledonia’s heart, but she breathed in once to slow it, then lifted the first gun to her shoulder. Amina did the same. “Three, two, one.”
The kick of the guns was severe, but both shots hit their intended targets. Amina reached immediately for the third gun and fired. Caledonia didn’t wait to confirm the shot landed before hitting the button on the remote trigger.
Blue-white light arced from charge to charge, spidering out to kiss the copious amounts of metal on each Bullet. Their bodies snapped in the air like sails in the wind, their eyes rolling skyward, mouths freezing with jaws clenched.
“Now!” Caledonia cried. The crusher was closing in, its nose lined up to ram the Mors Navis dead center.
Five girls dove over the side of the ship, their feet caught by strong hands as they dangled and stretched to sever the cables of magoons holding the Mors Navis in place. One by one the cables snapped. Caledonia raced to the helm and drove the jets as high as they might go.
The Mors Navis jerked ahead, but she hadn’t been fast enough. The crusher hit them with a glancing blow, ripping a patch of metal siding from the stern.
The ship heaved to one side, sending girls and guns sliding across the deck. Caledonia could do nothing but grip the helm and wait. From that position, she could see Redtooth and the bow boats racing home. Behind them, an explosion split the barge in two, filling the sky with vibrant orange petals that drifted slowly to the ocean. Her girls roared in triumph. It was a vicious sound, and it filled Caledonia with so much delight she thought she could right this ship herself. Aric had lost a hearty crop today. And it was Caledonia and her crew who had taken it from him.
Not far from the sinking barge, she spotted something else bobbing in the water, a dark figure directly in the path of the approaching assault ship.
Pisces, she realized with horror. And the Bullet crew had her in their sights. Just as the Mors Navis began to right itself, a pick hook swung down from the enemy ship and buried itself in Pisces’s shoulder.
As Caledonia watched, Pisces was dragged from the water straight into the hands of the enemy.