Join Genna, Samira, and Cassia as they struggle to decide on a direction after a vicious exile in this excerpt from The Pirate Queens, Chapter One: The Uncharted Course.
A listless breeze tickled at the limp sails that draped from above. Three masts swayed lazily, marking their position for any watchful eye to see, but there were no watchful eyes this far out on the Allodapic Ocean. There was nothing this far out. Nothing, except this water-bound ship trapped between currentless seas and cloudless skies.
Below, the gentle lap of waves against the hull and the creaking groan of beams as the ship bobbed in place played a mellow soundtrack against the furious grunting and heaving of breath that had become a daily ritual for the only three people aboard. The sharp clang of metal on metal rang across the deck, followed by a shouted oath.
“Dregs and gobbets, Sam! You almost took my finger off!”
Genna hustled backward, her tall form almost tripping over a length of coiled rope that lay spiralled on the deck.
“That’s the point,” Samira said, her grim face dotted with beads of sweat. She advanced steadily, giving Genna no chance at a breather. Samira Jahandar matched her young student in height, but she didn’t let that transfer to an equality in their fighting skills. She also seemed to have forgotten that she was still recovering from being shot less than a week ago. At least, she hadn’t let it slow her down during any of their practice sessions. Swinging, Samira brought her sword down hard, her blade catching in the hilt of Genna’s weapon as the one-time Lady and heir of House Pavilium parried, barely in time.
“It’s supposed to be practice!” Genna swore again as Samira’s blade whistled past her, lodging itself firmly into the mast that Genna spun behind. “You’re not actually supposed to kill me!”
Samira wrenched her sword free of the wood, sending splinters flying. She adjusted her grip and pointed the blade at her opponent. “It is practice. You’re practicing not dying.”
At that, Genna heard a cackle from across the deck. Sparing a glance from her teacher, she looked over to see Cassia, a street-thug from their home-city of Fanvalor, lounging in a hammock strung between two lines. With a seawater-drenched rag draped across her forehead and the usually-shaved half of her head now thick with a week’s worth of fuzz, Cassia looked to Genna like a short-quilled character from a child’s nightmare. The young woman, who was roughly the same age as Genna, grinned fiercely back at Genna as if guessing her thoughts.
“Sorry, milady,” Cassia said, then spat onto the deck beside her. “I always forget my courtly manners.”
“Maybe you’re the one who needs practice,” Genna muttered, then looked back at Samira. The older woman hadn’t moved. Or was she a little closer now? Almost within a blade’s length…
“What was that?” Cassia swung out of the hammock and landed lightly on her feet. Something glinted in her hand, a dagger that she’d secreted somewhere on her person.
“Not everything is a challenge, Cassia,” said Samira, her voice tight as her right foot edged slightly forward.
“Is when it’s said in that tone.” Cassia moved forward as well and Genna changed her grip on the sword to be prepared for an attack from either side.
“What’s wrong with my tone?” she demanded. She shot another glance over at Cassia, but then Samira was on the move, darting forward, her sword jabbing in front of her. Genna tried to pull back in time and was just able to parry the blow, but the impact knocked her sword from her hand and she gave an involuntary yelp, her fingers buzzing with pain. On her wrist, she could feel the scraping of parchment against her skin. Quickly, she grabbed at her sleeve with her left hand, careful not to let the paper drop out. The rolled-up map that she kept hidden there wasn’t a secret, per se, but as it was the only item she had taken with her from her ancestral home in Fanvalor, it held a special place in her heart and she wasn’t willing to share it with anyone else.
The move left her utterly defenseless and just as quickly as she’d acted to protect the scroll, Samira jabbed forward. Genna clamped her mouth shut as Samira’s blade came to rest lightly against her throat.
“Yield?” Samira cocked an eyebrow.
Genna’s lips tightened. Sam rolled her eyes and jiggled the blade so that it scraped a thin layer of skin from Genna’s neck.
Genna winced, then let her shoulders slump, pushing the parchment securely back up her sleeve. “Yield.”
Samira nodded and pulled the sword away, quickly sliding it back into its scabbard. “Not bad. You’re getting quicker.”
“Not quick enough,” Genna admitted. “I’m still better with a sidebow.” She cast a look over to Cassia, who was standing nearby. It hadn’t been that long ago that she’d beaten the street rat with that exact weapon. Or had it?
Days, now, Genna thought. Almost a week. Can it have been that long?
Based on the look on Cassia’s face, it didn’t seem that long to her either. The girl flicked her hands and her dagger vanished into the folds of her clothing, but her eyes never left Genna’s.
Oh yeah. She remembers.
“You’re better with a sidebow,” Samira agreed, “because you’ve trained with one since you were seven. Just be glad this ship has any weapons at all. It was random chance. We could be totally defenseless.”
Genna and Cassia both snorted at the same time, then glared at one another. Genna spoke first. “Not likely. How much do you want to bet that this ship is fully stocked for war?”
“Sure. Weapons are great. Food, even better. But without a strong wind…” Cassia looked skyward at the limp sails. “What good’s escaping the city if we’re just gonna die out here?”
Genna frowned. “The wind will come back. We just need to stick to my plan –”
“Your plan!?” Cassia barked a laugh. “What plan? To run away without knowing where we’re going?”
“Have you got a better idea?” Genna snapped back. “Perhaps you’d like to go back to Fanvalor? I’m sure the Vox would love to find the infamous chief of the Pick-Pirates walking straight into their clutches!”
“Maybe I would,” Cassia growled. “Maybe I think it’d be better to die fighting there than to be drifting out here with you! At least then Auric wouldn’t be alone.”
In spite of the humid, lifeless air hovering around the ship, Genna felt a chill. “Auric told us to go. He wanted us safe.”
Cassia swept her arms wide, taking in their circumstances. “Do you feel safe?”
“Enough.” The word was quiet, but firm, like a whisper of steel cutting through the air. Both girls looked over to see Samira glaring at them. “We all made the choice to come. We all left Auric behind. We all have to live with that. There’s no use fighting about it.”
Genna frowned. I wish she would stop doing that, she thought. Cassia doesn’t need the support. Sam should be taking my side.
Samira waited for a moment of silence – which she seemed to take as agreement – then she let her stance relax and turned toward the hammock, crossing over and swinging into it before either of the girls could argue.
Genna and Cassia followed her movements with their eyes, then turned to look at one another. Genna could see Cassia working on a snappy remark, so she decided to speak first. Be the bigger person. That’s what it means to be a leader.
“Samira’s right,” she said, ignoring the choking sound that spun from the hammock. “We’re all in this together. Now, Cassia, you were going to count the stores below. How far did you g–”
“There’s that tone again,” Cassia muttered.
Exasperated, Genna let out an angry sigh. Her pulse was still racing from the practice duel and Cassia wasn’t helping it slow down. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, nothing, milady,” Cassia said, jumping up to sit atop a barrel. She picked up a long strap of leather from beside her and began to work it between her fingers. “Just that every single thing you ever say sounds like an order. But I reckon that I’d sound like that too, if I’d had to learn to talk around a big silver spoon.”
Genna had to restrain herself from squawking. “I beg your pardon?”
“I beg your pardon?” Cassia’s imitation was far from flattering. She made Genna sound artificially aristocratic and dumb as a brick besides.
“I don’t sound like that!” Genna found that she was clenching her fists. Do I?
Cassia didn’t answer, chortling to herself. Genna narrowed her eyes.
“At least I sound like I know how to string two words together and make sense,” Genna said, this time her tone intentionally imperious.
Cassia snapped her gaze up to meet Genna’s, and she blinked, surprised by the harsh glare. “Hey, that’s –”
“Or were you just mad that I sent you to count the stores? My apologies.” Genna curtsied, a proper courtly manoeuvre that would have instantly caught the eye of every lordling in Fanvalor. “I should have known you can’t count.”
“I counted every marque I stole off one of your high-brow, holier-than-thou, royal friends.” Cassia bit off every word. Her dagger had somehow appeared in her hands again, the leather strap forgotten.
“They probably threw them to the ground in pity after seeing your pathetic, hardborn –”
“I said enough!” Samira vaulted out of the hammock and stalked between them, one hand reaching out to grab Cassia’s wrist in an iron grip. She squeezed until the girl winced and released her blade to clatter to the deck. Samira planted her other hand firmly between Genna’s breasts, where a firm shove sent Genna to the deck as well.
Samira towered over them, her gaze fixed on Genna’s face, but her hand maintaining its unrelenting grip on Cassia’s wrist. “We’re in a bad spot here and I will not – I WILL NOT –” she repeated, steamrolling over the girls’ protests, “spend any more time listening to the two of you clawing away at each other.” She took a step toward Genna, dragging Cassia off the barrel. “Genevieve Tosetti, you complained to me every day when you were growing up; claimed that you wanted an adventure. What did I always tell you?”
Genna stubbornly didn’t want to answer, but the look in Samira’s eyes told her not to take that chance. “You said that adventures weren’t fun.”
“That’s right.” Samira nodded, her gaze sharp. “Adventures aren’t fun. Stories are fun. Adventures are bloody, sweaty, difficult, and generally unpleasant.” She shifted her glare to Cassia. “And as for you; you may have grown up on the streets, but unless you were a secret sailor, you’re just as out of your depth on this ship as you’d be if you were suddenly named Lady Cassia of House Landlock. Either pitch in, or pipe down.”
With that, Samira released Cassia, who glowered at her while rubbing a bruised wrist. To her credit, the street tough didn’t answer back.
“Now,” Samira turned back to Genna. “You said something about a plan?”
Genna squared her shoulders. Her relationship with Samira had always been complicated, as only the relationship between a ward and a nursemaid/bodyguard could be. As she’d grown, they had become close, and now that she was sixteen, Samira was as much a big sister to her as she was an employee.
Not an employee anymore, Genna reminded herself. No payroll. No anything. Just us. Not for the first time since escaping Fanvalor, Genna was glad that Samira was with her. Without her support…
“We need to figure out how to sail the ship properly. Sam, I know you’ve sailed before –”
“Not on anything like this,” Samira interjected. “This ship needs a proper crew to get it going, wind or no wind.”
“Right.” Genna ran her hands over the balustrade as she ascended the steps leading to the quarterdeck. “Then we put something together. Tie some ropes up so that we can control things from here.” She stopped at the helm and gripped the wheel with both hands. “It won’t be the same, and we’ll make terrible time, but at least we can try to get the Indomitable Spirit moving again.”
There was a silence, and then…
“The Indomitable Spirit?” Cassia snorted as she stomped her way up the steps. “No.”
Genna glowered at her as she approached. On the deck below, Samira gave a sigh.
“And what would you christen her?” Genna demanded.
Cassia smirked. “I’ve been calling him Melvin.”
Genna swallowed her response, the taste bitter in her mouth. Be the bigger person…
“Fine. Melvin. Now, I was trained to lead, therefore I think we can all agree that I’m the captain –”
Cassia pounced on that. “Uh, what now?” The girl brayed a laughed straight into Genna’s face. “You were trained to lead, sure, I’ll give ya that. But to captain a ship? You were trained to be a politician! Worse than that, a politician’s wife!” Cassia’s stance changed. She stood solidly, her feet apart and her shoulders set back. “I was the leader of the best pickpocket crew in the city. The best!” she repeated, as if daring Genna or Samira to challenge her. Neither did. “If we’re gonna be pirates, let’s be pirates. I’m the criminal here.” She gazed up and down Genna dismissively, ignoring the warning look on her face. “You? You can handle the paperwork.”
Genna didn’t hear Samira’s footsteps racing up the stairs, the bodyguard arriving only a second too late to keep her ward from launching herself at the street tough with a wordless scream.