The day had started out so promising. Blue skies. The high barrier islands made for nice scenery. Ocean mist relieved the crew from the hot sun as they worked on the back of the ship.
And like the rest of the crew, Kippar had thought nothing of the other ship as they first came alongside. They’d claimed they had run aground on a coral island under the tide, managed to push off, but the tiller was badly damaged. The flag they flew said: ‘request assistance— dead in water’— according to the boatswain’s mate.
Sailors, and pirates apparently, had so many damn flags he couldn’t tell one from the other. The merchant and the ship’s captain surrendered at the first gunshot.
“On your knees.”
Kippar did as he was told, along with the others packed together on the main deck of the schooner. The pirates strolled back and forth along the railing, tapping their swords, drumming their fingers on pistols, or reloading their powder.
Waiting for an order to kill us, he wondered, heart thumping away.
“Hands on your heads, if you please.”
Despite the pirate’s good manners, his voice dripped of malice, so Kippar slapped his hands atop his unruly curls. The other captured sailors did the same, and one of the younger sailors looked about ready to break down and weep. As far as Kippar could tell, everyone was present except the captain. No dead souls, yet.
The pirate in charge was a tall man, long locks of black hair tied behind his head. Sea mist gleamed on his brown skin, the lean muscles of his arms. He leaned his backside against the rail, pausing to scrape something from the barrel of his pistol with a fingernail.
What are you waiting for? Kippar began to sweat. He tried to shift his knees on the hard deck, but it proved uncomfortable no matter what he did. Though, nothing about the situation was something to be comforted by.
A woman with a long blond braid down her back and a jagged scimitar in hand stepped out of the captain’s cabin, walking straight up to the black man to lean in and whisper.
The man’s eyes widened.
“What is it?” someone called from the gangway across the two ships.
“Dead,” called the tall man, leaping up to the rail. “Both dead.”
As three pirates, led by the blonde miss, hastened to the captain’s cabin, the rest of the vagabond crew started up a terrible ruckus. Kippar flinched as a gun fired, and the other prisoners gathered tighter together. The boom of the shot faded into blue sky, and the voices began to chant the same thing. “LeRoux, LeRoux, LeRoux,” they said, pounding the hilts of weapons on the rails of both ships until the beats fell together into a thunderous cheer.
A woman crossed between the ships along the narrow plank, battered black coattails snapping in the wind. Her eyes burned like molten gold, like nothing he’d ever seen.
The four pirates returned, two pairs carrying two bodies between them. One was the schooner’s captain, blood speckled down the front of his long gray beard. The other was the pirate captain, bright blue eyes still wide open, surprised as all hells to be dead.
The man next to Kippar began to pray under his breath.
Should I start praying too?
The dead pirate’s body was carried over to his ship.
“Captain then,” the tall pirate said, nodding to the woman with the gold eyes.
“What have we got?” she asked, scanning the schooner’s deck. Kippar turned his eyes down as her gaze swept over him.
“The hold was bursting with amber beads and marble, also a substantial amount of various spices and tea.” The man’s lips turned up into a grin.
Kippar glanced up as she, the captain, made her way to the end of the prisoner line at his left.
“Not significantly,” her counterpart answered, crossing his arms. “No one I’d waste the time on.”
One of the men scoffed and started to stand. He was a merchant’s son, aboard the schooner in his father’s place. Young and fair, he had a good family name behind him—Hawtham; he had to be worth something. Soon as his hands fell from his full head of walnut hair, the tall pirate decked him. The merchant fell, spitting up blood, and no one else stood to argue their worth.
Kippar sighed and turned his face down. There was a crack in the deck under his knees that needed filling.
Black boots stopped in front of him, the gold buttons on the bottom of her coat catching the sunlight. A pearl handle pistol grip winked from a leather holster at her waist, small gold beads lining the black, lace layer under her coat. Beneath all that, dark blue silk framed bronze cleavage, where a plain necklace cord disappeared. She squatted before him, elbows on her knees.
“Let me guess,” the pirate LeRoux said, a mischievous curl on her lips. “Carpenter?”
Kippar turned his eyes up to meet hers. Someone had already taken his tool belt….
LeRoux swiped a finger across his cheek and came back coated with sawdust. Tucking her black hair behind her ears, she asked with a smile, “What’s your name, carpenter?”
“Kippar Daveney, ma’am.”
Her laughter gave him a nervous smile. “There’s no ma’am here! I’m Roanna LeRoux, master of the Starling. How long you been at sea?”
“I mean in your life?”
He shrugged, hands slipping a little from his hair. “Three months.”
“So you’re a new fish.” She bounced a little on her toes. “How old are you?”
“I’m twenty-six, too!” She beamed, hands pressed to her chest.
Kippar let his hands slide from his head.
“Oh, back up, if you would.”
He replaced his hands, sending a quick prayer to the saints that LeRoux’s tall friend wouldn’t punch him.
LeRoux pursed her lips. “Look, Mister Daveney, our current carpenter is…” she twisted her face toward the sky “… let us simply say, not quite living up to expectations.” Her face leaned in, a breath from his, her voice low. “Drunken belligerence, laziness, thinks he’s entitled to more than his share just because he’s got seven kids to feed. I mean, have some common sense, man! If you can’t afford it, maybe stop knocking your lady up, right?”
Kippar glanced left and right from the corners of his eyes. “Er… right.”
“Do you have baby Kippars?”
He shook his head.
“No one-time girls that might come claiming your seed sprouted a pooping miracle?”
Definitely not. He shook his head.
“Good!” LeRoux grinned, pulling out of his personal space. “I mean, I love babies. Some of my sailors have families; I have no quarrel with that. What I’m trying to get across is taking responsibility. See my friend here: Master Khenan.”
The tall pirate raised a brow.
“He’s a good, responsible man, a lovely woman keeping house. He would love to fill her up, you know, but the—”
“Roanna,” the tall man, Khenan, groaned. He rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“What?” She looked back at him, irritated.
“First day as captain,” he said, his voice lower, “let’s focus, eh?”
“Fine, fine,” she said with a pout. “Anyway, what I was getting at is, I’d like to sign you on as the Starling’s carpenter. I pay better, that’s for sure. Five full kets a week plus five percent takings; that’s a promise.” She winked at the merchant. “Now I won’t force you, of course. I don’t like babysitting captives. Nor will I be personally offended should you refuse. It is absolutely your choice. What d’you say?”
“Don’t you say a damn word, Daveney!” Hawtham called, his voice pinched from holding his bleeding nose.
LeRoux shook her head. “Punch him again, Dame, if you would.”
The merchant’s form stiffened, but he did flinch when the quick fist flashed and snapped his head back. One of the other captives moved before Hawthrum fell on him.
“Now, you were saying, Mr. Daveney?” LeRoux asked.
Kippar lowered his eyes in silent refusal, his heart pounding.
He couldn’t see her face, but her voice ached of disappointment. “Very well.” LeRoux stood up and joined Khenan. “Dame, let’s leave the marble. Take the rest. Pull a few bottles of the spices for your woman if you like, since we’re heading that way.”
“Thank you kindly,” Khenan said. “The crew?”
LeRoux looked over the prisoners. “Like you said, not worth the trouble. Strip her masts and let ‘em go.”
Tall Mister Khenan barked orders to his fellows as the captain sashayed back across the gangway to the pirate ship.
Kippar bit his cheek, watching the men move between the decks with crates of valuable goods.
On the other ship, the Starling, a shirtless man slid down a rope from the summit of the main mast, feet landing with a thud on the deck. Bright tattoos covered his back and shoulders from neck to waist. White scars crisscrossed over the tan skin of his stomach, chest, and arms. Shaking out sandy-blond hair, the sailor began to check each load as it was brought over.
The man smiled as he chatted with his friends, and Kippar forgot he was a pirate. His hands fell from his head, legs aching as he straightened them.
“What are you doing?” hissed one of the captive sailors.
“Huh?” Kippar asked, sparing him half a glance. His feet took him to the rail, but the pirates ignored him as they hustled past, arms heavy with crates.
“Get back down, Daveney,” Hawtham rumbled, “’fore you get us all killed.”
“Can I kill him?” one of the other pirates asked, to no one in particular, receiving some snickers.
Kippar laid a hand on the rail, wind tugging at the loose sleeves of his shirt and tossing his curly hair across his forehead.
With each crate of cargo that left, the merchant got redder in the face. Kippar took a moment to be glad his brown skin didn’t give away any of his feelings, especially when the tattooed pirate glanced across the way.
The guy grinned, laughed to himself, and shared some words with Captain LeRoux before he went back to his job.
Kippar edged to the gangway.
“What do you think you’re doing, Daveney?” whispered one of the merchant crew.
“Out of the way.” The blond woman nudged past Kippar with a small barrel in her arms. She planted her right foot on the rail and launched herself up onto the gangway, her movements graceful and confident on the narrow plank.
Kippar stood by, gripping the rail tight, as two more men bounded onto the gangway.
“Is that all we’re taking?” the tattooed man called to the last pirate across.
“Damerae’s doing a last sweep through the hold,” answered the pirate as he popped the lid of his load to show the contents.
Light brown eyes. A single scar on his jaw cut through the growth of facial hair. The man met Kippar with a funny look, a curious smirk.
The last pirates on deck of the schooner guarded the prisoners, watching Kippar with interest, but doing nothing. He moved to face the gangway, the plank sliding on the rail as the ships bobbed on the sea.
“Get back, boy,” ordered Hawtham, the blood from his nose turning his lips red.
Holding on with both hands, Kippar set his right foot on the gangway.
“Don’t you dare go on that boat,” the merchant hissed.
He pursed his lips, focusing on the narrow plank. Water on both sides. On his end, a merchant schooner that was just robbed, a dead captain. Probably not getting paid now. On the other end, pirates.
Maybe the best choice had been to not get on a ship at all, he thought with a frown, stepping both feet onto the gangway.
The plank rose and fell with the bobbing of the ships. It wasn’t a far fall to the water, but he’d prefer not to fall at all. One step, heart going wild in his chest. This is crazy. Another step. He stopped as the ship rocked a little harder, hands flying to grab the edges of the plank.
“Make up your mind, kid,” boomed a voice behind him.
Kippar gasped, legs shaking a little now.
Master Khenan had one foot on the gangway, elbow rested on the knee. He lifted a brow.
Well? Make up your mind. Kippar lifted his hands and took another step.
Behind him the merchant shouted all kinds of unsavory things, and the plank groaned under another heavy weight, the tall pirate behind him now.
“It’s not so bad if you hustle,” Khenan said, close enough to whisper into Kippar’s ear. He added a gentle shove at the center of his back.
Kippar scrambled across the gangway and almost tripped coming off it.
Men, and the few women, of the pirate crew walked around Kippar as if he were no different obstacle than one of the masts. He ducked as the gangway swung toward him, sailors pulling it away from the other ship.
“Watch out, kiddo,” said one.
“Sorry, sorry,” Kippar muttered, out of breath.
“Changed your mind, Mister Daveney?” Captain LeRoux grinned as her fingers disappeared into an inner pocket of her black coat. The tattooed man stood idly at her side, the cargo taken from the schooner already below decks. She took Kippar’s hand and placed three shining gold coins, full kets, into his palm. “Call it a thank you for joining the Starling during our time of need.”
On the schooner, he’d only gotten one ket and eight a week. The three full kets in his hand gleamed under the sun.
“Rhett, show him around,” LeRoux said.
The pirate bowed, one hand on his scarred chest, revealing a gorgeous ship with tattered sails tattooed along his side.
“Rhett Challener,” announced the pirate, extending the same hand. “Bosun.”
LeRoux winked at Kippar as she left them.
“Er, Kippar Daveney,” he replied, taking Rhett’s hand, remembering to give it a good shake, as his father taught him.
“Kipper? Like the fish? That’s cute.”
Heat crawled up his neck, as he muttered, “It’s spelt different.”
Rhett’s face twisted up. “And not a fitting name for a pirate, mate. Least till you got a reputation to back it up.”
As far as Kippar could think, what little he knew about pirates, more specifically famous ones, he’d never heard of a man named Rhett Challener. For all the scars he wore and the Erish tapestry on his back, Rhett must be famous.
“Huh?” He met Rhett’s eyes again. Oh, saints, how long did I stare at him?
“See? Feels perfectly natural. I like it. C’mon, I’ll show you about this humble vessel.” Rhett nudged his shoulder and strolled away.
He had to find his sea legs again as the ship moved, rocking hard to the left and back again. No one else seemed to have a problem. He glanced toward the merchant schooner and swore he could feel the Hawtham’s glare as the Starling glided up the channel.
Rhett ducked under the rigging and made his way toward the back of the ship. He stopped beneath the quarterdeck and waved an arm. “Up there is our lovely master, Captain LeRoux, as you already know. I guess that makes Dame her quartermaster now— Damerae Khenan, real stand-up man. No better man to confide in.” Rhett’s face screwed up thoughtfully as he went on explaining the ship’s chain of command.
And Kip liked listening to him talk. His husky voice had a calming rhythm, and with that grin, he could charm a rattlesnake.
Rhett added a wink, as he said, “Word of advice though, watch out for the captain.”
“It’s not quite a coincidence she chose to drop Milton the moment she saw you. You look like her type.”
Fire flushed Kip’s cheeks. “Her type?”
“Yeah. Young, shy, inexperienced, if you catch my gist. By all means, go for it, if she gives you the opportunity. I would, but sadly, I’m far beyond meeting her standards. Trust me, I’ve tried. But here I am, judging you. For all I know, you’re a master of the mattress yourself.” Rhett slugged Kip’s shoulder. “We should swap stories later— Hey Jami!”
Kippar spun his head to find the new source of Rhett’s attention, a short woman stomping by with thick hair, locks of sparkling silver blending into cool brown. There was blood on her sleeves.
“Woah, Jami, my silver vixen, you okay?” Rhett stopped her as she passed. “We got a new carpenter—”
“Saw ‘im already. Ship’s not that big.” The woman put her eyes, red and slightly puffy, upon Kip. She thrust out a hand. “Jami Faintree.”
He gave her a gentle handshake. “Kippar Dav—”
“Kip, he’s Kip,” Rhett corrected.
“Lovely.” Jami yanked her hand away and disappeared beneath the quarterdeck.
“She’ll cheer up,” Rhett said. “Her and Captain Elias worked together long afore even I came aboard. Good friends, they was.”
Rhett moved on, introducing one of the lads—as he called them—here and there. A couple misses. They made their way forward, where Rhett paused at a door under the foredeck. “This is the forecastle, where you’ll be stayin’, as carpenter. Shall we meet your bunkmate?”
“I guess.” Kip shrugged.
Rhett opened and latched the door to the outside of the ship, sunlight flooding across an immaculate deck.
Peeking around Rhett’s shoulder, Kip saw two sets of bunkbeds, a surgeon’s table and a workbench. Nice oil lamps hung from the ceiling. Kip’s brows lifted at the sight. Even his former employ didn’t have lamps anywhere but in the captain’s quarters.
Two men occupied the space. One, a thin man with a distended stomach, grumbling as he worked on a broken barrel. The other sat under a lamp, using the surgeon table to prop up his feet as he read from a large tome. The delicate eyeglasses on the tip of his nose reflected the sun’s light, and his mouth twitched, making his thick mustache follow. He grimaced as the other man pounded on the barrel and started to yammer on about taxes.
The carpenter didn’t stop talking until Rhett cleared his throat, then they both looked up.
“Fellas, this is Kip,” Rhett said.
The man with the glasses opened his mouth to speak, but the other grunted a ‘hello’ and went back to complaining.
“Our new carpenter,” Rhett added.
Kip flinched as the other guy slammed his hammer upon the table.
“Excuse me?” the man demanded.
And you must be Milton.
“Captain LeRoux’s wishes.” Rhett pulled Kip further into the room.
The carpenter rushed at Rhett, but stopped a stride away. Spit flecked from his lips as he raged. “I’m being replaced!? By this little cunt? This boy hardly looks fit to lift even one of the smaller barrels.”
“You do a fabulous job, mate, but it is what it is. You’ll still get paid rest of the voyage.”
“I’ll have words with the captain myself, not from her fucked-up errand boy. I’ve been with this rig too long to take shit from you, Challener. And you, you little spit.” Milton sneered at Kip. “You’ll not last long. I’ll see to it th—”
The tidy fellow in the back stood up and dropped his heavy book on the surgeon’s table with a bang. He reached into his pocket.
Kip sensed a heavy dread fall, for Milton abandoned his words and held his breath.
“Off with you Milton.” The man’s voice was out of place, more like it belonged in fine halls and velvet coats, with ten different spoons to choose from at the dinner table.
The carpenter grunted his displeasure, red around the neck, but seemed to flee the forecastle with tail between his legs.
The man’s hand came back with a pipe. In his other pocket, he found a matchbox.
“You know you’re not supposed to be smoking underway,” Rhett said with a grimace.
“Milton gave me a migraine.” The match flared up and the man puffed the flame into his pipe, eyes closed. He shook the match out.
Rhett threw his hands up in defeat. “Do what you want. Kip, this is Doctor Quentin Bouchard, much more qualified than most shipboard surgeons. A real Lanthian doctor. I never found myself in better hands.”
“Too bad you can’t stay out of my hands,” the doctor said without cheer.
Again, Kip looked to Rhett’s scars, but didn’t let his gaze linger this time. He met the doctor’s hazel eyes and tentatively offered a hand. “Nice to meet you, Doctor.”
One side of Bouchard’s mustache twitched, for what might have been a smirk of his lips beneath. He grasped Kip’s hand, huffing his pipe. “Well met. Just Quentin is fine.”
“Have I seen you before?” Kip asked before he could stop himself. If he ever met the man, he couldn’t recall, though for some reason the scrutinizing eyes and tight smile were familiar.
Rhett laughed. “On bounty posters maybe. The doctor is famous in Lantha, didn’t you know.”
Bouchard shrugged nonchalantly.
“Oh, for what?”
“Killin’ a fella.” Rhett patted Kip’s arm.
The sound that escaped Kip’s mouth could only be compared to the squeak of a mouse. And I’m supposed to bunk with this guy?
“Well, c’mon, Kip,” Rhett said. “I’m not done with you yet. We have the whole below decks to tour.”
Kip hurried after him back outside. They didn’t even make the ladder below when a bell at the quarterdeck began ringing. “What’s that?” Kip shouted over the other hollers of pirates who rushed back and forth on deck.
“Another target.” Rhett grinned broadly, pulling a silver flute from his pocket. He shielded his eyes from the sun and squinted toward the front of the ship. “Roanna wants to take a ship. I got to get up top.”
“Wait!” As open as the world was, the sea and the sky, it closed around Kippar like a vice. Was he supposed to fight? Hide? Fix the ship even as it was blown to splinters? He grabbed Rhett’s hand, but let go as if it was the tail of a deadly snake. “Rhett, what do I do? I’m just a carpenter.”
“Not just a carpenter. You’re a pirate now.”