Three years later
There was a ribbon pinned to her coat, and a dagger in her hand. And as Captain Kit Brightling stared down at the little wooden box, there was a gleam in her gray eyes.
Two months of searching between the Saxon Isles and the Continent. Two months of sailing, of storms and sun, of crazed activity and mind-dulling monotony.
They hadn’t been sure what they’d find when the Diana set sail from New London—the seat of the Isles’ crown, named for the city rebuilt after the Great Fire’s destruction—only that they’d almost certainly find something. It had been nearly a year since the Gallic emperor Gerard Rousseau was exiled to Montgraf, since the end of the war that had spread death across the Continent like a dark plague. Gerard had finally been beaten back, his surrender and abdication just outside the Gallic capital city, Saint-Denis. The island nation of Montgraf, off the coast of Gallia, was now his prison, and a king had been installed in Gallia again.
There were reports of Gerard’s growing boredom and irritation with his exile, with the inadequacies of the island he’d been exiled to, with the failures of his replacement. There were rumors of plans, of the gathering of ships and soldiers, of missives sent across the water. Queen Charlotte had bid Kit, the only captain in the Queen’s Own Guards, to find those missives.
They’d patrolled the Narrow Sea that separated the Isles from the Continent, visiting grungy ports and gleaming cities, trading for information, or spreading coin through portside taverns when tipple loosened more tongues. Then they’d found the grimy little packet ship twenty miles off the coast, not far from Pencester. And in the captain’s stingy quarters, in a drawer cleverly concealed in his bunk, they’d found the lovely little box.
She couldn’t fault its design. Honey-colored wood, carefully hewn iron, and brass corners that gleamed even in the pale light of dawn. It was intended to hold secrets. And given its lock—a rather lovely contraption of copper and iron gears—hadn’t yet been triggered, it still did.
Secrets, Kit thought ruefully, were the currency of both war and peace.
“You can’t touch that.”
That declaration came from the sailor in the corner.
“I believe I can,” Kit said, sliding the dagger into her belt and lifting the box from the drawer. She placed it on the desk that folded down from the worm-holed bulkhead, then glanced up. “It now belongs to Queen Charlotte.”
“It already did,” sneered the man, his teeth the same yellowed shade as his grimy shirt. His trousers were darker; the cap, which narrowed to a point that flopped over one eye, was the sickly green of week-old bread. “I’m from the Isles, same as you, and I’m to deliver that to her. You saw the flag.”
“The flag was false,” said the lanky man’s captor. Jin Takamura was tall and elegantly built, with a sweep of long dark hair pulled back at the crown. His skin was tan, his eyes dark as obsidian in an oval face marked by his narrow nose and rounded cheekbones. And his gleaming sabre was drawn and currently at the neck of the grungy sailor.
Kit thought Jin, second in command of the Diana, complimented her perfectly—his patience and canny contemplation, matched against her desire to go, to see, to do. There was no one she trusted more.
“You’ve no papers, no letters of marque,” Jin said, looking over the sailor’s dingy clothes. “And certainly no uniforms.”
“You aren’t from the Isles,” Kit concluded, “any more than this box is.” She walked toward the pair, smelling the sweat and fish and unwashed body emanating from the smuggler three feet away. Baffling, since water, salty or not, was readily available.
Kit was slender and pale-skinned, with dark hair chopped to skim the edge of her chin. Her eyes were wide and gray, her nose straight, her lips full. She clasped her hands behind her back when she reached the two men, and cocked her head. “Would you like to tell us from whom you obtained it, and to whom it will be delivered?”
“It’s for the queen,” he said again. “A private gift of some . . . unmentionables. A fine lady like you shouldn’t have to deal with that sort of thing.”
Kit’s brows lifted, and she glanced at Jin. “The queen’s unmentionables, he says. And me a fine lady.”
“Maybe we should let him return to his business,” Jin said, gaze falling to the box, heavy and full of secrets. “And avoid the impropriety.”
“Best you do,” the sailor said with a confident bob of his chin. “Don’t want no impro—whatever here.”
“Unfortunately,” Kit said, “we’re well aware that’s nonsense. You’re smugglers, running the very nice Gallic brandy in your hold, not to mention this very pretty box. But because I’m a pleasant sort, I’m going to give you one last opportunity to tell us the truth. Where did you get the box?”
“Unmentionables,” he said again. “And you don’t scare me. Trussed up in fancy duds or not, you’re still a girl.”
At four-and-twenty years, Kit was more woman than girl, but she was still one of the youngest captains in the Crown Command—the Saxon Isles’ military—and there were plenty who’d thought her too young or too female to hold her position. But she’d earned her rank on the water. At San Miguel, by finding deep magic, and reaching for the current just long enough to give her ship the gauge against a larger squadron of Frisian ships—and capture gold and munitions that Queen Charlotte was very pleased to add to her own armory. At Pointe Grise, she’d helped her captain avoid an attack by a larger Gallic privateer, and they’d captured the privateer’s ship and the coded dispatches it was carrying to Saint-Denis. At Faulkney, as a young commander, she’d found a disturbance in the current of magic, and led her own squadron to a trio of Gallic ships led by an Aligned captain that had made it through the Isles’ blockade and was racing toward Pencester to attack. Kit’s ship successfully turned back the invasion.
“Am I a trussed-up girl or fine lady?” Kit asked. “You can’t seem to make up your mind.” She glanced down at the trim navy jacket with its gold braid and long tails, the gleaming black boots that rose to her knees over buff trousers. “Personally, I enjoy the uniform. I find it affords a certain . . . authority.” She glanced at Jin, who nodded, his features drawn into utter seriousness.
“Oh, absolutely, Captain,” said Jin, whose uniform was in the same style. “Should I just slit his neck here, or haul him up with the others? August said the dragons are swarming again. Sampson is strong enough to throw him over.”
Sampson, another of Kit’s crew, nearly filled the doorway with muscles and strength. He smiled, nodded.
That was enough to prompt a response. “I’ve got information,” the smuggler said, words tumbling out.
“About what?” Kit asked. “Because I don’t want to hear any further details about the queen’s unmentionables.”
“Gods save the queen,” Jin said with a smile.
“Gods save the queen,” Kit agreed, then lifted her brows at the smuggler. “Well?”
“I’ve information about . . .” His eyes wheeled between them. “About smuggling?”
That he’d made it a question suggested to Kit he really was as oblivious as he pretended to be.
She sighed, made it as haggard as she could. “You know, while Commander Takamura is quite skilled with that sabre, and the dragons probably are swarming—it’s that time of year,” she added, and Jin nodded his agreement. “Those aren’t the things you should be really and truly worried about.”
The smuggler swallowed hard. “What do you mean?”
Kit leaned forward, until she was close enough that he could see the sincerity in her eyes. “You should be afraid of the water. It’s so dark, and it’s so cold. And sea dragons are hardly the only monsters that hunt in its depths.” She straightened up again, walked a few paces away, and pretended to look over the other furniture in the room. “Being eaten quickly—devoured by a sea dragon—would be a mercy. Because if you survive, and you sink, you’ll go into the darkness.”
She looked back at him. “I’m Aligned, you know. I can feel the sea, the rise and fall, like an echo of my heartbeat. I hear a tune just for you, ready to call you home.” She took a step closer. “Would you like to be called home?”
She wasn’t normally so poetic, or so full of nonsense, but she found getting into character useful in times like this. And it had the man swallowing hard. But he still wasn’t talking.
She glanced up at Jin, got his nod. And then he braced an arm against the hull. Behind him, Sampson did the same. They knew what was coming. Knew what she was capable of.
She had to be careful; there was a line that couldn’t be crossed, a threshold that couldn’t be breached. But before that border, there was power. Potential.
Using her magic, Kit reached out for the current, for the heat and energy, for the ley line that shimmered below them in the waters. She touched it—as carefully as a violinist pressing a string—and the Amelie shuddered around them, oak creaking in the wake.
Her trick wasn’t familiar to the prisoner. “Gods’ preserve us,” he said, stumbling forward, face gone pale. Jin caught him by the collar, kept him upright, and when he gained his footing again, his eyes had gone huge.
“More?” Kit asked pleasantly.
“I don’t know where it came from,” the man blurted out, “and that’s the gods’ truth. I’m in the—I only make the deliveries.”
“You’re a smuggler,” Kit said again, tone flat.
“If we’re not being fine about it, yes. I pick up the goods in Fort de la Mer, and I get a fee for delivering them. I don’t ask what’s in the cargo.”
Fort de la Mer was a Gallic village perched on the edge of Narrow Sea in the thin strait that ran between the Isles and Gallia. It was a busy port for merchants and smugglers alike.
“Delivered to whom?”
“I don’t know.”
Kit cast her glance to the window, to the ocean that swelled outside.
“All right, all right. There’s a pub in Pencester,” he sputtered. “The Cork and Barrel. I’m to drop it there.”
Pencester was directly across the sea and strait from Fort de la Mer. “To whom?” Kit asked again.
“Not to somebody,” he said. “To something. I mean, there’s a spot I’m to leave it. A table in the back. I’m to leave the box beneath the bench. That’s all I know,” he added as Kit lifted a dubious brow. “I deliver, and that’s all.”
Kit watched him for a moment, debated the likelihood he’d told the entire truth. And decided the Crown Command could wring any remaining information out of him in New London.
“Sampson, put him with the others.”
The smuggler blustered as he was led away, muttering about prisoners’ rights.
She glanced back, found Jin looking at her with amusement. “‘I hear a tune just for you,’” he intoned, voice high and musical, “‘ready to call you home.’ That’s a new one. And very effective.”
“Total nonsense,” Kit admitted with a grin. “Sailors like him don’t care much for the sea. There’s no love, no appreciation. Only fear. One might as well make use of it.” She gestured toward the box. “Do you think you can manage the lock?”
Jin just snorted, pulled a thin metal tool from his pocket, crouched in front of the box, and began to work the complicated arrangement of gears and cylinders. He closed his eyes, face utterly serene as, Kit imagined, he focused on the feel of the metal beneath his long and slender fingers.
He’d been a thief once, and very accomplished. But war had made patriots of many, including Jin, who’d used his spoils to purchase a commission. She’d met him at a pub in Portsdon, a lieutenant who’d just lifted from an arrogant dragoon the coins the dragoon had refused to pay for his dinner. The pub owner was paid, and the dragoon was none the wiser. But Kit had seen the snatch, was impressed by the method and the kindness. And was pleased to discover he’d been assigned to the ship on which she served as commander. That wasn’t the last time his skills had come in handy.
“There’s no ship that’s floating but has a thief aboard,” she murmured, repeating the adage.
Jin smiled as he tucked away his tool. “We are useful.”
He flipped open the latch and lifted the lid, the hinges creaking slightly against humidity-swollen wood. And then he reached in . . . and pulled out a thick packet of folded paper. He offered it to Kit, and it weighed heavy in her hand.
The papers were bound with thin twine and a seal of thick poppy-red wax. But no symbol had been pressed into the wax, and there was no other mark of the sender on the exterior. No indication the packet was from anyone official. Except that it had been sealed into this very nice box with the very nice lock, and hidden away in the captain’s quarters, such as they were.
She slipped her dagger beneath the wax, unfolded the papers. And her heart beat faster as she saw what was written there. Nonsense, or so it appeared. Letters and numbers made up words that were incomprehensible in Islish or the little Gallic she could speak.
The message had been encoded. That alone would have been enough to confirm to Kit it was important, even though it wasn’t signed. But she knew the hand, as well—the letters thin and tall and slanting, here in ink the color of rust. She’d seen it. Studied it. Had captured more than one such message before the Treaty of Saint-Denis.
Gerard had penned this message.
She wasn’t surprised; this had, after all, been the purpose of her mission. But that didn’t douse her growing anger—not just that Gerard was sending coded dispatches in clear violation of the terms of his exile, but that conditions of his exile were comfortable enough to afford him the opportunity. He’d been an emperor, the monarchs had said, stripped of his crown and his glory. He should have known better than to try again. But ego and ambition were rarely so rational.
“Captain,” Jin quietly prompted, and she handed the packet to him, watched his face as he reviewed, and saw the light when he reached the same conclusion.
He looked up, dark eyes shining. “It needs decoding, but the handwriting . . .”
“Gerard’s,” Kit finished, and they looked at each other, nodded. They’d found something. They’d have to wait for the message to be deciphered, but they’d fulfilled their mission.
It was one more mark in her favor, added to the column of miles and missions and nights beneath lightning-crossed skies. One more chance to earn some part of the life she’d been given.
Kit was a foundling who’d been left outside the palace by parents who couldn’t care for her—or simply didn’t wish to do so. The ribbon now pinned to her uniform—silk and well-worn—had been tied to the basket in which she’d been found. It was the only tangible memory she had of her childhood, and it had become her talisman, her reminder.
She’d been taken in by Hetta Brightling, a widow who intended to use her wealth and connections to house and feed girls who had nowhere else to go. Kit had been fed, educated, and brought up to believe in her own skills and the importance of self-sufficiency. And to Kit’s mind, each victory for queen and country helped balance those scales.
But for every victory, there was a matching loss.
“This was bound for Pencester,” Jin said darkly.
Kit knew from his tone their thoughts were aligned. Someone inside the Isles was the intended recipient of this missive. Someone inside the Isles was receiving correspondence from Gerard.
At least one of her countrymen was a traitor.
Jin folded the papers, handed them back to her. Kit slipped the packet into her jacket and centered herself, reached down through wood and wave to the waters below, to the bright current of power and let its presence—powerful and inexorable—comfort her.
And when she was steady again, opened her eyes. She had a crew to congratulate.
A shrill whistle from one of the Diana’s lieutenants heralded Kit’s presence on the Amelie’s deck, and all movement and chatter ceased, on both the captured ship and the Diana, which rocked alongside her. The Diana’s hull was a deep and gleaming blue, with a smart stripe of ivory just below the gunwale. She was rigged as a two-masted schooner, square topsails on the foremast. One hundred and twenty-nine feet of canvas and rope and wood. Kit thought she was the loveliest ship she’d ever seen.
The Diana dwarfed the Amelie, which had a single dirty sail now hanging limply from its mast, and its decking hadn’t seen a holystone in years. Two months of searching, and the Diana had the boat in hand, crew contained, missive captured, in less than an hour. Anticipation hummed across the deck like a spark of magic, excitement rising as they looked at her, at Jin, watching their faces for a sign.
The senior officers gathered behind Kit and Jin near the helm. Joining them were Tamlin McCreary, Aligned to the wind (or so Kit believed), who stood beside Kit, red hair streaming in the breeze. Beside her, a man with dark brown skin and short, dark hair, and deep brown eyes behind round spectacles. This was Simon Pettigrew, the Diana’s pilot, navigator, and master of maps and intelligence. Simon charted the Diana’s course; Kit decided how best to get them there.
“Did we find something, Captain?” a brown-skinned and wrinkled man yelled from the Diana’s deck. August was the oldest member of the Diana’s crew, and wasn’t nearly as spritely as he’d once been, but he knew rigging better than any sailor Kit had ever known.
Kit reached into her coat, then held up the dispatch.
The decks of both ships erupted with screams of victory, sailors and officers alike jumping and shouting with glee. Well, all but the corralled crew of the Amelie, who stood in a morose lump on the foredeck, pouting like disappointed children.
“You’ve all done the Diana proud,” Kit said.
Some nodded, some touched their hands to the charms they wore on leather thongs around their necks. Their own talismans with bits of fire or grass or stone that had once been infused with the magic of their homes, even if the magic had long since drifted away. She slipped the papers inside her coat, fingers brushing the ribbon pinned there.
The cries of joy continued until a sailor called Banks shoved a sailor named Teasdale a little too hard, sending her tumbling to the deck. Teasdale popped up with an angry curl to her lip. But there was no room for anger among joy and relief and the exhaustion of the voyage. She put out a hand to Banks, and they shook firmly.
“Banks will probably pay for that later,” Jin said. “Teasdale is the one who sewed Cook into his hammock.”
“Cook had made hardtack tea,” Kit said. “That’s a punishable offense.” She was a citizen of the Isles, by practice if not birth. Tea was a serious matter.
“And yet, he was not punished for the transgression.”
“Not by me. He cooks our food. One must choose wisely. But Teasdale did the work for us.”
“So, you’re saying Cook is in charge of the ship.” Jin’s tone was dry, but he blinked, reconsidering. “Cook is in charge of the ship,” he said, surprise tinged with resignation. “Which is why you allowed him to keep a goat in the guest cabin.”
Kit found the word allowed a bit generous to her, but that just proved her point. She patted Jin’s shoulder. “Better you learn early.”
“And what shall we do with our prisoners?” Jin asked, gesturing toward August, who glared menacingly at the sailors and pulled a gnarled finger across his throat. Dramatic was August, but she couldn’t fault his skills with a marlinspike.
“Mr. Smythe,” Kit called out, and August jumped to attention.
“While I’m certain they’re intimidated by the very look of you,” she said, working to hold her grin, “let’s belay the throat slitting.”
“Ensure we’ve taken all their weapons, and put them in the brig. Sampson on guard. Bring the coin, weapons, munitions back to the Diana.”
“And that very fine Gallic brandy?”
“And that. A ration to the crew, the rest to Cook and the queen.” Those close enough to hear the order cheered.
“And the ship?’ Jin asked.
She looked back at the Amelie, contemplated towing it home, but decided the worm-eaten wood was hardly worth the trouble. “Let’s waste neither the rope nor the explosives. Let her float.”
When Jin walked away to relay the orders and coordinate the movement of goods from the Amelie, Kit turned to the rail, watched the horizon glow red and purple and amber, the sun rising through curls of flame. They were a hundred miles offshore, and the water looked slick and smooth. But she could feel the sea rising and falling like a song far below the surface of the water. That was its power, its magic.
She made her own homage. Reaching into her front pocket, she pulled out a gold coin, ran her thumb over the raised silhouette of Queen Charlotte’s likeness.
“Dastes,” she murmured, an invocation and a prayer, offering thanks for the magic in the old language, and tossed the coin in. And hoped the scales were balanced.