Chapter One

Pistol fire flashed through the mist, and Kelta’s lucky stone flared hot against her throat, warning her. She leapt aside and heard the gun’s report at the same instant that she felt pain flare along the side of her neck. She stumbled, tripped over a dead body, and fell to the deck. The boards under her back were slick with her crewmates’ blood.

Several more shots rang out, but they didn’t echo off the water; the mist deadened the sound. Then silence fell. The fight had only lasted seconds; Kelta hadn’t even had time to draw her swords. There was no noise but the creak of the rigging overhead and the swish of water against the hull. Kelta held her breath.

“Is that all of them?” asked a harsh voice, no more than two paces away. Kelta tensed but didn’t move. The man’s accent sounded Alokite, but he spoke the Fosseni trade language.

“That was the last one!” another voice replied. “We did it, we actually got them all! Damn Taxians aren’t so impressive when you catch them half asleep, are they? What the hell are they doing this far north, anyway?” He also spoke Fosseni, but with a soft Poravian accent that sent a shiver down Kelta’s back.

She felt blood trickling from her neck where the pirate’s bullet had grazed her, but it wasn’t spurting; it wouldn’t kill her. She could still fight. She was close enough to reach those two speakers before they knew what was happening. She could leap up, draw her swords — and die in a hail of bullets as the other pirates surrounded her.

So she lay still with her eyes shut and focused on keeping her breathing slow and silent while her mind raced. She should have known the pirates had surrendered too easily. They had attacked out of the mist shortly after nightfall and realized too late that their target was a Taxian warship. Their abrupt surrender in the face of overwhelming od2ds would have made sense — except that half their crew was Poravian. Kelta of all people knew how sly and conniving Poravians could be. 

Of course it had been a false surrender. Of course they had a plan to retake their vessel.  But how had they done it? Ten experienced Taxian warriors didn’t simply nod off all at the same time in the middle of their duties, even if they’d been awake all night after a battle. Somehow, the pirates had drugged them—

The water. The barrel on deck, the barrel Kelta’s crew had been drinking from since they captured the pirate ship. The pirates must have drugged it before they surrendered. Kelta had been too focused on steering through the fog to drink, and that had saved her life.

But if a Taxian warrior ought to know anything, it was how to use her enemy’s weapon against them, and Kelta had survived this long by doing just that.  For the moment, she had to assume she was the only survivor. Facing a score of enemies alone would be fatally stupid. The teardrop of black stone on her necklace still felt hot against her skin, still warning her of danger; not that she needed her lucky stone to tell her that. She could hear the pirates talking around her; she could feel the vibration of their footsteps through the boards of the deck.

Kelta hunched her shoulder against the side of her neck, trying to staunch the blood without moving too much. She listened, hardly daring to breathe, as the pirates strode past her, laughing and jeering at their success. They had broken out of the hold, found weapons, and brought down ten Taxian warriors so fast that Kelta barely knew what had happened. That was a notable accomplishment. But now they were too busy congratulating each other to bother checking the bodies, and that, too, was fatally stupid.

They moved away from Kelta, and she heard a few of them shouting orders to adjust the ship’s course. The thick mist rolling across the deck muffled their voices, but Kelta concentrated on the vibrations in the planks under her back, tracking the men’s footsteps as well as she could. One moved behind her, to the wheel she’d abandoned. Some went below, and what felt like three sets of footsteps climbed into the rigging. Eventually, silence fell.

The man Kelta had tripped over lay beside her, obviously dead, with his eyes staring blankly, but most of her crew had fallen several yards away; some of them might still be alive. If they were, the fog muffled any sounds of breathing or moaning.

Kelta waited a little longer, counting thirty slow, careful breaths to be sure she was alone, then drew the small knife sheathed against her forearm and reached low across her stomach to cut a strip of cloth from her opposite sleeve. The motions were awkward, trying to hold tension in the fabric to cut it without moving too much, and her braided hair pressed irritatingly into her spine as she lay on top of the thick plait. But she didn’t sit up. The pirates might see that, despite the early morning darkness and the mist, and besides, she didn’t want to risk disturbing the wound in her neck. It might not seem bad right now, but if she moved too suddenly, it could start bleeding more heavily.

She moved her hands up to her neck, pressing the piece of her sleeve against the wound. She let out a soft breath of relief as the blood failed to seep through the wad of cloth. It really wasn’t too bad. Kelta cut a longer strip of cloth from the hem of her tunic, still keeping her motions slow and quiet in case any of the pirates looked in her direction, and wrapped it around her neck, trying to pull it tight enough to stop the bleeding without constricting her breathing. It felt clumsy and bulky. The Keltorax’s surgeon would do a better job when she got back to the larger ship; for now, Kelta would settle for not bleeding to death before she had a chance to win back their prize.

Kelta slipped her wrist knife back into its sheath and rolled carefully onto her stomach, trying to listen for approaching pirates at the same time that she tested her body’s movement. Lifting her head sent a twinge of pain down her neck, but she didn’t feel dizzy or weak. Good. That meant she wouldn’t have to waste time trying to hide and recover her strength.

She watched the helmsman for a moment, waiting for a particularly thick band of fog to cross the deck between his lantern and her position; then she pushed to her feet and moved to the rail, scrambling up into the shrouds before the mist parted again. She clung there, listening and staring around, her neck throbbing with every heartbeat. Nobody shouted the alarm or ran toward her. No sudden weakness came over her after her rush of movement. She still had a chance.

It was a slim chance. She and Kalon, the fighting master’s mate, had counted the pirates when they locked them below. Twenty-one men, and she had to assume they were all armed now. If she wanted to live, she’d have to kill every single one of them. As she leaned her face against the wet ratlines in front of her, she felt the clear focus of combat settling over her body. The world beyond the schooner disappeared from her mind as if the mist had seeped inside her, leaving her with only one thought: twenty-one.

Kelta clung there for another moment, listening to the ship, then set to climbing. She had heard three men approach the rigging near her. Those three were now isolated, even from each other, by a fog-laden tangle of lines and sails. No one would notice them missing for a while. 

So she hunted the three pirates through the rigging. She moved carefully across the slick ropes and yards, aware of the slight weakness in her left shoulder near her wound, and aware that the pirates were probably more nimble in the rigging than she was. She’d only been at sea three years; all the pirates were probably better sailors than Kelta — but none of them were better killers.

She inched out along one of the upper yards and found the dark outline of a man below her in the fog. He didn’t even look up as she swung down next to him. Kelta caught him around the throat with one hand and twisted the back of his head with the other, using her knees to grip the spar. She looped the footropes around his ankles to keep him from falling loudly into the water or onto the deck below, then left him to dangle upside-down. 

Twenty.

The next man was in the crow’s nest, probably looking for signs of the Keltorax returning to find the prize she’d lost in the fog. Kelta wrapped the dead man’s cloak around her shoulders and used the lubber’s hole to come up behind her second target. He glanced at her, fooled for a moment by the sight of his comrade’s cloak. A moment was all Kelta needed. She wrung his neck and left him where he was. 

Nineteen.

She felt her clumsy bandage loosening as she moved in search of the next man, and blood started seeping out, warm against her skin in sharp contrast with the chill dampness of the fog. Her pulse throbbed too hard in her neck and temple. Kelta paused long enough to adjust the bandage and to make sure her body still moved properly. Sharp twinges of pain ran up the side of her neck and down into her shoulder and arm, but she didn’t feel light-headed, so she kept moving.

The third man was at the top of the mast, loosing the t’gallant sail for a bit more speed. It wasn’t wise to sail quickly in a fog like this — but then, it wasn’t wise to stay near a Taxian warship after killing ten of their warriors, either. Running was the smart choice, not that it would do them any good. Kelta wished she dared to send up a signal for the Keltorax, but anything loud or bright enough to alert the Taxian ship would also alert the pirates. Kelta would be dead long before her crewmates reached her.

The man loosing the t’gallant happened to look down as Kelta climbed up; she was still wearing the first pirate’s cloak, but his eyes widened as he saw her unfamiliar face framed in the hood. He let out a cry of surprise, but the fog muffled his voice, and an instant later, Kelta reached him and silenced him permanently. Again, she tied him in place so he wouldn’t fall and alert the others.

Eighteen.

Before climbing down, she dragged her attention from her hunt long enough to stare in all directions, hoping for a glimpse of the Keltorax. She saw nothing but the dark grey swirls of fog folding around her. She returned to the deck.

Three of her companions lay near the mast, on the opposite side of the vessel from where Kelta had fallen. She lay down among them so any passing pirate would mistake her for a corpse, then turned toward each in turn, checking for signs of life. One was dead. Beside him lay Samos, one of Kelta’s fellow officers in training, still breathing but unconscious and bleeding heavily from the scalp. Kelta untied the sash from the young man’s waist and wrapped it around his head, then turned the other direction and found herself face to face with Kalon, the fighting master’s mate. He’d been in charge of securing the prisoners below deck.

The young man blinked, struggling to focus on her, his jaw set with a mixture of determination and pain. Blood stained his upper arm, and a livid bruise blotched his forehead and temple. “Good to see you,” he murmured, his voice barely loud enough to reach her even though her face was mere inches from his.

Kelta gave him a curt nod that didn’t betray the relief that rushed through her. She wasn’t alone. Her odds of survival had just doubled. “What happened?” she breathed.

“Not sure.” Kalon started turning his head, then stopped and shut his eyes, looking nauseated by the motion. “They got the door unlocked,” he mumbled. His voice had a faint slur to it, as if he’d been drinking. Was that from the blow to his head, or from the drugged water? “Threw it open so fast I didn’t have time . . . hit me with something.”

“Not hard enough,” Kelta whispered, drawing her wrist knife again and sawing at the hem of Kalon’s tunic. “You got behind them.” She’d seen him leap up through the hatch behind the escaped prisoners in the instant before she’d been shot.

“Killed one,” he said. “Lost my balance. . .”

She nodded as she started wrapping the strip from his tunic around his arm. If that dark bruise on his head was any indication, it was a wonder Kalon had stayed on his feet long enough to follow the prisoners up the ladder at all, even if he hadn’t drunk any of the water. He was a Taxian warrior to the bone, too stubborn to let a little thing like a bashed head stop him from pursuing his enemy. And the man he’d killed left seventeen.

“Second one shot me,” Kalon said. He opened his eyes again and tried to focus on her. “You all right?”

“Fine,” said Kelta, ignoring a fresh twinge of pain in her neck. “I played dead.”

“Well done.” Kalon gave her a small nod of approval, as if she needed his reassurance. “All right, we’ll need to see if any of the others are alive. Stay low and quiet and try to use the fog for cover; we can’t afford for the pirates to notice us.”

Kelta bit back a sharp reply. Kalon had a habit of giving unnecessary advice. Did he really think a snake-style fighter like Kelta, trained in stealth, needed tips on staying unnoticed — especially from a student of the drachon style, which solved all its problems by hitting them harder? “I’ve confirmed two dead so far,” she said coolly as she knotted the bandage around Kalon’s arm. “Samos is alive. I’ll find any others.”

“Snake guide you,” Kalon whispered.

Kelta nodded again, accepting the blessing. The fathom snake was the Teacher of Cunning, the patron of her chosen fighting style. She’d need all the cunning she’d ever learned if she was going to defeat seventeen more men on her own. 

And she intended to do just that. She left Kalon and moved aft again, passing the man she’d tripped over when she was shot. Kelta already knew he was dead, so she didn’t look at his face or let his name slip into her thoughts; she couldn’t afford distraction. She lay on her belly again as she approached the helm, crawling on her elbows. The pirate at the wheel stared almost directly over her head as he tried to steer through the mist. Kelta slithered past Meniphos, the Keltorax’s second mate, who had been in command of the prize crew. She glanced at him just long enough to confirm that he’d been shot through the heart. That made three of her crew dead, three alive, and the other four still unaccounted for. Kelta thought the others had been near the bow when the fight broke out — if such a quick, decisive ambush counted as a fight.

Kelta rose suddenly beside the helmsman, grabbing throat and head and twisting sharply. She leaned his body against the wheel and threaded his arms through the spokes; in this fog his comrades would have to stand beside him and look him in the face to see that he wasn’t alive. 

Sixteen. 

She started moving forward again, hoping to find other crewmates still alive near the bow, then ducked behind a stowed boat as two men came up from the hatch. She waited to see if any others followed them, then watched them separate. 

One headed forward, carrying a lantern. He called to the men in the rigging and frowned when he got no response. The other man went to the rail to answer nature’s call. He was barely two paces from Kelta.

She slipped up and snapped his neck like she had the others. There was no reason to get creative as long as the same method kept working. In a fight in broad daylight or one in which men might survive long enough to learn from their mistakes, such tactics would be fatal, but these men would never get that chance. Kelta guided the body to fall into the narrow gap between the rail and the stowed boat, out of sight. She’d have let him drop overboard, but the splash might make too much noise.

Fifteen.

She leapt out toward the diffuse glow of the other man’s lantern, just as he turned back toward his partner. He saw Kelta coming for him, and her knife flashed into her hand as she lunged forward. He yelped and reached for his pistol, but not fast enough. Kelta’s blade sliced through his throat as her fist grazed past him; she pivoted to follow his falling body and drove her knife into his back to be sure he was dead. 

Fourteen.

The lantern fell with a crunch of breaking glass. The candle sputtered and went out, but someone might have heard the smash of the lantern or the man’s aborted cry for help. Kelta returned to her hiding place behind the boat and crouched beside the corpse she’d just stowed there, her heart beating hard and her breath coming quickly.

Two heads appeared through the hatch a moment later, peering around as they rose into sight. “I’m telling you, I heard something,” one of them said in a nasal, whining voice. Even this far away from the helm lantern’s light Kelta could see his fiery red Alokite hair.

“You heard Arvon walking past the hatch, idiot,” grumbled the other. He, too, sounded Alokite. Maybe Kelta should keep one of the Alokites alive. They weren’t as dangerous as Poravians, and she still needed to determine whether this crew had any information about Grand Haias Alphira’s whereabouts. That was the only reason the Taxians had left the pirates alive when they first captured the ship: they needed information about their missing ambassador. But at this point, it would be easier if Kelta just killed all the pirates; she wasn’t in any state to guard prisoners alone, even for the short time it would take the Keltorax to come back for her.

  She realized her focus was slipping and drove her mind sharply back to the present. She and Kalon had killed seven so far. No matter the difficulty, it was her duty to keep at least one officer alive for questioning. So now she only had to kill thirteen.

“No, it was some sort of thump.” The whiny-voiced pirate peered around. His eyes widened as he spotted the dark shape of his shipmate crumpled beside the mast, half-hidden in the fog. “I told you!” he yelped, drawing a weapon and darting toward the fallen man, directly past Kelta’s hiding place.

Kelta let him pass. Now that the pirates were alerted, it was time for blade work. She still held her wrist knife in her hand; that would do for now. She waited for the second man to exit the hatch and struck him first, a slice to the side of his neck that sprayed blood and dropped the man almost on top of the hatch. 

The whining one spun around too late; he yelled and tried to block Kelta’s knife, but she slapped his upraised arm aside and stabbed him in the throat. He gurgled and fell, while Kelta let out a breath of relief. If he’d screamed more loudly, he’d have ruined her chances. As it was, she might still have a few minutes before the rest of the crew found her.

Eleven.

She dragged away the man who had fallen beside the hatch, leaving him near Samos and Kalon where he might be mistaken for a dead Taxian.

“Other survivors?” murmured Kalon. His eyes were a bit clearer now, though he still looked pale and dazed. He struggled to sit up, but Kelta pushed him back down, and he didn’t resist.

“I don’t know yet,” she whispered. She glanced at the dead man she’d just dragged across the deck: he carried a pair of pistols thrust through his belt. Kelta pulled them free and checked that they were loaded. Kalon’s sword lay beside his leg, but he was in no state to use it. “Can you use a gun?” she asked.

He managed an incredulous look. Of course; she’d asked a foolish question. Most Taxian warriors disdained the slowness and inaccuracy of firearms, and many fighting schools taught that they depersonalized, even trivialized, death. Haias Ganat, their captain, belonged to that school of thought. But Kalon was training to be a ship’s fighting master: he studied all types of weapons. Kelta nodded and pressed the guns into his hands. “I’ll be back,” she murmured.

She hurried forward. The darkness was lifting a little; somewhere beyond the mist, it must be dawn. A few more minutes, and she’d lose the cover of darkness, even if the mist didn’t burn away. She found the last four members of her crew near the foremast. Three were dead. Kaphor was alive, his limp hands curled over a gut wound. He might survive, if she finished this quickly and got him back to the Keltorax’s surgeon.

Kelta knelt beside the man to stop his bleeding, again using a piece of his own tunic for a bandage. His eyes flickered and his breath hitched, but he didn’t properly wake. He must have drunk enough of the drugged water to knock him out. That was probably for the best; Kelta had heard belly wounds were among the most painful of injuries.

Only four of ten had survived — ten fully trained Taxian warriors, who should have been more than capable of controlling or killing twenty-one pirates. They shouldn’t have underestimated Poravian guile. Kelta knotted the bandage around Kaphor’s waist and moved back to her hiding place behind the boat with anger burning in her chest. This should not have happened.

Light spread from the east; the fog took on a paler tint but still hung low and heavy over the ship instead of burning away in the sunlight. It must be a cloudy morning. Sure enough, a few minutes later a light rain began falling through the mist. The patter of water against the deck wouldn’t mask any loud noises, but it was enough to give Kelta a bit more of an edge. 

“—and I’ll get a sighting as soon as the mist starts clearing,” said a voice, growing louder and revealing a distinct Poravian accent as the speaker climbed up through the hatch onto deck. Kelta shivered. He sounded a little like the man who — no. She quickly shut that thought away and focused on preparing herself for the next kill. “Those Taxian bastards turned us west, best as I can tell,” the Poravian continued, “but I reckon we’re heading north again now.” 

“Well, that’s something,” came the reply as a second, heavier set of footsteps creaked up onto the deck. The combination of fog and rain blurred the men’s figures as they turned away from Kelta, moving toward the helm. The larger man’s footsteps scraped and thumped suddenly, as if he’d tripped. “Damn it,” he growled. “Why are these corpses still decorating my deck? Roust out a few of the boys and throw the garbage overboard.”

Kelta sprang out of her hiding place and kicked the hatch closed on her way past, spraying collected rainwater from the edges of the frame. She charged the two men, drawing the matching short swords at her sides for the first time today. The heavier man was closer to her. He swore and reached to his waist for a weapon, but Kelta stabbed him before he could finish drawing. 

The second man got off a pistol shot but missed as Kelta spun toward him, both blades slicing parallel through the rain to catch his arm and side. He cried out in pain, and Kelta finished him off with a thrust to the heart. 

But the hunt was over now; even fog and rain couldn’t conceal a gunshot, and that long yell of pain was unmistakable, too. It would be a pitched battle now, but she’d whittled down the enemy force to ten men in under an hour, and only nine of those who remained needed to die. Eight, if she wanted to give her captain a better chance of getting the information he needed. 

Kelta didn’t return to her hiding place; she didn’t want to be trapped. Instead, she leaped into the rigging again. Weariness and pain seemed to drop away in a sudden surge of energy, her heart beating harder as she crouched with her arm hooked over a rope, waiting for the fight.

Men boiled up through the hatch, brandishing weapons and staring around in confusion. One of them tripped over the body closest to the hatch and let out a yell as he realized it was his crewmate, not a Taxian. 

“They’re not all dead!” the man beside him shouted. “We didn’t get them all! There’re still Taxians on board!”

“The helmsman’s dead!” someone else yelled as he moved toward the wheel. “Gods only know what direction we’re going in this fog!”

“Take the wheel,” said someone else in a calmer voice. He sounded like he was in charge, and he spoke with an Alokite accent: he’d make a good choice to keep alive. “We’ll have to search the whole ship,” he ordered. “Split up. You four sweep the deck — and get rid of those bodies while you’re at it. We don’t want them hiding among the dead. You stay with the helmsman and make sure the bastards don’t get to him and turn us off course again. You two, come with me to check below and lock up the extra weapons. Give a shout if you find something and we’ll all come running.” 

The initial confusion and panic calmed quickly. These men were well organized, for pirates. They knew they’d made a mistake in assuming all the Taxians were dead; the ones sweeping the deck began stabbing bodies through the heart. They started with Meniphos. Kelta held perfectly still, ignoring the water that dripped across her eyelashes, her teeth clenched as she watched them jab her commander repeatedly with their swords even though he was obviously dead, his eyes glassy and a hole through his chest. And just like that, Kelta became the hunter again, even as they thought they were hunting her.

Two of the pirates dragged Meniphos toward the rail, while the other two kept plying their swords. They stabbed the man Kelta had tripped on when she was shot. She caught a breath as she saw them moving toward Samos and Kalon. Samos was still unconscious; he faced Kelta, and she could see his pale, slack features and closed eyes, unaware of the rain beating against his cheeks. Kalon faced the other way, his head lolling to the side, but Kelta saw the tension in his arms and the faint bulges of the pistols concealed under the splayed edges of his tunic. He might be fighting with unfamiliar weapons, but Kelta had sparred with him often enough to know how good he was. He could take two men if she took the others.

Kalon’s hands snapped up suddenly, holding the pistols straight and steady. The double report cracked through the air, and the two pirates bending to stab Samos screamed and staggered back. Neither shot was aimed well, but Kalon couldn’t miss at such close range: one man fell clutching his thigh, while the other stumbled against the rail with a hand pressed to his side before toppling overboard with a splash.

The two carrying Meniphos turned awkwardly in surprise, dropping their burden, as Kelta descended from above. Her swords swept out in both directions, slicing deep into flesh. One man howled with pain; the other was dead before he hit the deck. Another step forward brought Kelta in range of the one Kalon had shot in the leg; she dispatched him with a quick thrust.

“Give me their guns,” said Kalon, sitting up with an effort. His voice still carried an almost drunken slur. He swayed, clearly dizzy, and his eyes blurred in and out of focus for a moment. He raised one hand to his head, pressing the other to the planking to prevent himself from toppling over. But he’d already proven he could shoot despite his wounds. Kelta sheathed her swords for a moment, snatched two more pistols from the fallen pirates and tossed them into Kalon’s lap, then rushed onward.

The two pirates near the helm were already racing toward Kelta, shouting the alarm in case their companions below hadn’t heard the gunshots. Kelta felt the thumps of booted feet rushing up from below. Six lefts. That was nothing compared to the original odds, but six men with guns could still surround and kill her if she wasn’t fast enough.

She dropped her wrist knife into her hand and flung it. It sliced through the mist and buried itself in the chest of the nearest man coming from the helm. Kalon fired at the other; he missed, but the man ducked behind the mast, giving Kelta the time she needed to close the distance, drawing her swords again as she ran. 

The pirate saw her coming. His gun swung toward her, but her left-hand sword swept outward, shearing into his wrist and slamming the gun aside as he pulled the trigger. The shot went wild, and the man’s cry cut off as Kelta’s other sword drove into his chest.

That only left the four below. Kelta turned in time to see the first one coming up through the hatch with a gun already aimed at her. The crack of the report came before Kelta could move — and the pirate fell forward and dropped his gun to lie with his face in a puddle and his legs still dangling down the ladder behind him. Kalon’s second shot had taken him in the back.

Kelta raced to the hatch and flung the dead man back down inside, hoping he wasn’t the officer she’d picked out from earlier. A muffled yell of surprise was followed by hasty scrambling noises, and Kelta jumped straight down on top of the dead man, who had fallen on top of the man climbing up behind him. She landed on both of them, jumped clear of the wriggling pile of limbs, and slammed her boot hard into the head of the man on the bottom, driving his skull against the lowest rung of the ladder. He’d live, probably, but he’d wish he hadn’t by the time the Taxians finished with him.

A heartbeat later she heard the last two men running toward her. The men had split into pairs to search below, and this pair was a little farther away than the first. 

She leapt to meet them fast enough to slap aside the first man’s pistol as he raised it toward her. The shot fired past her, and she launched off her back foot to plant the other heel squarely into the man’s chest. Bones cracked beneath her boot as she slammed him into the bulkhead, and he collapsed, senseless.

She followed him to the floor to avoid being shot by the last man coming from the afterhold. The bullet whizzed overhead; he rushed at her and tried to club her with the empty pistol, but she grabbed his arm, clawing her way up his body to regain her feet. As her hand found his neck she twisted, slamming him bodily into the bulkhead. Sometimes even in a pitched fight the same trick worked twice. She slapped his head against the bulkhead once more for good measure, then let his body slump over his companion’s.

She scrambled over the pile of men and retrieved her two swords where she had dropped them, then started counting backwards in her mind to make sure she’d gotten them all. Leaving these last three alive, and accounting for Kalon’s two, she had just killed sixteen men in about an hour.

Kelta stood there in the dark, breathing heavily, with blood dripping from the blades of her swords and water dripping from the rest of her body. Every pulse drove pain through the side of her neck; she’d almost forgotten the wound, but now she felt fresh blood seeping through the rain-soaked bandage. Her body trembled from the familiar mixture of pain and blood loss and the aftermath of a hard fight.

She forced herself to keep moving anyway. She walked through the lower deck and the hold, checking that she hadn’t missed any pirates. She was not going to repeat their mistake. Once she’d assured herself there was nobody hiding or playing dead, she checked that none of the three she’d knocked unconscious looked Poravian. As it turned out, they were all Alokite, with red hair and braided beards. Safe enough to keep alive, as long as she was careful.

Kelta tied one of them to the ladderway with his hands spread the distance of the rungs so he couldn’t use them, then dragged the other two to the gun deck and lashed them between guns, looping rope through the carriages to keep the men as still as possible. Then she stabbed the one Kalon had shot, just to be safe, and returned to deck to do the same to the rest of the pirates.

The rain had slowed and the light filtering through the fog had shifted from grey to pearly white. The mist was starting to thin as the sun rose higher. The air felt less heavy, and the noise of the waves slapping against the hull came crisp and clear.

Overhead, the sails luffed briefly, then hung limp. With nobody to adjust the sails or man the helm, the little schooner had turned into the wind: she was in irons, moving with the waves instead of the breeze. For the moment, that was good. It meant they weren’t moving any farther from the Keltorax or straying into dangerous waters in the mist.

“Is that all of them?” Kalon asked, his voice hoarse and still slightly slurred. He was sitting up again, leaning against the rail with the bodies of friends and foes still strewn around him.

“That’s all,” Kelta said. She looked down at her swords, watching the rain wash them clean, then returned them to their sheaths at her sides. “Can you stand?”

“Yes.” Kalon answered without pausing to consider. He had tossed aside the empty pistols and laid his sword across his lap; now he sheathed the blade and pulled himself up the rail to stand, swaying and pale. “You sure that’s all of them?” he asked. “Did you count them?”

“Yes,” Kelta said, too tired to care if he was checking up on her again or if he was just being cautious.

“Survivors?” he asked.

“Samos. Kaphor, if we get him to the doctor quickly enough.”

Kalon started to nod and caught himself, cupping a hand gingerly over his bruised temple. “Let’s get them out of the rain.” He motioned toward a roll of tarred canvas stowed beside the rail. It wouldn’t make much of a shelter, but Kelta doubted either of them had the strength to carry their unconscious comrades down the ladder to the schooner’s cabin.

By the time they had rigged a rough awning over Samos and Kaphor, the rain had slowed to a bare drizzle and the mist was shredding away as sunlight brightened overhead. Kalon sank down to lean against the mast and gestured Kelta to sit as well.

She hesitated. She was in command of the schooner now; as senior sorhaias, that duty fell to her with Meniphos’ death. She had to calculate their location or find the Keltorax. But that could wait a few minutes. She sat down and peered under the edge of the tarpaulin at Samos and Kaphor. Samos seemed to be sleeping naturally now; his breathing was steady and his face had regained some color. Kaphor looked worse, with sweat beading his white face and tremors running through his body. Kelta bent over him, examining his wound, but she couldn’t tell much except that he’d stopped bleeding.

The sand glass that hung beside the wheel had run through long since with nobody to turn it or strike the bell, and without a clear view of the horizon or the sun, Kelta couldn’t guess at the time. She felt as though it should be noon by now, but in reality, she doubted it was more than an hour past sunrise. Her stomach grumbled for breakfast and her mouth and throat felt dry, but she couldn’t trust any of the pirates’ provisions.

They sat there, silent, exhausted, and hurting, until the last of the fog burned away and the tall blue sails of the Keltorax appeared nearby, crimson wind spells flickering along the edges of the canvas as she rushed back to reclaim the misplaced prize.

If you enjoyed this first chapter, head over to Amazon to read the whole book!

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