“ROSLYN!” I WHIRL AT her tiny voice.
Her grin exposes a loose tooth bent slightly out of place. “I’ve got something for you.” She holds up a ring of keys.
“I knew you’d save us,” Wallov says, a father’s pride glinting in his eyes.
How could I have forgotten little Roslyn? Stowed away all this time in her hidey-hole up in the crow’s nest. “How did you get the keys?”
“I had to wait for the girly-looking fellow to fall asleep,” she says apologetically. Riden gives me a look that says, Didn’t I tell you? “It was a good thing his ears were covered the whole time because the keys jangle so.”
“Sneaky little thief,” I exclaim proudly.
She steps in front of her father’s cell. “The next time you’re cross with me, Papa, I want you to remember this moment.” She inserts the key into the lock. “Oh, and Captain?”
“I want to fight with the crew in six years’ time.” Her voice changes slightly, as though she’s trying for a more adult tone. She could never mask the chirp of a six-year-old girl, but it’s something adorable watching her try.
I raise a brow at her, achieving what I hope is a slightly stern look. She bites the inside of her cheek, but waits to twist the key.
I look behind her at Wallov, who is trying to keep from laughing. “Seven,” I say.
“Done,” she says, flicking her wrist. An excited smile nearly splits her face in half.
A gunshot explodes through the mostly quiet brig. Every head turns toward the entrance where Tylon has appeared, a furious scowl spread across his face.
A cloud of smoke overtakes his features for a moment.
My eyes drift down to where he has his pistol extended in front of him. I follow its line of progress to where Roslyn stands.
Blood spurts wildly from her head. And she falls.
A wailing scream fills the sudden quiet. I think I might be the source, but I realize a moment later it’s Wallov.
My eyes rivet to Tylon, and I say the only words that make sense when the impossible lies before me. “You’re mine.”
“No, he isn’t.” Wallov has the door to his cell open before anyone else can move. He launches himself at Tylon, who was only halfway through unsheathing his sword. More pirates barge into the brig behind Tylon. The girls start billowing out of the unlocked cell, following Wallov’s lead.
My eyes return to my fallen crewman. To little Roslyn, who hasn’t moved since she fell. Despite the yelling and grunting, I can’t focus on anything else.
Eventually I find my voice. “Toss the keys!”
I don’t know who I’m speaking to. I don’t know if anyone can hear me through the cacophony of battle cries.
But someone must have, because the keys clank against one of the bars to my cell and slide to the floor. I snatch them up and maneuver around to unlock my own cell. Before I can fit the key in, one of Tylon’s men whips his cutlass at me. I pull both arms and keys back through the bars just in time, and the sword clangs against the metal, sending sparks to the ground. He eyes me, daring me to make a move, content to stand there until I get close enough for him to reach.
A sword point rips through the front of his stomach. A labored sigh escapes him as he stares down at the metal. Sorinda doesn’t wait for him to
drop before yanking her cutlass back through his gut and moving on to the next target.
A new sense of urgency overtakes me as a pool of blood forms near Roslyn.
I unlock my cell, toss the keys to Riden, and run to her, but Mandsy reaches her first, ripping off a section of her trousers to staunch the bleeding.
But I know how hard it is to survive a head wound. And for one so small.
Trembling fingers reach for her pulse. It’s still there. How is it still there?
“It skimmed her head, Captain,” Mandsy says. “Knocked her out. There’s a lot of blood, but I could see her skull intact underneath. If I can just get the bleeding under control—”
“Do what you can. I’m going after Tylon.”
I throw myself into the fray, tossing enemy pirates around like they’re rocks. I have metal bars at my disposal, so I ram heads into them in my search for Tylon. I finally catch sight of Wallov through the chaos. He’s got Tylon by the shoulders, and he slams his head into the ground over and over. I don’t know how long Tylon has been dead, but Wallov doesn’t seem to notice anything at all.
I rush to him and pin his arms to his sides. “Wallov, she’s alive. Calm down.”
It takes a moment for the words to sink in, but then instead of trying to go for Tylon, he’s trying to get away from me. To go to Roslyn. I release him.
We outnumber the men on the ship. After depositing us in the brig, the majority of Tylon’s men must have left to join the fight against the sirens. Those who remain go down quickly. We don’t spare a single one.
By the time I reach Wallov and Roslyn, Mandsy has her kit. She stitches the head wound and wraps it. Then she moves on to Niridia.
Two of us hold her down while Mandsy digs the ball out of her leg. “Pity you lot drank all the rum,” Kearan says. “She could use it.”
“I don’t want rum!” she screams. “I want my sword, I’m going to—”
“You’re not going anywhere,” I tell her.
Mandsy wrenches the pliers deeper into Niridia’s flesh. My first mate screams before blacking out.
“Got it!” Mandsy says. She begins cleaning and wrapping the wound. I sit back on my heels, grateful at least that Niridia isn’t in pain anymore.
Now that we’ve finished taking care of those who are still alive, we tend to the dead. As I watch Reona’s and Deros’s bodies drift out to sea by lantern light, I vow that I will see justice done for the senseless way in which they died.
They didn’t go down fighting, protecting what they held dear. They were caged. Like animals.
My gaze drifts up from the water. To the Dragon’s Skull. “I’m coming for you,” I whisper.
* * *
Back belowdecks, I survey what’s left of my crew, take in all the faces and injuries. “We have two options now,” I say to the group. “We can run or we can fight. I’m leaning toward option number two.”
“As am I,” Mandsy says, still wet with Roslyn’s and Niridia’s blood.
“I will kill all of them,” Wallov says, clutching a slowly healing Roslyn toward his breast.
“No, Wallov,” I say. “You will stay here and look after the wounded.” With Niridia injured, Mandsy needs to fill the role as my second. “The rest of us will board the Dragon’s Skull. Are there any objections?”
When I hear none, I tell them the plan.
* * * Dead men are heavier than live ones.
We strip them of clothing that isn’t too bloodied, then haul the corpses into one of the cells, piling them unceremoniously on top of one another. It’s quicker than dumping them into the ocean.
There isn’t enough clothing to go around, but we make do with what we have. The girls cover up their corsets with men’s shirts. They stuff their hair under tricornes. From their bunks, they tear up sheets and stuff them into
their leggings to make themselves look bigger, more masculine. Some even ask my permission to raid my cosmetics to draw facial hair under their noses and mouths. It won’t do anything to mask them up close, but from a distance, it could work.
Tylon’s body is the only one outside of the cell. I suspect no one is fond of the idea of touching him, even in death. But Riden moves toward him as if to put him with the others.
“No.” I halt him. “We will need his carcass.”
* * *
Dawn hasn’t yet made its approach. The stars in the sky reflect off the ocean below, trapping us in a world dotted with lights. The rowboats cut swaths through the water, rippling the illusion of peace.
We don’t carry lanterns with us across the space between the Ava-lee and the Dragon’s Skull. We need the absence of light to mask us. If we’re to pass as men, we need to be as concealed as possible.
Though we don’t call attention to ourselves, we also aren’t trying to hide. We’re there, floating in the dark. Easily spotted if someone should shine a light on us. Yet concealed until then.
Riden sits next to me in the rowboat. He rests his hand atop my knee, squeezes, and removes it.
“This will work,” I tell him.
“I know. I’m reassuring you, not myself.”
If we can reach the Dragon’s Skull quietly and take out everyone on the ship, we can come out on top. The rest of the fleet will not unleash their cannons on the pirate king’s ship. And once I can explain how I can get to the treasure, they won’t care that their king is dead. They will rally to my side. That is the way of the pirate. I just need to kill my father first.
I’ve thought about it many times. Killing my father. When he’d hurt me. When I discovered he’d locked up my mother. When he threatened my crew. Now I try to picture it, my cutlass sliding between his ribs to plant itself in his heart. The gasp that would float on his breath. The sightless look in his eyes.
I have killed hundreds of men. Why does my stomach sicken to think of killing this one? He is just a man. An admittedly powerful one, but still just a man.
But I have never killed my own flesh and blood. Why does it feel different? Should it feel different? Can I do what needs to be done in the end?
A light aboard the Dragon’s Skull hovers at the edge of the ship, raises high into the air, shines on us.
We’ve been spotted.
It’s time for these disguises to do their job.
Tylon’s body is propped up against the front of the rowboat, his face pointing toward the men aboard the Dragon’s Skull. Since half the back of his skull is gone, we have to keep him pointed straight ahead. I sit next to him, discreetly keeping his body upright. His glassy eyes are open, but thankfully the ship is too far for anyone to notice he doesn’t blink.
Now there are two lanterns, but no alarm sounds.
We act calm, casual. A few of the girls offer gruff waves. Sorinda shields her eyes from the light and doesn’t have to fake her irritable scowl.
Three lanterns gather together, watching our ship approach. They lower us a rope ladder. They must have recognized Tylon.
Not a word is spoken on our end or theirs as we hoist ourselves up the side of the ship. Through a porthole, I can see almost a hundred men sleeping in their bunks, undisturbed by our approach.
This will work.
I’m the first one over the lip of the ship. I size up the three men on watch. They don’t say a word as they take in my disguise. I must pass the test, because they still don’t attempt to speak. One of them hands his lantern to one of the others and pulls out a parchment and paper. He scribbles onto it while the rest of the girls join me aboard the ship.
When the pirate has finished, he shows me the paper.
Is your captain injured?
They’re still blocking their ears as a precaution. They can’t hear a thing.
Their only means of communication is through the written word.
Just as I’d hoped.
I reach forward as if to grab the parchment. Instead I cut off the man’s airway with a punch to the throat, then I reach for my cutlass to finish the job. Sorinda steps up beside me and rakes her rapier across another man’s neck. Mandsy takes out the third.
They drop, dead at our feet, without making a sound, not that anyone could hear if they did.
“Sorinda,” I say. “Find anyone else on watch above deck and dispose of them. Mandsy, lead the crew below and quietly take out the rest of the men on the ship. If you do not wake them, it should be as easy as butchering sheep. And keep your eyes open for the siren queen.”
Enwen shudders from a few feet away. My men do not have their ears covered. I still trust my mother’s promise.
“What about you?” Mandsy asks. “I’m to face the pirate king.”
“Not alone.” Riden strides through the darkness and plants himself firmly next to me.
“I think this might be something I need to do alone.”
“You need not do anything alone again if you don’t want to.”
It almost hurts to look into those golden-brown eyes. I know what he means by those words. He’ll be by my side always, as long as I want him there.
It’s so very tempting, but—“No. I need you below. We are vastly outnumbered. All hands need to take out those most loyal to the pirate king if we’re to survive this. And stealth will be needed if I’m to sneak up on the king while he sleeps. One person in the room is best.”
He nods, almost imperceptibly, but it is a nod, nonetheless. I kiss him for it, hating that I have to pull away so soon.
But what if it’s the last time?
I pull him to me again. I don’t care if it wastes time.
His arms come around me, crushing me, as if he means to permanently weld us together. His lips are frantic against mine, and they taste like salt. I wonder if he shed a few tears for Roslyn’s injury when I wasn’t looking.
Knowing that somehow makes me love him even more.
I pull back, even though it hurts, and turn to what’s left of my crew. “I expect to see you all again soon.”
“Whether in this life or the next,” Sorinda says.