Cold wind whipped across the white-capped waves, wailing like a vengeful ghost. The rallying cry of the pirates who swung from precarious ropes below, drowned its howl.
Neither could compete with the cannon blasts.
Zala went stiff with panic, her knees locked and elbows held tight. She always froze before the jump. It wasn’t the fear of death that had the soles of her feet planted to the decking of the Titan’s crow’s nest, it was fear that one of those death calls below might be that of her husband.
A break in the thick fog below, however, showed him engaged with a merchant, who clearly didn’t know the first thing about swordplay. Zala forced a calming breath. There was nothing to fear. Jelani was doing his job; she needed to do hers. It was her fault they were out here in the first place.
It’s only a merchant ship, she reminded herself.
The ominous fog, stretching wide atop the ocean’s waves, didn’t help her unease as it cloaked the enemy vessel in its thick, creeping cloud. If she jumped now, there’d be no telling where she’d land. Dew streamed across her skin, cold bumps rising from her bare arms and ankles.
Maybe there was a little fear of the jump after all.
No use standing here pondering the worst, Zala thought as she took another deep breath. Her palms clutched at the coarse rope.
“You’re not gonna stand there all day, are you?” laughed a small, airy voice from within the fog. A figure appeared through the cloud, a lithe slip of a woman with the fluttering wings of a butterfly. Zala smiled at the woman—or rather, the aziza.
“I was waiting for you.” Zala gave her a half smile.
Fon rolled her eyes. “You always say that.”
“That’s because I’m always waiting for you.”
The two women could hardly have appeared more different. Fon barely came up to Zala’s waist, with pointed ears and brown skin that seemed to glow, a tree-bough tattoo set across her forehead. Zala was short for a human woman, with skinny legs and small arms topped with subtle shoulders, all the complexion of an ebony shade. Where Fon’s hair was long on one side and braided on the other, no strand out of place, Zala’s was cut short, left alone to coil and tangle naturally atop her head.
“Jelani go ahead already?” Fon asked as she turned her head to the ocean mist.
Zala frowned. “On Kobi’s orders, yes.”
“Don’t worry.” Fon tapped Zala’s knee with her four fingers. “Jelani’s a big boy—he can take care of himself.”
“So he keeps telling me,” Zala said, unconvinced.
“Come on, pirate, let’s get over there before those dikala find all the good loot.” Fon put on a tough face, squinting one eye and pursing her lips like an angry scoundrel. Zala couldn’t help but smile at the glint of humor in the aziza’s eye. The facade just didn’t fit Fon. Even as she withdrew a long, sharp dagger, which looked more like a sword in her tiny hand, she could never quite shake off that disarming charm. After giving the Titan’s signature salute, Fon lifted from the deck and soared toward the enemy ship.
Zala’s brows creased her forehead. Fon was right. The longer she waited, the less loot she’d have for herself. She couldn’t afford second pickings. In an ideal world, the crew would divide the loot equally, but she knew the others were taking more than they should. It was just the way they did things around here.
Zala gathered her strength, readjusting the sword at her side and the bow on her back.
“Here we go again,” she mumbled before she gripped the rope and leapt into the air.
Her heart raced as she swung the distance between the two ships, wind rushing past her ears like a kongamato’s wail. But she knew as soon as she jumped that she had timed it wrong. She stuck out her feet to meet the enemy ship’s platform, or a ratline, or even the side of the ship—she couldn’t tell which. She found nothing but fog. Her leap hadn’t been strong enough. She’d been too nervous that she might drop, too nervous about the clashing swords, too nervous that she might fail.
Look where that got you, Zala thought to herself angrily.
Berating herself with a string of swears picked up from moons spent at sea, she reoriented her body at the apex of her swing and cast her weight back toward her crow’s nest where she caught her perch clumsily with one arm.
She took a moment to settle her shaken nerves and centered her mind back onto the task. She climbed back up onto the nest’s ledge, and, with another deep breath, jumped once more into the unknown.
This time she listened for the sound of steel on steel, the grunts and groans of battle. When they sounded loudest beneath her, she let go of the rope, tensing her calves as she descended onto the ship. Her bare feet met damp wood with a dull thud as she landed.
Even on the ship’s deck, the haze of the mist hid all. Zala could barely make out the glint of swords cutting their teeth against one another. The cry of the blades and their wielders raked against her senses.
The first figure—someone from her crew?—met an even murkier shape of a person she couldn’t define at all. All around her, pirates and merchants alike traded insults between their clashes.
When would Kobi learn? Taking on ship after ship like this was taxing the crew to breaking point. They were getting sloppy, and it would only get worse.
In that moment, it didn’t matter. All she needed to know right now was friend from foe.
The pirate crew wore no uniform clothing, but she could usually make out her fellow crew members by the way they fought. They had that sway about them—the “wine dance,” as Jelani called it.
Zala withdrew her sword, identifying the figure ahead as an enemy, and struck the unsuspecting foe in the back. The figure let out a guttural yell—a man’s yell—as he keeled over. The sound sent a shiver down Zala’s spine. He was not her first, not by a long shot. But she’d never grow used to the sensation of steel cleaving through bone and sinew. Or rather, she hoped she wouldn’t. It made her insides turn.
The man fell at her feet, his simple tunic soaked through with blood.
He was just a merchant… not a soldier at all.
Familiar guilt filled Zala’s gut, but she shook herself of its weight. If the man had made the choice to fight pirates, he’d brought his death upon himself. His captain should have surrendered when her’s gave him the chance. It was unfortunate, but it wasn’t her fault.
“Good looks, chana,” the pirate Zala had saved said. The woman threw up a hand signal that Zala had come to learn meant “thanks” among pirates. “Didn’t think you’d ever save me,” she finished with a back-handed compliment.
Zala recognized the woman as Nabila, the gull-shifter Captain Kobi used as a scout. Zala tried her best to ignore the wound running down the pirate’s arm. It looked deep. Instead of letting her eyes wander, Zala took her index finger and thumb and shaped them into a circle at her eye. If she recalled correctly, the gesture meant “I’ve got your back.”
When the pirate smiled, Zala knew she’d gotten it right. She was barely acquainted to Nabila—though she barely knew or even recognized a lot of the crew. Kobi had taken on many new members over the past fortnight. Learning their names and faces rarely mattered when they were all dead by the week’s end, whether by blade or by sea.
Zala turned to the merchant’s corpse and passed her hands over his body in a quick search for loot. The merchant wore plain cream-colored robes, a checkered blue-and-white kaffiyeh atop his head, and a beard patched with white hair.
Only the Vaaji people sported those distinct headwraps with that leather cord around their heads. Zala should have known. The crew had been raiding the Vaaji for weeks. Ever since the empire had attacked their home isle of Kidogo, the crew had redoubled their efforts against Vaaji shipping while dismissing other more lucrative takes.
Zala’s pat-down yielded nothing from the merchant, save for the dagger he’d fought with and two silver coins. She pocketed the silver as nervous sweat beaded down her forehead and a tiny clink rang out from the too-light purse at her waist. That didn’t matter though. She wasn’t here for coin.
She needed a hatchway that led belowdecks. But each time she caught a glimpse of one leading to the ship’s lower levels, a duel would block her way, fighters on both sides rushing to join bout after bout.
Her head swiveled like a hunting owl as she slipped each fight while she let her crew’s wine dance flow around her. Like a vulture she scavenged the dead and dying. None had what she was looking for, and she only found bronze coins at best and soiled pants at worst. A good pirate would have helped her crewmates as she secured the deck before looting. Zala didn’t consider herself a good pirate.
As she snagged a final coin purse from the latest corpse in her wake, the crash of a hatch door opening came at her side. Turning, she had to swallow a snort at the sight before her: A stout cook barreled his way out from belowdecks, stained apron and raised pan somewhat undercutting his otherwise admirable war cry. Waving his pan from left to right, the man charged the first pirate he saw.
He left the hatch behind him wide open.
It was bizarre, but Zala was never one to shunt her nose up at the rare turnings of good fortune. Cooks meant kitchens, and kitchens meant the supplies she needed.
She darted down to the lower deck, then closed the hatch after her. Her eyes adjusted from the stark white fog to the dingy shadows of a cramp storeroom. Wrinkling her nose at the stale air, her gaze fell on a set of overturned barrels. Zala sucked her teeth when she saw their contents: rich honey sloughing onto the wooden floor. She quickly gathered as much as she could into a set of phials, but the sticky substance was incredibly difficult to bottle up.
A phial of honey, a bundle of dawa root, a sliver of aloe, an eye of tokoloshe, and a stone’s worth of mazomba scales, she kept repeating to herself as she gathered up the last of the sweet nectar.
A sudden thump rumbled above Zala’s head. Was it friend or foe who had fallen? She put the thought away as she searched through the rest of the stores. As much as the guilt still lingered at the back of her mind, she had to find the galley if she had any hope of scrounging up the ingredients Jelani desperately needed. Once she found what she was looking for, she would help the rest of them—not before. Besides, how difficult could defeating a group of merchants really be?
As she corked the last phial, another loud thud hit the floor behind her. Zala twisted on her heels with her sword outstretched, ready to stab. A soldier’s body lay at her side with a dagger in her back. Zala relaxed her arm when she caught sight of Fon pulling her blade from the soldier’s spine.
“Of course I find you in the kitchens,” the aziza said with a chuckle.
Zala shook the mild shock from her face. “Aren’t you aziza supposed to be light on your feet?”
“Half-aziza,” Fon corrected her. Zala never knew how to address Fon, as she was both human and aziza—short for a standard human but tall among the diminutive forest creatures. “And we’re not supposed to be on our feet at all—well, most of the time. You’re thinking of pakkami.”
“Right, right.” Zala turned to the fallen soldier.
The soldier wore a green turban with red-padded armor and a tunic of white, the colors of the Vaaji Empire—the colors of their military. So, the merchants had guards after all.
“Your hands have been busy.” Fon nodded to the sacks tied to Zala’s belt, her already large eyes widening further. “Your mate already ran out of the stonesbane, then?”
Zala gave her a solemn nod, then sighed. “It’s becoming more difficult to find what he needs on these ships.”
“How long has it been since he’s had some of his potion?”
“This morning,” Zala said, still scanning the galley for more ingredients. “His stoneskin won’t grow for a few more days, but I try to stay on top of it.”
Fon pursed her lips. “What are you missing?”
“Just about everything. But it’s usually easier to find aloe.”
“I think I might have seen a barrel of some in the other storerooms.” The aziza hooked a thumb over her shoulder.
Zala grinned, and then the pair of pirates wound their way through the narrow corridors, avoiding what soldiers they could; the ones they could not avoid were met with steel. Alone, Zala was no extraordinary swordswoman, but with Fon’s flight distracting the soldiers, it made cutting down their enemies almost too easy, even in these tight spaces.
“Are none of these soldiers decent fighters?” Fon asked as Zala caught another in the back.
Zala looked down to her latest fallen foe. The Vaaji seemed young, no full beard, just the shadow of a mustache. With all these guards, the merchants were undoubtedly holding valuable cargo. It was a surprise the Vaaji were pressing so far into the Sapphire Seas at all. It shouldn’t have been so shocking, however. Though the foreign nation had a reputation for being little more than poets and scholars, in recent moons they had seemed to reclaim their former titles as explorers and conquerors.
“Doesn’t matter. I’ll take easy targets any day.” Zala patted the soldier down. “Means easier pickings.”
Light feet led Zala and Fon toward the storeroom. As they continued they came across some of their own, a trio of mousey-looking men looting with eager hands.
Zala gestured their way. “You see, I’m not the only one plundering before the captain orders it.”
She couldn’t help pressing her nose into the other crew members’ loot—despite their sour scowls—making sure none of them had taken any of the ingredients she required. Discipline was sorely lacking on the Titan.
Zala glanced through one of the viewports. The clouds were still thick, cloaking the waves on either side of the ship.
Well, at least Kobi is getting smarter. Using the fog for the raid is one of the better ideas he’s had this week.
“How large is this ship, anyway?” Zala asked.
“Larger than Captain Kobi let on—wait just a minute, over there.” Fon pointed forward, floating just above a set of crates. “The aloe should be just against that wall.”
Zala started moving toward the crates, heart lifting, but she halted when two of the largest men she had seen that day stepped between her and her prize.