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Ari

By Maris McKay All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Romance

I

The deck shook. Wood cracked and splintered as the main foremast fell. It caught in the sails and rigging, listing the ship starboard. I clutched the rail as men swarmed the Corescue’s decks and ropes, cutting lines free.

Captain Gartan grabbed my arm. “Your Grace,” he said. “This ship will be boarded.”

I looked across the smoke covered water at the pirate ship The Mad Serpent. The three-masted frigate flew a solid red flag above dark sails.

“Cetan may try to ransom you,” the captain said. “But I would strongly advise concealing your presence.”

I nodded, a strange calm pushing aside my panicked inner voice. “I’ll need boy’s clothes”

“I’ll send someone,” he said. “Pack everything in your cabin. We’ll stow it in the hold and hope they don’t realize a woman was on board.”

I ran down the steps, falling into the cabin with another roll of the ship. My maid, Bridget, was there. I started throwing dresses and hair things in the nearest trunk. “Pack everything.”

A moment later, a midshipman showed up with a pile of clothing. I shoved the first trunk at him and he carried it off. I stripped off my dress and tugged on clothes much like those of the common sailors. Bridget followed my lead, her hands shaking and her eyes wide and glassy.

I stowed the last of my clothes in the trunk just in time for the midshipman to return and carry it out. I glanced around the cabin. I’d missed a hairbrush and a bottle of perfume. Opening the porthole, I tossed them overboard.

“What now?” Bridget asked.

An explosion shook the air and threw me to the floor. I covered my head with my arms as wood splinters flew around me. When I no longer felt things hitting me, I sat up. The cabin had a hole blown in one side and out the other. Bridget lay bleeding in a pile of splinters.

“Bridget?” I said, crawling toward her. She didn’t move. Her eyes were wide open, staring at the partly-destroyed ceiling. She was dead.

Overhead, I heard a loud thump as if we’d hit something, then the sound of swordplay on deck. I looked back at Bridget. If the pirates discovered and searched her body, they would know there had been at least one woman on board. They would ask questions.

I grabbed her arms and dragged her to the gaping hole in the side of the cabin away from the pirate ship. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, and pushed her into the water.

Catching up a jacket to cover my bloody shirt, I pulled my cutlass from its sheath. Hair tickled the back of my neck, and I swore a most un-princess-like curse. Grabbing a handful of hairpins I yanked them out, then tied my hair back with a cord. Grabbing the waist-length tail of hair, I sawed it off just below the cord. Long locks of golden brown hair that my mother had once called my “finest feature” followed Bridget into the water.

I stepped out of the cabin and headed for the deck. A bald scoundrel with tattoos on his head blocked the light from the deck, and I cut at his ankles. He stumbled back on the stairs, then lunged at me. I ducked under his arm, turning to parry as he swung his blade at my head. I dropped into a crouch and his next cut go over my head. His heavier sword lodged in the wooden door frame. The midshipman who’d been carrying my trunks ran up from the hold, and stabbed the pirate through the back.

“You shouldn’t be fighting,” he said.

Ignoring him, I started up the ladder. My eyes darted over the scene on deck. The pirate ship was close enough to leap between the two decks. Most of our sailors lay in puddles of blood, or stood with their hands raised backing away from their weapons.

In the moment that I hesitated, someone knocked the cutlass from my hand and shoved me toward a group of three other sailors.

When the midshipman behind me stepped on deck, he had the presence of mind to get his blade up. The pirate caught it on his sword and forced the midshipman back against the quarter deck. He punched him and wrested the sword away. Disgust twisting his face, the pirate grabbed the midshipman’s shoulder and shoved him toward a group of disarmed officers. The captain was there, holding an injured arm.

A tall man with broad shoulders and long hair tied back in a queue strode across the deck with a rolling gait that matched the matched the ship’s motion. He carried a bloodied cutlass, and drew a pistol from a belt across his chest as he walked toward the captain.

“Any last words?” he asked.

“You will answer to El’Elera for what you do, Sorcerer,” the captain said.

The pirate leveled the gun at his head, and pulled the trigger. The captain fell, and the pirate looked at his men, “Kill all the officers,” he ordered.

Turning toward our crew, he re-loaded his pistol. “I give you a simple choice. Join me,” or suffer their fate.” He jerked his head back toward our officers as his pirates fell on them with their swords.

I flinched – I couldn’t help it. The pirate caught my eye. “You don’t want to die, do you boy?”

I shook my head, not trusting my voice.

“I need a new cabin boy,” the pirate said. “What say you? Will you be the first to join my crew?”

Given the available options, I nodded. “Yes, Captain.” I even managed to keep my voice from squeaking.

The twenty-some men still alive made the same bargain. Captain Cetan divided us evenly between the two ships, and left his boatswain in command of the Corescue. I found myself in the galley of the pirate’s ship, listening to the cook’s orders through what seemed like a fog. I knew nothing of kitchens, but it appeared he didn’t either and my ignorance had little effect on the food I delivered to Captain Cetan’s cabin. It smelled like boiled rats, but that didn’t affect his appetite.

“Captain,” a pirate said, sticking his head through the door. “We’ve spotted three Yarbish warships on the horizon.”

Cetan opened a locked cabinet on the far side of the cabin, and took out a wide, deep box. Unlocking that, he drew out two glass vials from the padded compartments. Locking the case again, he put it back in the cabinet and headed to the deck.

I followed them, shading my eyes against the setting sun. Surely Cetan couldn’t defeat three of Yarbia’s warships even if he really was a sorcerer, and they couldn’t out-run them with the Corescue so badly damaged. Perhaps I would be rescued in time for my wedding after all.

Cetan grabbed a ratline and swung over to the other ship. He went to the quarter deck, and crouched down. From here, I couldn’t see what he was doing. A few minutes later, he stood and ran back to the railing, swinging over to The Mad Serpent.

The Corescue seemed to shiver and the edges turned misty. The pirates raised sails on her remaining masts, and she limped forward. My mouth dropped open as the front part of the ship vanished, like it was sailing into an invisible tunnel.

I heard muttering behind me on the quarter deck, and took a few steps back so I could get a better view. Captain Cetan was drawing a pattern on the deck with the vials, and sprinkling them with a powder from a pouch at his waist. His words were muffled, garbled. When he stood, I saw a purple wave shimmer out from him and cover the ship. It felt cold as it went through me.

“Make sail,” Cetan shouted.

The ship moved forward, following the vanished Corescue. A few moments later, I blinked and saw the Corescue again. Neither of us were where we had started. Here, the water was calm and an island lay off the starboard side. I walked to the rail and looked out towards a crescent-shaped cove.

“Disconcerts you at first, don’t it?” a voice said by my elbow. I looked, and saw a man with a green bandanna wrapped around his head. He only had one tooth. “You get acquainted to it quick, though. Nobody catches this ship, no sir.”

My heart sank. That night, my emotions finally caught up with the day’s events and I cried myself to sleep in a closet-sized cabin. The only thing I was ever supposed to do with my life was marry a prince. A few months ago, when my mother told me they’d finally signed a marriage agreement for me, I did not expect it to involve sorcerers and pirate ships. Swordplay had seemed like a hobby, adventures like something that happened to other people, and I felt desperately alone.

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