The past, not the rope around my neck, was the reason I was in a panic. In the dim depths of the run-down tailor’s shack, I was trying to stand very still as a leathery-skinned tailor took my measurements. The knotted rope that he used to do so had gone around my wrists, biceps, and shoulders without a problem. But when it went around my neck, I jerked backward, causing the tailor to lose his grip on the rope.
“Stop squirming,” he grumbled.
“How long for the shirt?” asked my brother Lyle.
I glanced over my shoulder to look at him. We’re about the same height and resemble each other with our straight dark hair, our high brows, our pale eyes, our round jaws. At least his patchy beard obscured his weak chin. If I was a man, I’d grow a beard too, if only for that reason. Lyle was chewing on his lower lip, but when he noticed me looking, he shot me a reassuring smile.
“About a week,” said the tailor. Finally, the rope lifted from around my neck, and memories of the last rope faded.
Lyle dropped his hand to my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “You’ll look like a proper pirate in no time, Kat.”
I didn’t care much about looking like a proper pirate, but I badly needed a new outfit. My current fashion was in the style of “some lady’s bedraggled runaway slave,” and I wanted to get all of the traces of my old life off me as soon as possible.
And I wanted to feel like a proper pirate. The atmosphere of the little smuggler’s town helped, with its mud streets and wooden structures and sewer-like smell. But in the stories, pirates are people of strength, people of action, even if they live outside the law. Pirates aren’t constantly afraid of the mental shadows cast by past evils, constantly looking over their shoulders in case person who caused such pain might suddenly appear.
As the tailor packed up his materials, his eyes flicked up to my face and studied my forehead. “You got that long, Cap? The Reaper was in last week, looking for some runaway kid.”
I winced just a little. Could he read minds?
Something flashed in the tailor’s wrinkle-rimmed grey eyes and I realized that he’d been fishing for confirmation. My reaction had given it to him. I didn’t have to glance to Lyle to know that he was disappointed with me.
I tried to convince myself that I had winced because I was startled, not frightened. I was lying to myself and I knew it. Meanwhile, I had forgotten to breathe, and the room started to rotate around my feet.
My past specters were becoming very real. The Captain of the Reaper, the terror of Palm Coast, is my Father. The captain who’s sank a thousand ships. Who sometimes steals the people and leaves the goods. Leagues to the north, closer to the island that is his castle and was our home, governments bribe him to leave them alone. Father is too powerful to capture or kill. Many have tried and failed because his magic is just too strong.
I was naïve to think that we could get away cleanly and start fresh. Did the tailor plan to sell us out? I tensed up, ready to take off.
Lyle noticed and gripped my wrist in a strong, roughly callused hand. My brother’s tone and touch were reassuring. “It’ll be at least a month before he comes back here, then. He’ll do a circuit of the atolls. That will take him two fortnights with good wind.”
I would’ve believed my brother, but his eyes gave him away. Lyle was trying to convince himself as much as me. I was surprised that I could still read his expressions after so long apart.
We’d only been running together for two weeks. Before that, I had thought he was dead. There were ten years between when he escaped from Father’s island and when he came back with his own ship to steal me away. It never occurred to me to try to escape before he showed up. It would have been easier to wish myself to the moon.
But now, thanks to Lyle, I was free.
Or was I? After Lyle came back for me, I knew that Father would come after us. He’d never stopped looking for Lyle after all. That Father hadn’t found him was only because my brother had run far and fast. And Lyle had escaped more than ten years ago, when Father wasn’t as powerful. If we could escape now, with Father at the height of his power, what must it do to his pride?
Dread soured my stomach. He would never let us go.
But I couldn’t show it on my face. That isn’t how pirates act. I made myself set my jaw forward and grabbed the handle of the dirk at my hip. “We’ll be gone before he returns, no doubt about it.”
I hoped that I was the only one who knew how hard it was to force out a confident tone. I couldn’t return to Father’s island. I could never go back to that terrible place. I wanted out of the shack, out of this town. I wanted to run far and fast.
* * *
We picked up my shirt five days later. Lyle had refused to run; Father isn’t the only one with pride.
I was pleasantly surprised by how good it felt to have a new shirt. It was made of red and yellow striped silk, its flowing sleeves could be tied up or down, and it had a bright orange sash at the waist. Red, yellow, and orange were the colors that Lyle’s ship flew. Not only did it make me look like a pirate, it made me feel like I could belong somewhere in the world after all.
I changed while Lyle haggled with the tailor. My brother was not very tall, but he was a captain and muscled by working the sea. He was a dangerous man and he knew how to use it as he attacked the tailor’s stated price.
He looked nothing like Father, who was not really our father, but the way he stood reminded me of him. I couldn’t bear it.
As soon as my shirt was on, I stepped to the shack’s entrance. I told myself I would feel safer if I knew what traffic was flowing by. But really, I just didn’t want to associate Lyle with Father. My brother may be a ruthless pirate who doesn’t shirk from killing in the name of profit, but at least he doesn’t steal people and their ability to decide. His sailors had voted him their captain, like it used to be done, and if people in this nameless smugglers’ cove were loyal to him, it was because he was a good leader. Lyle didn’t practice magic. I didn’t think he even knew how.
So I shoved the tarp away from the rough wooden frame and instead thought about how amazingly fast the trade changed in this little smugglers’ town. A few days ago, there had been fish for sale across the street. Today, the stalls were filled with fine wines, barrels of citrus fruit, salt pork, and rope.
I watched men and women of all heights and origins flow past like turbid water, paces impeded by the clinging mud and the need to swagger. The only features they shared were their brightly colored silk or linen garments and the boggy smell they raised from the perpetual clinging mud. I didn’t look anyone in the eye. The throbbing bruise on my jaw reminded me that direct eye contact was a good way to start a fight.
“. . . attacking a ship right out in the harbor,” said a tall man with onyx skin as he brushed past.
The smaller, stockier man with him was incredulous. “You sure it’s the Reaper?”
The taller man noticed my stare, shot me a dirty look, and elbowed the smaller man into silence. In the moment or two it took me to shake off my shock, the crowd carried them past.
Feeling like my muscles were molasses, I lurched back under the canvas tarp. “Lyle!”
Lyle turned, clearly annoyed. Behind him, the tailor looked relieved by my interruption to their bargaining.
When I choked out the word Reaper, Lyle’s annoyed look disappeared. He thrust coins at the tailor without another word, and we took off running as best we could through the narrow, traffic-packed muddy lanes.
Though crowded, the smugglers’ town wasn’t large. It took only minutes to reach the low docks. They transitioned out of the muck and stretched into the cove like broken fingers, unevenly cobbled together from scavenged wood. We pounded out onto the nearest rickety structure, where our rowboat was tied. From the dock’s stained surface, I could see that the sailors on Bright Flame were locked in a struggle. Their shouts echoed out over the water.
It was clear that Father’s Reaper had caught Lyle’s Bright Flame by surprise. The brightly patched canvas that would normally fill out the caravel’s two slender masts remained furled. The emergency oars were shipped. Thick ropes tied Father’s Reaper to Lyle’s ship, hobbling it.
The sailor that was supposed to be guarding our boat was gone. Lyle’s hands worked the knot holding the boat to the dock’s rough posts, but his eyes were on his ship and his fingers were moving much too slowly.
I sawed through the rope with my dirk and pushed Lyle toward the oars. “Go!”
The other ships in the shallow lagoon had pulled up their anchors and moved away from the fighting. I knew it wasn’t unusual for two ships to settle a score outside the town, but the other ships wouldn’t want to get caught up in it. Especially not when the Reaper stood on one side of the fighting.
Nothing impeded us on the row out to Lyle’s ship. I was no help on the oars, so I had plenty of time to think. About the things that Father kept deep in the Reaper. About how the brave sailors on the Bright Flame, men and women I was just coming to know, wouldn’t stand a chance if Father slipped the bonds of his magic. About he was sure to do that when he stopped toying with them.
When the bow of our little boat bumped against Bright Flame’s hull near its dangling ladder, I kicked off my boots and dove into the water. It was thick with offal cast out of the town, and while you might think that would be the least of my worries, I desperately didn’t want to swallow any.
When I surfaced, I could hear Lyle shouting.
I pretended not to hear. My strong front stroke carried me away and the sounds of the fight on Bright Flame’s deck overwhelmed his demands that I return to the boat. As I swam toward the Reaper, I tried to think about how the nasty salt water was ruining my new silk shirt. Anything to keep me from thinking about my insane plan to turn Father’s magic back on him. The terror that I was just barely holding off would freeze me in my tracks if I let it.
None of the Reaper’s ladders were down, but a few ropes dangled where Bright Flame’s sailors had cut grapples free. I started up one hand-over-hand, like I had done hundreds of times, and water poured off me in sheets. My arms were aching badly by the end, but the fear I was trying not to acknowledge gave me strength. I gained the deck with one last heave.
The Reaper was a three-master, larger than the Bright Flame and wider across the beam. The pristine deck directly in front of me was unoccupied, but there was motion in my peripheral vision off to the left.
I drew my dirk and sprinted across the deck. I had worked on this ship as a child and knew right where I needed to go: Father kept the most dangerous things deep in the hold.
Someone shouted an alarm, but I was still alone when I yanked up a hatch and slid down a narrow ladder into the Reaper’s belly. Thankfully, the mess was empty of sailors to stop me, as I had hoped it would be with the attack going on. I slid past it and kept going down.
At the end of my slide, my bare feet touched the gritty deck in the deepest part of the ship. The oil lamps down here were kept low. Dim barrels of supplies lined the sides of the passageway, stacked higher than my head.
I dashed past them. They didn’t have what I needed.
Through the far hatch, the passageway was only a little wider than the ladder. Black curtains stood on either side, each separated from the next by only a few feet. I padded between them, counting. I had never learned how to read, I only knew the basics of letters, so the inscriptions above the curtains were meaningless. But I didn’t need them. I knew which alcove I needed.
At least, I told myself that I was sure. As I passed the curtains, I could hear sobbing, moaning, screaming, and roaring coming from behind them. But the feet at the bottoms of some of the still curtains were the worst part. One set was blackened and oozing. Another set had the ghastly hue of drowned flesh. A third set were not feet at all, but scaled paws tipped in wicked claws. I tried very hard not to look, not to think, not to feel.
I paused at the fifth curtain on the left. This curtain did not roar or sob or rustle, and no feet peeked near the bottom. I started to turn to check my count, to be absolutely certain, but I heard boots pounding on the deck and a shape loomed in the dimness of the far hatch.
No sane sailor would follow me in here. It could only be Father. I shoved past the curtain.
A tiny lamp lit the chamber with its flickering glow. Beneath it, a small, honey-skinned woman with short, straight-cropped black hair was sitting on the wooden stool that was the room’s only furnishing. She was rocking a little where she sat, but she didn’t look up at me. Her face was expressionless and her dark eyes held no awareness. An old, L-shaped scar stood out on her forehead. I slipped in next to her with my dirk clutched in my damp palm, and I waited.
A moment later, Father pushed the curtain aside. He stood in the passageway and fixed his pale eyes on mine. They were filled with disapproval. His slim lips held a tiny frown.
“Kat.” Irritation tainted Father’s baritone voice, bringing to mind childhood torments. “You have disappointed me.”
Since I was terrified, it wasn’t difficult to respond with a whimper, to make my dirk-hand shake, to sag against the wall as though my knees had been cut out from under me. Like a shark smelling blood, Father glided a step into the room.
But I had only been pretending, trying to draw him in. I was a pirate now and made myself act with a pirate’s courage.
Quick as a snake, my hand darted forward and I slashed the honey-skinned woman’s forehead with the point of my dirk. My action turned the L-shaped scar there into a sudden, blocky U. There was blood, but I felt no remorse. She only looked human.
Screaming with the effort of it and the fear I had been denying, I shoved her at Father, stool and all. Before my sudden violence, I could only hope that the creature would recover quickly after I freed from Father’s power. When she only stumbled a little before coming to her feet, standing before him instead of cowering as he would have her do if he was in control, I knew I had made the right decisions.
Father started to jerk backward, but the honey-skinned thing’s eyes lifted to him and he stopped mid-motion, as if pinned against the stuffy air. I knew I needed to push past him, I knew I needed to get out of the room, but he was right in my way. I glanced to the freed monster to make sure he was in her power.
Looking was a mistake. I saw the whites vanish from creature’s dark eyes. Her plump lips pursed, then opened a little, like someone in the midst of drinking a noodle soup. There was nothing inside that mouth but blackness.
With a noise that was half yell and half sob, I shoved my way past Father and pounded toward the ladder. I was half way up it when Father began to yell. I thought I was going fast as I could, but I found I could move even faster. I leaped for the deck and hauled myself up, all the tiredness scared out of my arms. Then I slammed the hatch down behind me and ran.
A sailor on the Reaper’s deck lunged after me, but he didn’t have nearly my speed. I dashed to the railing and, in a running leap, tried for the Bright Flame’s deck. I only made it because Lyle’s smaller ship sat lower in the water. I stumbled and then my bare foot slid in something and I went down. I landed hard enough to knock all the wind out of me, but I somehow managed not to impale myself on the dirk still clutched in my fist.
Against my cheek, the Bright Flame’s deck was covered in blood and fluids and smells. There was a chaos of sound all around me. The fighting hadn’t stopped in the few minutes I’d been on the Reaper.
Wheezing and blinking away tears as I pulled myself up, I frantically looked for Lyle. I spotted him fighting a swarthy man with braided hair. They both moved like demons, too fast for my untrained eyes to follow. I had almost reached them when the braided man hesitated, a puzzled on his face. Lyle stuck a sword through him.
“Stop! Don’t kill them!”
My scream came too late for the man that Lyle was fighting, but some of his sailors hesitated long enough to realize that the Reaper’s sailors had all stopped fighting at the same moment. Some staggered and fell, others stood with puzzled or blank expressions, barely breathing.
“Lyle, we need to cut the ship free.”
“What–” he started to question me, but I cut him off.
“I set the soul eater free. I set it on Father!”
Horrified comprehension flooded Lyle’s face. He spun away from the dying man and bellowed, “Cut us loose!”
There is something to be said for a captain’s complete control of his ship. Those of Lyle’s sailors who were still capable shoved past the confused Reaper sailors, rushed to the rail, and started using their weapons to hack away the ropes that held us to the Reaper.
Lyle sprinted toward the wheel deck. “Get the damned oars out!”
Lyle kept shouting orders and his sailors scrambled in response. Dizzy and ill, I tried my hardest to stay out of the way. It felt like an eternity passed before the Bright Flame began to pull away. By then, some of the Reaper’s sailors had started to rub their scarred foreheads. A couple of Lyle’s sailors were disarming the confused, pliant former enemies and rounding them up. Others were loading a packet of pitch wrapped in naphtha-soaked linen into the catapult.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the first shot caught the Reaper’s main sail. It went up like a candle.
We were a safe distance away by the time the rest of the ship caught fire, helped along by a few more packets. I gripped the railing and watched Father’s ship burn. Surely no kind of monster could survive that conflagration, no matter how strong its magic.
Lyle found me there. He draped his arm around my shoulders and kissed the top of my head. “Good work, little sister.”
I looked up at him and extended one finger to touch the scar in the middle of his forehead. There was an old scar there, an angular, backwards P. Ten years ago it had been an L. It was similar my own, though I had a fresher line where Lyle had turned mine into a D when he rescued me.
“Now we’re really free.”
In silence, we watched the Reaper burn to its water line. And for the first time I could ever remember, I felt like I could take a deep breath.
Copyright © 2016 by Tricia Warren. All Rights Reserved.