Dragon Pirate Preview
Riders of Fire Dragon Masters book 3
by USA Today bestselling author Eileen Mueller
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Map of Dragons’ Realm
Prologue – Two Moons Earlier
Will’s legs moved, but not fast enough. A cry formed in his throat, but choked off, no sound slipping past his lips.
Captain Black Eye’s cutlass struck the jade-and-turquoise-veined dragon egg. The shell split, mottled creamy shards spraying the deck. But the captain’s cutlass went further, driving through the dragonet’s neck and cleaving its skull from its body. Dragonet blood sprayed the captain. The baby dragon’s cornflower-blue head bounced on the deck, its golden eyes half-lidded and its perfectly formed half-moon scales glistening with moisture.
Will roared and raced for the captain. As the dandy whirled, Will gripped his cutlass double-handed and plunged it into the captain’s belly. The captain’s mouth sagged and his eyebrows flew up. He stumbled backward, clutching the blade, a crimson stain blossoming across the belly of his creamy linen shirt. He staggered, gurgling, then crashed to the deck.
Oh gods, oh gods, oh gods! Will dropped the cutlass and spun away in horror.
He bent and picked up the dragonet’s head. Cradling it in his hands, he kissed its snout, tears running down his cheeks. He fell to his knees and held the dragonet’s head in his arms, waiting for the mother sea dragon.
She’d come. He knew she would. As inevitably as dawn came after night.
And if she blasted him with fire, he didn’t care.
Her roars echoed across the sea, long before her leathery wings and powerful body were visible. Her grief ricocheting through Will’s chest, she raced at the Fiery Dragon, her wings beating up a storm and her roars buffeting the sails. The ship bobbed and tossed like a cork in a storm.
“He killed my baby!” The dragon’s roar ripped through Will’s mind.
“He and his first mate killed my best friend, too.” Treyvin’s corpse behind him, Will sobbed, gazing at the dead dragonet’s sweet wee body lying amid the mottled jade-and-turquoise veined shards.
“Rip out that captain’s heart and feed it to me.” She circled above the masts.
“R-rip out his…?” Will gaped, paralyzed, and saw his best friend Treyvin bleeding on the deck after his lashing, all over again. Saw him fevered and convulsing. Dead. Imagined him being fed to prowling sharks.
“That foul murderer deserves it.” The dragon’s wrath washed through Will’s mind, setting his veins ablaze.
“But if he’s a murderer, what am I?” Will stared at his hands, still holding the dragonet’s head, sticky with its blood. Sticky with the captain’s blood, too. He’d killed a man.
“You are the defender of my progeny. And I demand vengeance.”
A whirlwind of tumultuous energy rushed through Will. His hands trembled with the sea dragon’s rage. He had to do something. Anything. In the dragon’s thrall, he set the dragonet’s head aside and whipped a dagger from the captain’s belt. The sea dragon’s rage swept through him. Will plunged the dagger into the man’s chest. His knife glanced off the captain’s breastbone and slid sideways, sinking deep into the man’s flesh. Blood flooded his hands.
“Press harder,” the dragon roared.
Gripping the handle, Will leaned his hip on the blade. The knife made a wet crunch, snapping through a rib. He shoved harder, but the blade was too slick. He lost his grip and slipped, crashing onto the captain’s bloody chest.
Panting, Will awoke in his cabin, drenched in sweat, tangled in his bed sheets. He unwrapped the sheet from around his neck. Gods, how had that gotten there? It was as if he’d tried to hang himself in his sleep. And with good reason. He was a murderer now and a bloody-handed pirate captain. A slave trader with a death notice on his head if he didn’t bring in his next shipment.
He kicked his legs free of the sheets and sat up. Grabbing a waterskin, he slugged back a few mouthfuls, then sighed, turning his face to the cool ocean breeze wafting through the porthole.
By the First Egg, there was no point in going back to sleep. Once the night terrors took him, they seldom abated. He didn’t want to fall asleep and finish the rest of his dream, because he knew how it panned out. He shuddered. Except it wasn’t a dream. His memories haunted him every day.
The things he’d done.
The men he’d killed.
The heart his dragon, Scarletta, had eaten.
Gods, the sounds plagued his dreams too—her crunching, the squelch of ripping tissue and—
No. He wouldn’t go there. Not tonight.
The soft laughter of his crew on deck drifted through the cabin door.
He’d join them and quiet his weary mind.
Will tugged off his sweat-drenched shirt and strode to the closet to fish out a fresh one. He threw it on and stalked out to the deck.
Will sat down on a barrel next to Spider Face, his first mate, and propped his legs on the railing, staring northward. He gazed over the sea toward Naobia. Far off in the distance, the first dragon, Arisha, twinkled above Dragons’ Realm, the constellation barely visible in the dark velvet sky. Hopefully, Ma was well and she and Star were managing to get by. Will’s chest panged fiercely. Gods, he missed his home and family. He longed to tousle his sister’s hair and—
Enough. A pirate captain had to be tough, not sappy. Will gestured at Larkspur, a recent recruit to his crew. “Bring me some golden ale, and a bottle of dragon fire for the first mate.”
Larkspur nodded and sauntered across the deck to the hold.
Spider Face propped his feet up beside Will’s. “Don’t know why you drink that dragon pee.”
The first mate continued, “I much prefer fire in my belly than that pig swill.”
Yes, dragon fire was better if you wanted to get drunk. But the golden ale was weak enough that Will could match the burliest pirate, tankard for tankard, and still keep his wits about him.
Larkspur returned with a pitcher of foaming ale, a bottle of dragon fire, and two tankards. He poured Will a drink, then thrust the bottle and other tankard at the first mate.
Spider Face noticed the slight. “Fetch at some food,” he snapped at Larkspur.
“I’m no cabin boy,” the pirate grumbled.
Steel flashed in Spider Face’s hand. The next moment, a blade was resting on Larkspur’s collarbones. “What did you say?” the first mate snarled. Spider Face pricked the man’s skin. A trickle of blood dribbled onto Larkspur’s shirt, the coppery tang wafting on the salty air. “I asked you what you said,” Spider Face snarled again, flaring his nostrils.
Larkspur’s violet eyes were filled with challenge as he met Spider Face’s angry gaze. “I’m no cabin boy.” He stared down his nose at the blade as if it were a pesky insect. “When you take the next shipment of slaves, perhaps the captain should find a cabin boy. Someone suited to running errands and being at his beck and call. It may be easier for Captain Scarlet Hand to have someone always at hand.”
Will chuckled. “Right you may be. We’ll consider it, but in the meantime, you’ll perform every duty the first mate or I give you, whether you like it or not. Am I clear?”
The man bobbed his head, his purple eyes glinting at Spider Face.
Enough insubordination. Larkspur needed to be put in his place, or these two would soon be at each other’s throats. “Scarletta, a word please.”
There was a scrape of talons up the hull, and his beautiful emerald-and-sapphire-scaled sea dragon poked her serpentine neck over the ship’s rail, glowering at Larkspur. Dripping seawater, she curled back her lips, baring her fangs. A low rumble rolled from her maw.
Will motioned Spider Face to sheathe his blade, and waved Larkspur belowdecks. “Thanks, that will be all.”
Larkspur bowed to Scarletta, his striking purple eyes flashing with admiration before he sauntered off.
Scarletta nudged Will’s boot with her snout. Her slitted pupils traveled over the green and turquoise fire-breathing sea dragons embroidered up the calves of his pecan-brown leather boots. “Although I do like these dragons, they’re nothing compared to my beauty and majesty.”
“Too right. But they’re a symbol of my power.”
“Ours, of course,” Will said. “The power of sea dragons. I’m nothing without you. And you know it.”
“But you’re everything to me,” Scarletta rumbled in his mind, puffing warm breath over him. She let go of the side of the ship and dived into the dark, silky sea. Images of fish scattering before her flitted through Will’s head. “I’m off to catch dinner. Call me when you need me.” The majestic sea dragon broke mind-meld.
Will chugged back the contents of his tankard.
“You showed that new upstart.” Spider Face laughed, and gripped the bottle with his stubby fingers, sloshing more dragon fire into his tankard. Will had never seen a large man with such broad hands and short, stubby fingers. Spider grinned. “No one can argue with a dragon.”
Halfway through Will’s second tankard of dragon pee, a green flash lit up the distant sky, rippling through the dark. He and Spider Face leaped to their feet, staring over the ocean at the bright-green light haloing the distant cliffs.
“That was mage flame.” Spider Face’s keen eyes were fixed on the horizon. He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “And it was above Metropoli.”
Will swallowed, glad they’d left the Emperor’s shores a day ago. Glad he didn’t have to face whoever had unleashed that ferocious power—power strong enough to light up the sky a day’s sail away. Thank the First Egg he’d sealed his new bargain with the Emperor before the mage had arrived. Thank the Egg, the Fiery Dragon was already far offshore.
Deep in his bones, he knew the powerful mage was hunting him.
The Scarlet Hand
The inky night swallowed the blood-red sails of the Fiery Dragon as Will steered the ship along the east coast of Talon Isle. When they were just outside Moonshine Bay, he hissed, “Lower the anchor.”
“Aye, aye, Captain Scarlet Hand,” his first mate, Spider Face, replied. Stalking along the deck, he called softly, “Oi, you two, wake up and heave ho.”
Two pirates staggered to their feet and then tossed the anchor overboard, the chain rattling along the ship’s timbers as it uncoiled like a serpent and sank into the deep.
The Scarlet Hand’s eyes roved over the bay. A lone lantern on the dock illuminated the glimmer of furled, white sails. It was the passenger ship they were seeking, the one that took people to the Southern Isles. He wet his lips and smiled.
Many ships stopped to replenish their supplies at Talon Isle, to prepare for the long trip south. If this was the right vessel, she’d be picking up passengers here, too.
Spider Face approached Will and grinned, his redback spider tattoo twitching on his cheek. “So, Captain Scarlet Hand, how will we take this ship? Will Scarletta aid us? Shall we swing aboard tonight? Wait until they’re out at sea? What’s your plan?”
The longboat thunked against the side of the Fiery Dragon as it was lowered. With a splash, it hit the ocean. Spider Face arched an eyebrow as Swan, Mo and Blue swung over the side of the ship on ropes and slithered down to the longboat. The quiet dip of oars signaled their departure.
Will deliberately hadn’t told his first mate he was sending three of his crew ashore to the tavern. The first mate liked his dragon fire far too much. A few tankards, and he’d forget any intelligence he gained at the bar. “This time, I’d like to use strategy, not only brute force.” Will flashed his teeth in a smile.
Spider Face’s teeth flashed in return. “Brute force has its place.”
Will didn’t miss the glint in Spider Face’s eye as his stubby fingers stroked the hilt of his cutlass. Will stalked from the tiller down to the deck, Spider Face falling in behind him. He unfolded a wooden chair, sat, and propped his boots on the ship’s railing. His crew members furled the sails and busied themselves, some tying off ropes while others headed belowdecks into the bowels of the ship to hunker down for the night. Will repressed a shudder, remembering when he’d been imprisoned in the same hull where these men now slept.
Spider Face rolled a half-empty barrel over and sat beside him. “So?”
Will shrugged. “We’ll see.” It depended what Swan, Mo, and Blue found out while scouring the docks and the tavern.
Larkspur sauntered past, his violet eyes flitting over them then out to the passenger ship at the dock. The breeze ruffled the dark hair that hung to his backside.
Spider Face glowered at Larkspur—one of the latest crew members they’d picked up in Metropoli when they’d recently visited the Emperor and dispatched their second shipment of slaves for his goldmines.
Slaves were a lucrative trade. Far better than butchering innocents.
Larkspur tied off a rope and turned to Spider Face, his lip curling. “Any more jobs for me, first mate?”
“That’s all for tonight.”
Where was Larkspur from? It was anyone’s guess how that man could fight with hair as long as a woman’s, but fight he could. He’d proven that in a brawl on the docks in Metropoli. When Will had seen Larkspur’s knives flashing, he’d immediately offered him a position with his crew, the Bloody Cutlasses.
Although he valued keen fighters, Will couldn’t stomach his crew’s bloodlust. In the past four moons as the Scarlet Hand, Will had drenched his hands in enough blood. He didn’t need any more deaths on his conscience, so he’d convinced his pirate crew that trading sailors as slaves was more lucrative than executing the crews of the ships they ransacked.
Thank the Egg the Emperor was willing to pay handsomely for strong slaves. Will didn’t want to paint his hands any redder than they already were.
“The men you killed deserved to die,” Scarletta, his sea dragon, crooned from the depths of the bay.
“Maybe,” Will replied via mind-meld. Who deserved to die?
Well, except Captain Black Eye for killing Scarletta’s dragonet—and Gold Grin, Black Eye’s second mate for whipping Will’s best friend Treyvin, who’d died later when his lash wounds had turned septic. He settled back to wait for the return of their crew members.
“So, what’s your strategy, again?” the first mate wheedled.
Will suppressed a smile. “I’ll tell you soon enough. There’s no hurry.”
“So, we’re not attacking them tonight?”
“We may not need to attack them at all,” Will replied mysteriously. He loved keeping Spider Face dangling. Nearly as much as he loved using shows of power against unruly crew members.
Rusty held out the captain’s frock coat, helping him into it. He slid an arm into one sleeve and then the other. She fastened the front and brushed a speck of dust from his shoulder. “You look fit to meet a queen.”
“A Queen?” Captain Ned snorted. “A queen would be a fine passenger. The First Egg knows we need a few more.” He turned to the cabin door.
Rusty opened it and ushered him outside into the bright morning light, bowing with the deference appropriate for a cabin boy.
The crew knew the cabin boy was the captain’s nephew. That was as far as it went. None of them suspected she was actually Captain Ned’s niece. Just as none of them knew he’d promised she’d own this ship one day and be captain herself. She shut the cabin door and followed the captain along the deck of the Silver Fin to greet the new influx of passengers destined for the Southern Isles.
Uncle Ned froze in his tracks, his gaze fixed to starboard. Rusty pulled herself up short before she slammed into his back.
“Shiver me timbers,” he gasped. “It’s the Scarlet Hand.”
At the mouth of the bay, blood-red sails furled tightly and her hull bobbing on a silky sheet of sapphire blue, was the Fiery Dragon. The majestic ship sported the figurehead of a dragon at her prow.
Rusty tried to swallow, but her throat was too dry. The Scarlet Hand—and the Bloody Cutlasses, his band of cutthroat pirates—were here in Moonshine Bay.
Over the past few moons, the notorious pirate captain who’d sprung up out of nowhere had made a name for himself terrorizing ships and kidnapping passengers to sell as slaves to the Emperor of Metropoli for his gold mines. He left tales of murder, mayhem and bloody carnage, like flotsam, in his wake. They said he ate the hearts of his enemies. Gods knew what he did to young girls. Beads of sweat broke out on her forehead.
“Stick with me,” Captain Ned muttered. “Hopefully, those shrotty pirates are just here to replenish supplies.” He stalked along the deck.
Rusty scurried after him, her eyes drawn to the Fiery Dragon. Apart from a figure with his boots propped up over the edge of the crow’s nest, the deck of the pirate ship was empty. With any luck, those scoundrels were all sleeping off ale-induced headaches. If Captain Ned could weigh anchor and head out, they’d soon be far from that band of bloody cutthroats.
A school of silver fish flitted past the Silver Fin as she scurried after Uncle Ned, their scales flashing like diamonds under the ocean’s surface. Rusty took a deep breath. This was why she’d begged her uncle to take her to sea when she’d been orphaned: the vast open space of the ocean; the spray in her face; the wind in her hair; and the creatures teeming in the depths of that endless carpet of turquoise and lapis—as ever-changing as the skies above.
Dressed in an open bronze frock coat, the ship’s purser was sitting at a small desk near the head of the gangplank, recording the names of passengers embarking from Talon Isle. His pudgy stomach was barely contained within his white shirt and hung over his peacock-green satin breeches. He pursed his lips. “Johann and Samantha, going to the Southern Isles.” His quill scratched on his parchment. “Two golden dragon heads, thank you.”
They were a handsome, olive-skinned couple. She was in a purple gown that matched his frock coat.
The purser waved them on board, where Capitan Ned greeted them.
Now it was Rusty’s turn. “This way please.” She took their trunks, as heavy as gold bullion, and showed them over to the railing. “I’ll be with you shortly.”
“Next.” The breeze ruffled the lace collar at the purser’s neck as he recorded the next two passengers—merchants, from the look of their tailored breeches and the pile of trunks their boy was bringing on board.
The purser tapped his foot impatiently, waiting for the next couple. The snappy gold buckles on his shoes were polished so brightly, Rusty was sure he admired his own reflection in them—daily.
Rusty craned her neck—ah, that was the hold up. A rugged, good-looking man was helping his willowy wife who’d stumbled over her voluminous petticoats at the bottom of the gangplank. His dark hair gleamed with coconut oil, and she was dressed in an emerald dress with layers of petticoats and swathes of lime ribbon. Sure, her dress was elegant, but sharding awkward to walk in. Although she had a shawl covering her head, chest, and shoulders, her dark hair hung to her hips and swayed as she minced onto the deck.
The woman whispered something to her husband, and he laughed, a rich melodious swell that rose on the breeze. “My love, allow me to assist you.”
She gave a high-pitched giggle and fluttered her eyelashes. He took her gloved hand in his, and they stepped onto the deck amid a rustle of silk.
By the dragon gods, the woman was tall, had striking violet eyes, and glossy, raven hair. No wonder this man had fallen for her.
Rusty’s chest panged. She was short, red-headed and freckled, alone in the world except for Uncle Ned. Although she liked her hair, what would it be like to be pretty? To have a handsome companion with a rich laugh and an easy smile? Someone who cared because they loved her, not just because she was family.
“Names?” the purser asked.
“Swan,” the gentleman said. “My name is Horatio and my fair wife is Aviv.”
Aviv didn’t say much as she minced over to the captain and curtsied, flashing the tips of her large, scuffed shoes.
It was odd that her footwear was so worn when she had such an elegant dress.
Rusty inclined her head, and lifted Aviv’s trunk. It was as heavy as gold bullion.
“No,” Aviv squeaked. She snatched up her enormous trunk with her large gloved hand, lifting it as if it were empty.
“Darling,” Horatio said, “Let me take that for you.”
Aviv giggled and lowered her eyes, flirtatiously gazing up through her long lashes, and handed her trunk to her husband.
The slim, pretty lady was stronger than she looked.
An elderly couple embarked next, the woman bent and wrinkled with a Robandi-style scarf hiding most of her face. A dark, blotchy scar on her husband’s cheek twitched as he smiled at her.
Rusty turned to the elderly couple and reached out to take their luggage.
“No, lad, I’m fine with our belongings,” the scarred man said. “Lead on, boy.”
Lee, one of her favorite sailors, flashed Rusty a grin. “You all right with those, boy?”
“Sure am,” Rusty affirmed, grabbing them, and following Lee toward the railing.
A steady stream of passengers came aboard.
One was a man, only a few summers older than Rusty, with sapphire eyes so piercing they drilled through her. His gaze raked over Uncle Ned and the other passengers. He gave the captain a terse nod, his blond hair glinting with red highlights in the sun. His only possessions were a burlap sack and the coin pouch at his belt. He dipped into it and flourished a dragon head. “I’m going to Dragon’s Maw Isle.”
The purser nodded, quill poised above his parchment. “Your name?”
“Johnny Blue,” he said, winking at the purser. He stuck his thumbs in his belt loops and strode over to the passengers milling by the rail.
A motley assortment of sailors and tradesmen bound for the next isle followed him aboard, but Rusty’s eyes were drawn to the blue-eyed man. His gaze was sharper than a freshly honed blade.
A lady minced up the gangplank in a heavy blue dress, her full skirts embellished with lemon ribbons. A dapper blond man accompanied her in an elegant red silk coat and dark breeches.
Captain Ned nodded at them. “Welcome aboard, sir, madam.“ He gestured at her heavy trunk. “Rusty, please take our new guests’ belongings over by the rail.”
Nodding, Rusty picked up a fancy brown leather trunk with gold lettering on it in swirling script. She tried not to stagger under the weight of the hefty trunk as she dragged it to the railing.
The final gaggle of passengers embarked, and Rusty helped them with their luggage. The entire time, Johnny Blue watched her like a dragon guarding eggs.
The crew drew up the gangplank. The purser stowed the funds in the captain’s cabin, and Lee cleared away his desk and chair, the anchor tattoos on his forearms rippling. Three more sailors heaved the anchor back on board, while others set the sails. The Silver Fin pulled away from the dock.
A ragged cheer rose from the gathered passengers as the dock, stores, and shoreline receded.
“Look, the Scarlet Hand,” the woman with the lemon ribbons called, pointing to the mouth of the bay. “They call his pirates the Bloody Cutlasses, and for good reason.”
The rowdy passengers quieted. Gazes were somber. Brows furrowed. Aviv, with the violet eyes, clutched her handsome Horatio’s hand, and he drew a protective arm around her shoulders.
As they passed the pirate ship with its furled blood-red sails, rumbling snores drifted from the Fiery Dragon’s crow’s nest.
“Nothing to fear, my dear,” Horatio said. “Those lazy good-for-nothings are all asleep.”
When the Fiery Dragon was well behind them, Captain Ned cleared his throat. “Welcome aboard the Silver Fin. My cabin boy will show you to your berths. Dinner will be served an hour before dusk, and you’ll be summoned by the dinner gong.”
“Excuse me, Captain. That ship has red sails,” said the woman with the lemon ribbons. “In port, they’re saying it’s the Scarlet Hand and the Bloody Cutlasses. Are we in danger?”
Captain Ned gave a cheery grin. “As you can see, those pirates are sleeping the morning away. We’ll be gone before they rouse, and then you’ll be safer out of port.” He cleared his throat. “However, if there’s any trouble, we’ll sound the ship’s bell. If you hear the bell pealing, bolt your doors, and stay inside your cabins.”
Nods and murmurs of assent rippled through the crowd.
“Now,” said Captain Ned, a trickle of sweat running down his temple, “my cabin boy, Rusty, and Lee, here, will show you to your berths belowdecks.”
Rusty could see through his act: Uncle Ned was trying not to startle their passengers. “This way,” she called, putting on a brave face, too. All that talk of the Scarlet Hand made her neck break out in prickles of cold sweat.
“What can you see, Joffa?” Will called up, squinting through the inky night. Was that the glimmer of the Silver Fin’s sails on the horizon, or were his eyes playing tricks on him?
High above, Joffa leaned over the edge of his crow’s nest, a spyglass in his hand. “We’re gaining on her, Captain.” He adjusted the spyglass. “In an hour or so, she’ll be within arrow range. If we get a better tailwind, we could use Crusher.”
Will ignored the lanky pirate who loved the crow’s nest so much. The crew called that agile monkey Joffa the Crow, or just Crow—appropriate, given that he usually slept up in that nest. However, Will had never said he wanted to use arrows or Crusher—the long metal spar that smashed into ships. Joffa didn’t know he wanted the Silver Fin whole. However, their speed was good news. They’d made much better time than he’d thought.
Beside Will, Mo rested his elbows on the railing and tilted his head back to address Joffa. “The captain has other plans, Crow. We may not need our usual tactics tonight.” His dark mustache waggled as he spoke, the ends drooping right off his chin. His eyes danced as he met Will’s gaze. “Should be a fun show, Captain. I wish I wasn’t going to miss it.”
The crew trimmed the mainsail to catch the stiff breeze. Below, oar ports opened, and the oars dipped quietly into the dark velvet sea, speeding them closer to the unsuspecting passenger ship scuttling over the ocean before them.
The Silver Fin didn’t stand a chance. She was a heavier, more cumbersome vessel. The Fiery Dragon was sleeker, especially designed to cut through the water at speed. Will chuckled. Not that it mattered. He didn’t need to catch the ship to take the Silver Fin.
From beneath the sea, a familiar voice mind-melded, “Scarlet Hand, please let me know when you need me.”
Will grinned. Who would have thought when he was press-ganged from the marketplace in Naobia with Treyvin four moons ago that he’d end up as the most notorious captain on Naobian Sea. Not that he’d forgiven the pirate who’d killed his best friend. Treyvin’s death had been a callous, mean-spirited waste. Looking back, it was a shame Scarletta had killed Gold Grin, the first mate and Treyvin’s murderer, so promptly. Months of slow torture would’ve been much more satisfying.
“Yes, Scarletta,” Will replied, adjusting his tricorne. “I’ll let you know when we’re ready for action.”
“Nothing would thrill me more,” his dragon purred in his mind, a sinister edge lacing her words.
The Silver Fin
“Captain, I swear there’s something odd about those passengers, especially the Swans—Horatio and Aviv.” Rusty sat on her cot and shucked off her boots.
“The Swans?” Uncle Ned frowned. “They are a rather unusual couple. But when you’ve sailed as many seas and stopped in as many ports as I have, you get to see quite a few things, young Rusty.” He tugged the shirt off his head, and pulled on his nightshirt, dragging it down over his hairy chest. “The reason I never hand-fasted was because I couldn’t stay still long enough to settle down and I never found a woman who loved life on the sea. I’ve seen many a fine woman in many a port. That Aviv is rather striking, but she is slightly unusual.”
“Slightly?” Rusty had never seen anyone else with violet eyes, and most women were nowhere near that tall. “Her feet are rather large and her boots are worn and scuffed, like a man’s. Not at all what I’d expect from a lady.”
Captain Ned chuckled and raised an eyebrow, shooting her a piercing glance. “Not what you would expect from a lady?”
Footsteps prowled along the deck outside—a sailor on night-watch.
Rusty’s eyes darted to the door.
The captain chuckled again, deliberately raising his voice. “Well, my lad, I wouldn’t imagine you’ve had a lot of experience with ladies.”
Because she was a girl? She gaped, staring at him. How dare he giveaway her secret. They’d agreed they’d never once refer to her being female while she was on board or within hearing of the crew.
His eyes flew wide and realization dawned on his face. “After all, you’re only thirteen summers, boy,” he bluffed, laughing again loudly, his eyes sliding to the deck outside.
Thank the dragon gods, he’d fixed his gaffe. And she wasn’t thirteen summers; rather, a slim, short eighteen summers. Rusty huffed. “She lifted that trunk as if it were nothing.”
“Yes, well, she is a rather strong woman, but that’s not unheard of.”
“That elderly couple was odd too.”
Uncle Ned shook his head. “Come on, Rusty, you’re not the worldliest of young men. There are many things I’d rather not have to explain to you at your age.”
“Do you think Aviv could be a man in woman’s clothing?” The moment the words escaped from Rusty’s mouth, they made sense. She’d heard of men who liked to dress in female garb. Not that she was one to talk, binding her breasts and running away to sea as her uncle’s cabin boy. One day, when Uncle Ned was too old, she’d be captain of this ship, and then she wouldn’t have to hide who she was.
Captain Ned gave her a stern gaze. “That’s enough. They’re paying passengers. It’s not our business to question their personal lives. We take their coin, and leave them in a port of their choosing. Your imagination is running wild again, young lad. I suggest you get some sleep.”
Rusty rolled her eyes clambered into her cot, tugging the covers up. She always slept in her clothes, so she didn’t risk the crew finding out she was female.
But Uncle Ned was not finished. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand the full range of human proclivities. It’s not my job to explain all the ways of the world to an innocent young lad.”
Whatever proclivities were. “Would you rather I found out from the crew?” Rusty wanted to storm belowdecks to do just that. Surely someone else had noticed their passengers were strange.
Blotchy red patches appeared on Uncle Ned’s cheeks. “Enough,” he bellowed, extinguishing the lantern and plunging the cabin into darkness.
Rusty woke in the dead of night to a scrape on deck. She sat up in bed and cocked her head. There was another scrape followed by a muffled thump.
Captain Ned was snoring soundly. If she woke him, whoever was outside would hear his snoring stop, so instead, she slipped out of bed, tugged on her boots in the dark and stole over to the window.
Rusty twitched a corner of the curtain up.
Through the gloom, she made out a stealthy figure with a long braid sneaking across the deck. A blade flashed in the moonlight. Moments later, the figure lowered a sailor to the deck with another muffled thump.
Oh gods, by the First Egg, the night-watch sailor was dead. The tall dark figure spun toward the captain’s cabin.
Heart pounding, Rusty dropped the curtain.