A blast of sweet and salty sea air filled her lungs and Samara Davalos closed her eyes, savoring it. The deck of The Pursuer rose and fell beneath her boots, defiantly tossing spray onto her olive brown skin. She gripped the sea-soaked railing, her frizzy brown hair caressing her face as the sun’s rays danced on the turquoise sea.
The very best part? The Majestic Isles were nowhere in sight.
She blinked, returning swiftly to the dank interior of the Twisted Serpent. For a moment, Samara had almost believed herself free at sea, instead of trapped in an ale-soaked bar with a stuffed white shark hanging from the roof beams. What a stupid decoration.
“Sandra!” All four hundred pounds of Lucho, the tavern’s owner, stomped towards her. Wonder he hadn’t cracked the floorboards yet. “Didn’t you hear me talking to you?”
“It’s Samara.” She threw down the wash rag in her hand.
“Whatever.” He leaned on the bar counter, wheezing to catch his breath. “Get that trash outta here! It’s stinkin’ up the place.”
He pointed to the overflowing sack of half-eaten fish bones and crab shells at the far end of the bar.
Samara hopped up on the counter, swinging her short legs around to the other side. She jumped off and her sandals slapped hard on the stained oak floorboards. She walked over to the trash barrel, ignoring the stuffed shark giving her a malicious look out of its remaining glassy eye. In the corner booth, an old priest belted out a hymn before throwing back a mug of ale.
I hope the hypocrite chokes on it.
Samara dragged the trash barrel out the swinging door and into the muggy afternoon air. The pale blue water under the short pier that connected the tavern to the mainland rippled in the sea breeze. The island of Stormside rose from the horizon like a dull shadow, the glow of the sun washing over the thick green cluster of palms on the island’s shore.
Samara eyed that damning stretch of water wistfully. So close, yet still out of reach. The jungle was better than anywhere near the Twisted Serpent.
She stretched her legs into a lengthy stride down the pier onto shore and left the sack in the wet sand. She glanced back at the garish lights illuminating the ramshackle tavern, nothing more than the upside-down hull of a trading ship, held up by rickety wooden columns and a shaky pier. Small square rooms had been stacked on top, with tarps and nets for roofs. A lone black flag drooped from the middle mast of the derelict ship.
Dammit, I don’t belong here.
Not in this rat hole of a place. Not on this stupid island with an Order of decrepit men that enslaved people in the name of religion. She belonged out on the sparkling sea, sailing into that beautiful sunset. No more veils. No more prayers. No more judging eyes. This time when she left, she’d leave for good.
And it would happen tonight.
Delicia and her girls were performing, if one would call it that. Who cared? For her, it mean a lot more customers with a lot more coin. With her luck, she’ll have enough Macarians to buy her passage on the next trading ship out of Tradesmen Harbour.
But first things first.
She relaxed her shoulders, glancing back at the sandy path that led further into the island. Not a sin-searching man in sight. She took long strides toward the line of palm trees, getting lost in the shadows cast by the shabby tavern. A sliver of orange sunlight made it through the tavern’s cracked center mast, shining on the low cliff that blocked her path.
Samara dug her sandals in the rugged surface of the rock face. Planting her hands on top of the warm stones, she hoisted herself up. She wedged her hand into a crevice, steadying herself on the sheer rock face.
“Damned rocks,” she groaned, scraping her knuckles.
Withdrawing her hand and shaking off the blood, Samara braced herself with her elbow.
Five stones across. Three stones down.
She smiled, pulling the fourth stone out to reveal a dark hole. Setting the rock on the ledge, she reached inside and pulled out the velvet bag that held her entire future.
She slid the coins stashed inside through her fingers.
Only fifty more for safe passage to freedom.
I can handle that.
Rapid drumbeats destroyed the stillness of the night, so loud she swore it changed her heartbeat. They settled into the typical island rhythm, the beat laced with high-pitched flutes and hollow rattles of shakers. The sun melted below the line of the sea, stars coming out to pepper the night sky.
The place must be filling up. Lucho would explode like a cannon if she didn’t get her backside behind that bar. Samara stuffed the bag into the pocket of her caftan and slipped down the cliff face, dropping onto the soft beach sand.
Just one more night of this ear-bleeding music.
By the time she made it back to the Twisted Serpent, Samara had to elbow through the crowd to get inside. Sailors. Merchants. Masons. Guardsmen. Surely the temples in town would notice so many missing souls during evening service.
She sucked her teeth. They were the epitome of hypocrisy. But that was the Isle way.
No matter. If she kept their mugs full of the ale that wasn’t allowed within city limits, she would get paid. What did she care if the coin of hypocrites paid her way out of this hellhole?
Even Lucho was too busy to yell at her for taking so long outside, wasting his hot breath on Ramon the cook for putting too many crab legs on a patron’s plate. She slipped past him, hopping over the bar. Time to make some money. And get the hell out of here.
“Well, aren’t you a cute one!”
A scraggly man with dark beady eyes, greasy black hair, and tattoos all over his sun-worn skin smiled at her, showing all of his rotting teeth.
“Three for a mug and seven for a pint.” Samara dried a beer mug with a rag, lifting her eyebrows.
“They tryin’ to rob us blind!” He elbowed his short, bald friend. “You would think this was Siren’s Cove.”
“In Siren’s Cove you wouldn’t get a cup of water for less than five.” Samara replaced the mug on the rickety shelf.
“And what would a young girl like you know about Siren’s Cove?” The man’s cackled laugh touched every nerve in her body. Only pirates worth their salt could show their face in Siren’s Cove.
“Little one wouldn’t last a day there.” His friend winked at her.
Idiot. Samara turned away to hide her rolling eyes, stabbing a knife into a block of cheese with unnecessary force. You know nothing.
She used to walk the alleys of Siren’s Cover without fear. Not a wannabe, like that man, but as a valued member of one of the most notorious pirate crews on the Magian seas. She’d seen more gold and done more raiding than this hunk of flesh had done in a lifetime.
I’m a pirate—and a pretty damn good one. Samara flung a scornful glance at the man as she took his coins, served his drinks, and walked to another section of the bar so she didn’t have to suffer through any more of his “pirate” stories. The money of fools spends as well as anyone else’s coin.
The sooner she could escape this rat hole, the better.
Keep busy. Make money. Don’t think about the Pursuer—or its captain.
The bar certainly wasn’t short on people looking to drown their problems in a cup of ale or a bottle of backyard rum. Coins practically overflowed her pockets. It wouldn’t take long for Lucho to hunt her down for his cut.
Regardless of his greedy policy, it was a damn good night. She might just have enough coins to get the hell out of this place for good.
The crowd erupted into hoots and hollers when Delicia’s girls appeared at the top of the stairs. They started down, one by one, each in a tight caftan that left nothing to the imagination.
Samara jumped up onto the bar, knocking aside two half-drooling men on the way down. The room overflowed with lewd men, their eyes wide and foreheads sweaty with alcohol.
This wouldn’t be pretty. Time for a strategic exit.
She shoved through the mass of bodies to the door, tripping over an empty chair. She gripped the coin bag in her pocket, eyes fixed on the door—and fresh sea air—only a couple of feet away.
“I’ll take this one!” A pair of large hands grabbed her butt and squeezed. Samara swung around, planting a well-aimed fist squarely on his jaw.
“Hands off, pervert!”
She ducked another man’s punch and came up with a right cross to his jaw and a swift kick to his balls. He toppled onto the table, flipping it into a crowd of cursing sailors.
Damn. Samara grimaced.
The room erupted.
Men traded fists and blows.
Women shrieked, running up the stairs.
Samara checked the coins in her pocket and slipped under a table as bodies hit the floor around her. Couldn’t just let me walk past. Mind your own business and keep your hands to yourself. She growled under her breath. No, you just had to cause trouble.
The table shook again. Lucho’s sweaty face, twisted in disgust, peered down under it. His eyes pierced hers. Uh-oh.
His bloody hand grabbed the collar of her dress and dragged her out from under the table, clawing like a one-eyed alley cat. Lucho dug in her pockets, withdrawing a meaty fist with the velvet bag that held the key to her new life away from the Isles.
“Thief!” Samara jabbed a well-placed elbow into his bulging stomach. He howled, jowls flushing, and dragged her through the melee to the door.
“Imbecile!” Samara gasped as he yanked her hair. “Land-lubber!”
Lucho kicked a brawling pair of men out of the doorway, then tossed her out on the tobacco-covered doorstep. The door swung shut, striking her across the cheek.
Bastard. Samara smacked the planks with her fist, wincing as splinters embedded in her calloused hand.
This can’t be happening. Not again.