A day later, they were streaming down the Saint James toward New London.
Vessels sailed or rowed toward docks where goods or people would be unloaded, or back toward the sea to find more things to bring home. The Diana passed merchant quays where bags and boxes of rice and pepper plums waited to be sent to markets, where hardened crews finally dismissed from months of service dispersed to the larkhouses and pubs that lined the wharf, the shops waiting, eager as hungry fledglings, for their coins.
The weather was fine, the sky unusually clear and dry for spring, so there were more boats than usual crowding into the river. The wind was perfect—at their backs and off starboard, and they flew just enough canvas to make steady progress through the tangle of ships and barges toward the Crown Quay. Jackgulls darted among them, looking for scraps tossed by fishermen or for schools of fish feasting on the detritus that collected on the hulls.
Each time Kit returned to New London, she remembered standing on the banks of the Saint James as a child, mesmerized by the jungle of rigging. Hetta Brightling, who’d stood barely taller than Kit even then, had held Kit’s hand as they watched ships sail downriver. Kit remembered the water, nearly the color of Hetta’s favorite tea, light skipping across the surface as eddies whirled below. And she thought that she could . . . feel it. The first trembling in her chest, soft and low as a note from a cello. Slow and steady as water snaked toward the sea. And deeper than that, something brighter, thinner, hotter. With her mind, and with her hand, Kit reached out toward that line of power and, ever so gently, touched it . . . and felt the sea’s answering shiver, like a ripple spreading outward.
Then she’d been jerked backward, pulled away from the water, and when she blinked back to the world, found herself staring into Hetta’s brown eyes.
“You nearly fell in,” Hetta had said, her breath coming short.
“There’s something in the water,” Kit said.
Hetta’s brow had knit. “What? Did you find a treasure?”
There were often treasures along the river’s shore, bits of pottery or coins hidden among the rocks and mud, lost a hundred or a thousand years ago.
“I don’t think so.” Kit had looked back at the river again, seen only the lapping of brown waves. “I could . . . feel it. It was cold and slow, and then it was hot and fast.” Those were the only words she’d known to describe it. She put a hand to her chest. “It made a thump in here. Like a heartbeat.”
She remembered Hetta had looked surprised. Kit hadn’t been sure she liked the idea of Hetta being surprised by anything; Hetta had always simply known.
They’d eventually realized that Kit was Aligned, that the “thing” she felt had been the river’s own magic. But it wasn’t until some months later, when Hetta had taken the girls to Bellamy Sands, a beachside village on the southern side of the Isles, that Kit had realized the river’s low song paled in comparison to the roar of the sea.
Now that song was fading in her ears as the Diana moved toward the Crown Quay, the deep-water harbor that sheltered several Crown Command ships. The sails would be hauled down, the hold unloaded of prisoners, of prizes, of crew members who’d almost certainly make for the nearest pub and the cheapest tankard of ale.
Kit had other priorities—namely, reporting to the queen and delivering the bounty they’d obtained from the Amelie. And as they neared the dock, Kit realized she wasn’t the only one eager for news. A man and woman waited there, their polished uniforms crossed with the saffron sashes worn across their chests marking them as royal emissaries.
“Looks like they want to speak with you right away.”
Kit glanced back from her spot near the helm. Tamlin stood behind her, feet bare and chewing a chunk from a rusty apple.
“Was that the last one in the barrel?” Kit asked, gesturing to the apple.
Tamlin grinned, swiped a freckled hand over her mouth. “Likely. Cook threw it at me. It’s sweet. Bit mealy, though.” She took another bite.
Kit lifted her brows. “And still you eat it.”
Tamlin lifted a shoulder. “Fills the belly. I guess you’ll go with them.”
“I need to report what we’ve found. And responding to a summons from the queen is rarely optional.”
“Of course it is,” Tamlin said as she chewed. “If you prefer the stocks to the deck. But you probably don’t.” She tilted her head. “I don’t think you’d look good in manacles.”
“Not a good match with the uniform,” Kit agreed. “They must have been watching for us, relayed a message from the watchtower. She wants to know what Gerard’s about.” Or there’d been developments while they’d been sailing, and those developments were secret enough that the queen hadn’t wanted to reveal them in the mail exchanged between ships.
Tamlin took a final bite, tossed the core into the water, and looked back at her captain. “Whatever they say, don’t forget your manners.”
Kit’s dark eyebrow lifted. “I’m as mannerly as my profession requires.”
“We cavort with sailors, pirates, and felons.”
“Only on the good days,” Kit said with a grin. “Stay with the ship,” she added absently. Without waiting for a response, Kit climbed down onto the dock, severing her connection with the sea. She’d have a hollow in her chest until she returned to the water. And that wasn’t the only adjustment.
The rigidity of the boardwalk echoed in her bones with each step. And while the air still smelled of brine and carried the slosh of water against wood, the sounds and scents of the city were layered over it. Humans and animals and woodsmoke and cooking. And instead of the creak of hemp against wood, there were hooves against brick, the call of gulls, a sorrowful melody played by a busker in front of the customs house.
The emissaries stood at attention, hands clasped behind their backs, faces set in blank scowls.
“Captain Brightling,” said the one on the left. “Her Royal Highness Queen Charlotte II requests your immediate attendance at the palace. We’ve horses.” He gestured to three enormous creatures that stared at Kit from the end of the dock, chewing their bits with gargantuan teeth.
Kit Brightling had faced down typhoons, ships of the line, pirates, hunger. She didn’t mind being aloft, wasn’t nervous speaking to the queen, and had no qualms about leading her crew through storm or charge. But she had to work very hard to keep the dread out of her eyes.
It’s not that she was afraid horses. She wasn’t. That would have been childish. She simply didn’t trust them, and that was a matter of logic. They were larger than humans, had enormous teeth made for grinding, and could kill a human merely by lying on them. Putting one’s life in the hands—hooves?—of a horse was simply bad planning.
Kit shook her head. “I prefer to walk.” She was fairly certain she’d kept her tone mild.
“Walk, Captain?” The emissary on the right looked horrified.
“I’ve been cooped up on the Diana, so I’d appreciate the fresh air. And it’s a scant half mile to the palace.”
“Very well,” said the one on the left. “Proceed inside. You will be met.”
Before they could change their minds, she turned on a heel and strode toward the road, giving the beasts a very wide berth.
Not because she was afraid.
Because she was wise.