I DON’T KNOW HOW landfolk do it.
Ships don’t leave your thighs sore. They don’t leave foul-smelling piles on the ground. Horses, I decide, are disgusting, and I’m relieved to be rid of them when we finally reach Port Renwoll a week later.
My ship, the Ava-lee, is docked in the harbor, waiting for me. She’s the most beautiful vessel ever built. She belonged to the land king’s fleet before I commandeered her. I left her the natural color of the oak she’s made of, but I dyed the sails royal blue. The Ava-lee bears three masts; the middle is square-rigged, while the other two have lateen sails. With no forecastle and only a small aftercastle, she fits all thirty-three of us snugly.
She may be small, but she’s also the fastest ship in existence.
“They’re back!” a voice chirps from clear up in the crow’s nest. That’ll be little Roslyn, Wallov’s daughter and the ship’s lookout. She’s the youngest member of the crew at six years old.
Wallov knew Roslyn’s mother all of one night. Nine months later she died giving birth to a baby girl. Wallov assumed responsibility for his child, even though he hadn’t a clue what to do with her. He was sixteen at the time. Previously, he’d been a sailor on a fishing boat, but he was forced to give it up once he had a daughter to care for. He didn’t know how he was going to feed the two of them until he met me.
“Captain on board!” Niridia shouts as I step on deck. As my first mate, she’s been captaining the ship in my absence.
Roslyn’s already lowered herself onto the deck. She throws herself at me, wrapping her arms around my legs. Her head barely reaches my waist.
“You were gone too long,” she says. “Next time, take me with you.” “There was fighting to be done on this trip, Roslyn. Besides, I needed
you here watching after my ship.”
“But I can fight, Captain. Papa’s been teaching me.” She reaches behind her too-big britches and pulls out a small dagger.
“Roslyn, you’re six years old. Give it ten more, then we’ll see.” Her eyes scrunch up in a glare. Then she lunges for me.
She’s quick, I’ll give her that, but I still dodge her blade effortlessly. Without pausing, she swings back around and swipes at me. I leap backward, then kick the dagger out of her reach. She crosses her arms defiantly.
“All right,” I say, “we’ll check again in eight years. Satisfied?” She smiles, then rushes in to give me another hug.
“You’d think I didn’t exist,” Wallov says to Deros from somewhere behind me.
Roslyn, hearing him, lets go and runs to him. “I was getting to you, Papa.”
I survey everyone else on board. I left twelve behind to guard the ship.
They’re all on deck now, save our two newest recruits. “Was there any trouble?” I ask Niridia.
“It was downright boring. And you?”
“We saw some action. Nothing we couldn’t handle. And we brought back some prizes.” I pull out the makeshift necklace by the cord, displaying the map for everyone to see. I have a copy of the first two map pieces already, and while we sail back to the keep, I’ll have Mandsy create a replica of the new one. Father will lead the journey to the Isla de Canta, but I want to be prepared should we get separated or tragedy befall his ship. It would be foolish to have only one copy of such valuable items.
Over by the port side, Teniri, the ship’s purser, peers over toward the carriage and asks, “What else? Anything of the sparkling, gold variety, Captain?”
Mandsy and the girls make their way up the gangplank. It takes four of them to lift each chest. Deros and Wallov have already deposited our prisoner, cage and all, onto the deck of the ship. Vordan lies there, gagged and ignored, as the girls all circle around the chests. Until everyone is divvied out their fair share, no one is permitted to touch the gold except Teniri. She’s the oldest on the ship at twenty-six. Though she’s still plenty young, she has a gray streak of hair on the back of her head that she tries to hide in a braid. Anyone who dares to mention it gets a swift kick to the gut.
She raises the lids of both chests at once, revealing a hefty amount of gold and silver coins, and some priceless gems and stones.
“All right,” I say. “You’ve had your chance to look at it. Let’s get it stored safely and be on our way.”
“What about him?” Wallov asks. He kicks the cage, and Vordan wrinkles his nose at him, not bothering to attempt yelling through the gag.
“I’d have you put him in the brig, but I need to stock up tonight. Better be the infirmary, then. Keep him in the cage.”
“Captain,” Niridia says. “The infirmary is already occupied by a prisoner.”
I hadn’t forgotten. I would never forget him. “He will be relocated,” I say.
“I’ll handle it. See that everything else gets put in its proper place.
“I’ll give you one guess.”
I huff out a breath of air. “Get him out of my rum supply and to the helm. We’re leaving now.” Far, far away from the stench of horse. I need a bath.
After my previous navigator lost her life during the battle on the Night Farer, I stole Kearan from Riden’s ship. He’s a useless drunk most of the time, but he’s also the finest helmsman I’ve ever seen. Though I’d never tell him that.
I turn toward the infirmary and stare at the door.
I haven’t laid eyes on Riden in two months. Instead, I put him in Mandsy’s care, trusting her to help his legs heal and see that he gets food
every day. Were it anyone else, the idea of leaving her alone with him would make my blood boil. But Mandsy’s never shown an inch of interest toward men or women. She’s just not made that way.
So, as the ship’s doctor, I ordered her to take care of him and give me updates: when she took out his stitches, when he started walking on his bad leg again.
“He asks for you, Captain,” she would say before we left to capture Vordan, but I was never ready to see him.
When I was locked in that cage, Vordan threatened Riden in an attempt to control me.
And it worked.
Riden had been my interrogator while I was a prisoner on the Night Farer. He was a means to an end. A distraction from the tedium of searching a ship from top to bottom—albeit a very attractive distraction who also happens to be a good kisser. It was all fun. Just play.
At least I thought so. Vordan’s words to Riden from the island still haunt me. There is at least one thing she cares about more than her own justice. You.
The thought of talking to Riden, even if it means I can lord his prisoner status over him, is unsettling.
Because he knows I let another man control me for the sake of him. He knows that I care about him. But I’m not ready to know I care about him. So how could I face him?
But now, I have no choice. We need this room for Vordan. Riden is going to join Kearan and Enwen on the deck. I can’t avoid him any longer.
The door swings open much too quickly, and I find Riden in the corner, stretching out his bad leg. His hair has grown some, its brown lengths reaching just past his shoulders. A couple days’ worth of stubble clings to his chin, since he’s only permitted to shave when he bathes. He’s not any less fit than I remember, so he’s been making good use of his time stuck in here.
The changes only make him look more roguish. Dangerous. Almost irresistibly handsome.
He’ll need to shave first thing when he leaves the room. Otherwise the girls won’t be able to focus on their work.
He looks up as I close the door behind me, but he doesn’t say anything, merely surveys me from head to toe, not even caring that he’s staring at me far longer than is necessary.
A spark of heat flickers low in my belly. I try to expel it by coughing. He smiles. “You took your time coming to see me, Alosa.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“Busy catching up with your intended?”
I had a short list of all the things I was going to say to him, about why we’re relocating him, or even keeping him on the ship in the first place. But it all flees my mind at his words.
“My intended?” I ask.
“That blond fellow with the curly tresses. Looks a bit like a girl.”
At my confused look, he adds, “The one who helped overpower the strength of the Night Farer with your father.”
“Oh, you mean Tylon? He looks nothing like a girl.” Though I’d pay a fortune to have Riden say otherwise in front of him.
“So he is your intended, then?” He asks it casually enough. A smile still rests on his lips, but one mental switch and I can see he’s swirling with a dark green. Jealousy in its deepest, rawest form.
He glares at me. “Don’t do that to me. Turn it off.”
I back up, startled by his cold look and outburst, before I compose myself. “I forgot you notice when I’m using it.”
“That hardly matters.” The smile comes back. “I thought you hated using your abilities. Aren’t they supposed to make you feel sick to your stomach? You must care a lot about what I think.”
I don’t like where he’s turning the conversation, so I divert it back. “Tylon is not my intended. We’re pirates.” Marriage isn’t really something we do.
“What would you call him, then? Your lover?”
I snort. Tylon wishes, but I would never let the slimy eel touch me.
Riden doesn’t need to know that, though. I’m beyond amused by his accusation. I’d much rather see how this plays out than deny it.
“Sure,” I lie, “lover works.”
This time he can’t hide behind indifference. His eyes flash a dangerous black, and his fists clench slightly. I pretend not to notice.
“Am I to understand, then, that the two of you have an open relationship?”
When I don’t respond, he adds, “He doesn’t care that you spent the better part of a month sleeping in my bed?”
He and I both know that sleeping is all we did in that bed. Well, that and a few kisses.
“I had a job to do, Riden. Getting close to you was part of it.”
“I see. And just how many men have you gotten close to in order to do your job?”
I don’t like his tone one bit. Riden needs to be reminded who he’s speaking to.
“I have your brother locked in the deepest, darkest cell in the pirate king’s keep,” I say. “He’s paying for everything he did—and tried to do—to me. One gesture from me, and I could have his head. It is only by your request that I haven’t killed him yet, but that’s not good enough anymore.”
Riden straightens. I have his attention now. “What are you saying?”
“Keeping prisoners is expensive. They have to be fed and cleaned up after. My father rarely holds prisoners for an extended amount of time. Either they give him what he wants or they’re killed. We don’t need anything from Draxen. He’s useless to me. You, however, are not.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I’ve just captured Vordan and his map piece—the final piece my father needs before we set sail for the Isla de Canta. When the fleet departs, you will be joining my crew for the journey.”
Riden’s gaze narrows. “Why would you possibly need me? Surely His Royal Blackheartedness has enough pirates in his fleet.”
He most certainly does. More than he could possibly need. And I’ve got some of the most skilled sailors and fighters in all of Maneria aboard the Ava-lee. We don’t need Riden, but I can’t set him free. How would that look to my father? I can’t lock him up at the keep because there’s no reason to
keep him alive. Father will kill him and Draxen both. The only reason Draxen isn’t dead yet is because I told my father I need him alive to get Riden to cooperate. So now that Riden is better, I’m down to my last option. He has to come with me. He has to be part of the crew. But how do I possibly explain that to Riden without making it seem like I’ve gone soft on him?
I tell myself I’m doing this because I owe him. He saved me. He took two bullets for me. I may have brought him back from nearly drowning, but that was my fault to begin with. We are not even, not yet. That is the only reason why I’m keeping him alive.
If I think it enough times, maybe it’ll be true.
Finally, I say, “I don’t know what we’ll come up against on the voyage. I might need some extra muscle. With Kearan and Enwen, the men on this ship number four. Enwen is so scrawny that I’m pretty sure Niridia can lift more than he can. And the only lifting Kearan does is when he puts a bottle to his lips. I’m not about to recruit some random person off the keep, because I need people I can trust.”
“And you trust me?” he asks with one raised brow.
“I don’t need to. I know you’ll do anything to protect your brother. I can count on your full cooperation as long as he’s locked up. And besides, you owe me for saving his pathetic life in the first place.”
He pauses for a moment, probably to think it over. “Will I continue to be kept under lock and key?”
“Only if you do something stupid. You’ll be free to roam the ship as much as any sailor. Any attempt at escape, though, and I’ll send word to the men left guarding the keep that Draxen’s head is to be removed from his body.”
Riden turns his face away from me. “What?” I ask.
“I’d forgotten how ruthless you can be.”
I take a step toward him and pierce him with my gaze. “You haven’t seen ruthless from me yet.”
“And I pray I never will. I’ll come with you to the island on two conditions.”
“You want to bargain with me? I hold all the cards.”
Riden stands in one fluid motion. “Going with you is pointless if you’re going to kill Draxen as soon as we get back. I want your word he’ll be freed once I help you journey to the island and back.”
“And I suppose the second stipulation is your own freedom?” “No.”
I blink, take a step closer. “What do you mean ‘no’? You hold Draxen’s life in higher regard than your own? He’s a disgusting worm. He deserves to squirm below ground.”
“He’s my brother. And you’re a hypocrite.” Riden takes his own step forward.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Your father is the most despicable man to roam the sea. Tell me you wouldn’t do anything for him.”
I advance farther, a mere foot from him now, deciding whether or not to clobber him with my fists. In the end, I take a step back and breathe in calmly. “What is your second condition?”
“You will not use your siren abilities on me ever again. Even if it’s just to know what I’m feeling.”
“What if your life were in danger and I could save you with my voice? Would you prefer I let you die?” For some reason, I feel the need to defend myself. And my abilities. To him. Why to him? His opinion of me shouldn’t matter. Doesn’t matter.
“I’ve survived this long without you, and I will continue to do so.”
“Ah, but you’ve never sailed with me before. Danger is always nigh for my crew.”
“With you in their midst, how could it not be?” He says this quietly to himself, but I still catch it.
“Will you sail with me or not?” I ask. “Do you agree to my terms?”
I look heavenward. I’ll have the whole voyage to figure out what to do with Riden and Draxen when we get back. For now, I can agree to this.
Riden holds out his hand to seal our bargain. I extend my own, anticipating a firm squeeze.
What I do not expect is the tingle of heat that shoots up my arm from where we touch. Though I tell my hand to let go, it doesn’t listen, and my feet seem rooted to the spot.
I look up from our clasped hands, and my eyes land on the stubble along his jaw. I wonder what it would feel like rubbing against my chin and cheeks as he kissed me.
I blink repeatedly. What the—Was I just staring at his mouth? Did he notice?
I look up. Riden’s eyes capture my own, glinting with mischief. He is the first to speak. “This is sure to be an exciting voyage. The two of us stuck together on one ship.” His thumb draws circles on the back of my hand, and my breathing hitches. It appears my lungs, too, have forgotten how to function properly.
Riden starts to draw closer, and my mind finally remembers something.
He’s my prisoner. Anything he does will be an act to further his goal to free himself and his brother. I cannot trust any of it. After all, did I not try to use physical closeness with Riden to further my own goals when I was the prisoner and he the captor?
His pretty face will not earn him privileges on this ship. Nor will I allow him to use it to get closer to me.
I tell my limbs to stop misbehaving and finally step away from him.
I have gone two months without his kisses. I can go the rest of my life without them as well.
“It is a very large ship,” I say at last, even though it’s a lie. And then, because I want to see him squirm, I offer him the most seductive smile I have, and wet my lips with my tongue ever so slightly.
The way his eyes move down to my mouth—and the bounce of the nob of his throat as he audibly swallows—is more than enough reward.
Yes, I am the one in control.
I turn to open the door and extend one hand toward the deck, an invitation for Riden to precede me onto the ship.
He walks perfectly out the door, no limp in his step. Good.
I watch him as he descends the companionway, surveying the crew as they go about their chores. His eyes take in the clouds, roam over the sea,
and I feel bad for keeping him cooped up for two whole months.
“Admiring the view, are we, Captain?” a voice asks. Lotiya and Deshel, sisters I picked up from the island of Jinda two years ago, take up position on either side of me. “He looks delicious,” Deshel adds.
“From behind, anyway,” Lotiya says. “Can’t judge the man properly until we see the front.”
“Not to mention naked.” Giggling ensues.
Riden looks over his shoulders, partly amused yet a little uncomfortable. He heard them. I’m certainly glad I’m not prone to blushing. For I’ve seen Riden’s front. And him naked. The sisters’ talk immediately brings the image to the surface of my mind.
I glare at the two of them. “We have a new recruit,” I shout for the whole crew to hear. “Meet Riden.”
Many of the girls look up from their tasks. A couple drop down out of the rigging now that the ship is under way. I see a lot of curiosity in their faces. And some interest in others.
“Riden!” I shout, remembering something. He looks up again. “Go below and shave. You look haggard.”
He raises a brow, but doesn’t dare to disobey the first order I give him after our deal. He treads belowdecks. Lotiya and Deshel try to follow.
“Get back to your posts,” I shout at them. They sigh in resignation and scatter.
“Haggard?” Niridia asks. She’s at the helm. Kearan, it would seem, hasn’t arrived yet. I join her. “That man is handsome as hell.”
“Troublesome as hell is more like it,” I say. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with him.”
“I could tell you what I’d like to do with him.” “Niridia,” I warn.
“A jest, Captain.”
I know. Niridia hasn’t been able to stomach the touch of a man after what she went through before I found her, but that doesn’t keep her from teasing. As my best friend, it’s her job. She’s able to jump back and forth
between the roles of friend and first mate effortlessly, knowing when each is appropriate. I love her for it.
“We’re keeping him, then?” she asks. “Yes.”
“Hmm” is all she says. She’s the overly cautious type, the most responsible out of everyone on the ship. She always has something to say.
“Just remember he’s Jeskor’s son. Your families are rivals. Have you wondered if being on this ship is exactly where he wants to be?”
“Just like when I was a ‘prisoner’ on his ship?” I intended to get captured—all because I had a map to find on Riden’s brother’s ship.
“Riden’s not like that. He doesn’t have his own ambitions. The only thing that drives him is his brother.”
Niridia blows a golden wisp of hair out of her blue eyes. “I wouldn’t say it’s the only thing, Captain.” She looks at me pointedly.
To change the subject, I ask, “Where is Kearan?”
Niridia waves toward the bow, and I’m surprised now that I didn’t spot him sooner. Kearan is massive. His bulk is tucked into his usual dark coat, a jacket full of pockets where he houses all his flasks. The man drinks like a parched fish.
But now it looks as though he’s had a few too many. He’s pressed against the starboard side, the contents of his stomach depositing into the sea below.
I’m trying to think of a suitable punishment for him when Niridia and I spot Sorinda materializing out of the shadows near the foremast. Her raven-colored hair is just a shade darker than her skin. It’s held up with a band, the ends reaching just past her shoulders. Sorinda never bothers with a tricorne. She spends most of her time in the dark and has no need to keep the sun out of her eyes. Instead of a cutlass, she carries a rapier at her side, favoring speed to strength.
Right now, however, she holds the end of a rope. “What is she doing?” Niridia asks.
I’d tasked Sorinda with keeping an eye on Kearan when he first joined the ship. She hated it, though her job turned out to be easy since Kearan couldn’t take his eyes off her. She’s threatened to cut out his eyes multiple times, but I’ve expressly forbidden it. He can’t navigate my ship without them.
Now that we’re back from our mission, it looks like Sorinda has picked up right where she left off. Tolerating Kearan.
She ties the end of the rope she’s holding around Kearan’s waist. He doesn’t even notice, merely fidgets with another wave of sickness. Since he’s already halfway over the edge, it takes Sorinda very little effort to push him the rest of the way. There’s a quick shriek followed by a loud splash.
And Sorinda—my dark, quiet assassin—smiles. It’s a beautiful thing, but so fleeting. She composes herself before peering over the edge, the only outward sign of her preening over her victory.
Coughing and swearing ensues on Kearan’s end, but Sorinda molds back into shadow without another word.
Sometimes it’s so easy to forget Kearan is only a few years older than Sorinda and I are. Carrying on like a drunk will age a man considerably.
“See to it that someone helps him out of there, will you?” I ask Niridia. “He and the rest of the men need their ears covered. I’m going to stock up.” “Now?” she asks carefully. She knows exactly how much I hate this
particular part of being half siren.
“It needs to be now. I haven’t any song left after the fight on Charden, and I’ll need it if I’m to properly interrogate Vordan.” I smile then, thinking of the fun the two of us will have.
My methods of interrogation have been known to make men lose their minds.