Grace couldn’t see the captain. The Marshal had chained them to opposite sides of the same wall, a partition jutting into the prison cell. She closed her eyes and imagined she could feel him through the foot of stone and mortar that separated them. Weak as a child and tired as death, she hung on the chains, iron manacles digging into her wrists.
“Grace? Are you awake? Can you hear me?” From around the edge of the wall, Alan called in a hissing whisper. She only had to move a few steps to see him. If she could move.
She worked her jaw, stretching her face, still sore from the beating. “Yes.”
“You must plead your belly. The Marshal can’t hang you. I won’t see you hanged—”
“No. I’ll die with you; there’s nothing else for me.”
“God damn you, Grace.”
She chuckled painfully. “You as well.”
She’d sail off the edge of the world with him. She very nearly had, that time through the Iron Teeth. This was simply another journey, and it would be over soon. Rope around her neck, a moment of fear, then nothing. That was fine. She only wanted to see him one more time.
She heard him take a wet breath; he was bloodied from his own beating. “Mister Lark. You are the finest first mate I have ever known. You have never disobeyed an order from your captain before. So. I order you to live. I order you to live and raise our child. Do you understand me?”
“Don’t ask me to do this, Alan. Please don’t ask.” Her face was so bruised, she couldn’t tell if she was crying. Her whole body was numb.
The iron door of the dungeon opened. The Marshal of Hellwarth and a squad of his men entered, fanning out before the captain and first mate of the Nymph.
“Captain Alan. Mister Lark. Well met.”
The Marshal still didn’t know about her. They beat her when they stormed the Nymph, but didn’t examine her beyond a cursory search for weapons. The Marshal was in a hurry to hang the whole crew before they mounted some spectacular escape. Her hair was cut short, a ragged mat above her ears. Her breasts were bandaged flat. She fooled everyone, because no one believed a woman would sail with pirates.
“I have confessions for you to sign. It will expedite the process.”
She spit in his direction, a bloodied gob of mucus. Couldn’t tell if she managed to hit anything. “Bastard,” someone muttered.
“Do it,” Alan said in a low voice. “Tell him.”
“No.” Live. That’s an order. But he wasn’t the captain anymore if he didn’t have a ship.
Chains clinked—Alan straightening. When he spoke, his voice was clear, commanding. God, he was still the captain, damn him.
“My first officer cannot sign your confession, Marshal.”
“I’ll tell you alone. Tell your men to leave.” The Marshal frowned, and Alan said, “For God’s sake, what can I do to you now? I give you my word this is no trick.”
The Marshal sent his men away, so the three of them were alone. And Alan told him.
“The name is wrong.”
“On the contrary, I have all Gregory Lark’s aliases listed—”
“Grace Lark. Her name is Grace Lark.”
She closed her eyes. It was all over now. They’d still kill Alan, but she would have to live. And remember.
The Marshal, a stout man, imposing, determined, with slate-gray hair and well-trimmed sideburns, came at her, knife in hand. He tore open her shirt, ripping away buttons. Cutting away the undershirt, he found the bandage. Then he cut through the bandage. She stared at him all the while, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze.
Amazed, he backed from her a step or two. He only stared a moment, then looked away. Almost tenderly, he closed the edges of her shirt.
“There’s more. She’s with child. I must plead her belly for her since she refuses to do so herself.”
“Damn.” Louder, the Marshal said, “You sent my men away because this is one story you don’t wish to spread.”
“I see we understand each other, Marshal. Do what you will to me. I’ll sign anything. But spare her.”
The Marshal of Hellwarth went to the other side of the wall. A key turned in a lock. Pen scratched on paper. Alan signed away his life.
“Thank you, Captain. As for the rest, I will do what I can.”
“Thank you,” Alan said, sounding relieved.
Grace fought her chains, but only succeeded in cutting her wrists. Fresh blood clotted on dried scabs.
The Marshal called his men. Two went to unchain Alan. When they brought him toward the door, he came into view. He twisted in his captors’ grips to look at her.
His face was bloody, his pale hair matted into a cut on his forehead. He could barely keep his feet without the help of the soldiers. She wanted to rush to him.
“Remember your orders,” he said, and they dragged him away.
“Mister Lark will be staying with us a little longer,” the Marshal said to his lieutenant. Then they left her there, alone.
She called his name. She shouted after him, her voice husky and ragged, because she had forgotten how to scream like a woman.
They hanged the crew in batches. Six times she heard the gallows floor drop and the ropes creak. Captain Alan they hanged alone. The crowd cheered.
Gregory Lark was listed hanged with the rest. The Marshal moved her to a different cell, gave her a change of clothes, and she was Grace again. He held her for two months, until her condition became indisputable. Then, he blindfolded her and packed her into a carriage. For a full day the carriage traveled, with Grace blind to all. At the end of the journey, he set her on the road.
“You have your life and your secret. It is the least I could do for the honor Alan showed. I only ask this: You must never set foot on a ship again. You must promise.”
“I promise,” she said, her voice flat. The Marshal removed the blindfold and remounted the carriage, which turned and departed in a cloud of dust.
She looked around. A village nestled nearby, a fishing village right on the coast. The sea would always be nearby to haunt her.
Grace the Widow, as she was known in Rowfus, wondered at how a pound of cod could cost more than a pound of beef in a coastal town. But the fish were off this season, apparently. Her tavern, the Nymph’s Child, would serve beef stew tomorrow, then. She packed the meat in her basket and returned home.
She took her time, walking along the docks. Rowfus was a poor excuse for a seaport. Most of the big cargo ships sailed on up the coast, where the large cities and roads essential for trade lay. Smaller ships stopped here for repairs and provision. A few others docked to take advantage of low port fees. The Marshallate kept a lighthouse and a small garrison of elder soldiers on the rocky edge of the land, ostensibly to dissuade pirates. A single road traveled up the hill, inland. It was a tired place, with a few rows of plank-board buildings scoured gray by wind and salt, and a few piers painted black with barnacles and slime. Most of the activity came from a thriving colony of fisherfolk who didn’t care if another ship docked here ever again. Them, and the gulls that wheeled and cried above their boats.
A new ship had arrived, anchored some distance out. She was one of the fast new galleons, with enough cannons to level Rowfus if she chose. Not that anyone outside the town would notice if Rowfus were leveled. The Marshallate garrison didn’t seem concerned by the ship’s presence. Grace didn’t recognize her.
Mainly, Grace was looking for Kate, to make sure the girl wasn’t wandering off with stars in her eyes when she should have been minding the tavern. Beautiful Kate, with her blond hair and lithe figure, and a spirit that carried her around town with a tilt to her chin. Proud, some folk said, and if Grace was proud of her daughter’s pride, then let her be doubly chastised for it. Kate scared her to death sometimes. Grace would come home one day and find the girl had flown off to an adventure or three. That thought weighed in her belly like iron.
After all, that was what Grace had done, and look where it brought her.
Her tavern, the Nymph’s Child, had a painted sign above the door that showed the figurehead of a sailing ship: a woman in a rippling gown, her dark hair streaming along the prow, who held an infant in her arms. An odd notion, some said. Grace told them that if ships were called “she,” then why shouldn’t they have children?
She came into the tavern through the back. From the kitchen, she heard voices. At first she thought Kate was begging stories from a patron as usual. Then she caught an anxious edge to Kate’s voice, and heard that the patron was asking most of the questions—about the Nymph, about Kate’s parents. About the story of the treasure.
Quietly, Grace edged into the room along the wall to have a look. She saw a ghost on the verge of harassing her daughter. He was a young sea captain, clean shaven, with a full head of dark hair. His clothing was good quality—wool coat and linen shirt—but weathered, well used. A tricorn hat sat on the table by an untouched glass of brandy.
The stranger looked up, over Kate’s shoulder, his attention caught. He smiled in recognition.
“Grace Lark. Well met,” said David May.
Sixteen years had treated him well. He’d filled out, grown muscles and a proud figure, weathered hands and a hard expression. He had bright, searching eyes. That much had stayed the same.
Grace wanted to tear him to pieces.
She stepped past Kate, dodged the table and lunged at him. Grabbing his collar, she shoved him out of the chair and slammed him against the wall. By God, the boy was six inches taller than her now. But she was still hard as steel, and still—in their memory at least—his superior officer.
“How dare you—how in bloody hell’s dungeon do you dare come in here asking about the treasure?” She wrapped his shirt and coat in her fists and dug them into his neck. “You know it. They all bloody well knew it. There was no treasure!” Her heart raced with the old memories.
“I know,” he said, his voice tense but his eyes steady. He didn’t struggle at all. “I know it, sir.”
“I should kill you. I should kill you for even standing here alive and well, you bastard.” But she let go. He stumbled, keeping his balance against the wall, never taking his eyes off her. His hand went to his belt and the sword sheathed there, but she turned her back on him. “Kate, get everyone out. We’re closed for the day.”
Patrons stared. Grace had broken up a fight or two in her time, but she’d never lost her temper. They seemed happy to leave when Kate asked them to.
Grace turned back to David, who donned a tired smile.
“Lark—your daughter. She looks like him. She looks like Captain Alan. The hair, the eyes—she has this look on her face like—”
Grace rubbed her brow, running her hand across her graying head. “I know. Don’t you think I know?”
When everyone had gone and Kate had barred the door, Grace invited David to sit. She went through a list of other tasks she could send Kate on. Then she thought better of it. The girl sat with them, fidgeting, questions obviously boiling on her lips.
“Why are you here?” Grace asked him.
“I need to know how you crossed the Iron Teeth.”
She rolled her eyes and laughed. “Is that all? Well, Davy May.” She slapped the table in front of him, rattling the glass of brandy. “I need to know how you escaped the Marshal of Hellwarth.”
They stared at each other for a long time, silent, waiting to see who would break first and fill the pause. Sixteen years—he wasn’t a cabin boy anymore, and she wasn’t a pirate. They had to judge each other all over again.
“It’s Captain May,” he said at last.
She raised her brow. “The new ship in the harbor?”
“The Queen’s Heart,” he said.
“Very nice. Especially considering the last time I saw you was in chains in a prison yard. What did you do to be set free? Let the guards have a go at you?”
“The Marshal couldn’t hang a twelve-year-old boy any more than he could hang a pregnant woman. He put me on one of his own ships. He … reformed me.”
The Marshal of Hellwarth was a strict old man with the sense of honor of a long-lost age. Pirates he caught and hanged. Women and boys—could never be pirates, could they? How strange, what his mercy had saved.
“Mum?” Kate looked very solemn, lips pursed and brow furrowed, when she said, “Gregory Lark—Gregory Lark was my father.”
David’s eyes went a little wide, and he hid a smile with his hand. Grace—bloody hell, she was going to have to explain it all.
“No, Kate,” Grace said, equally solemn. “Gregory Lark was your mother, dressed as a man and fallen in with pirates.”
Kate took a long moment to turn this over in her mind. Then, as pieces dropped into place, she stared at Grace with open-mouthed wonder, like she might stare at a giant, or a dragon. Oh, the stars in her eyes had suddenly gotten very big, Grace thought with a sinking heart.
“You?” Kate said, her bottled excitement bursting under pressure at last. “You sailed on the Nymph? Grace Lark—Gregory Lark. You were first mate! First mate of the Nymph! You always told me women don’t go to sea, the superstitions of sailors won’t let women sail, and yet you—you never told me!”
“God, Kate. If it ever got out that anyone from the Nymph lived, people would beat down our door for word of the treasure. I didn’t tell anyone. Especially you. You’ve watched the boats come and go since you were a baby. I didn’t want you getting any more ideas than you already had.”
“What really happened? Did you do it?” Kate said, seemingly impervious to words of caution or explanation. She glanced sidelong at David, and her voice fell to a whisper. “Did you kill Captain Alan?”
Grace had heard the stories as well as Kate had—the stories about the Nymph were Kate’s favorites—and she’d kept her mouth safely shut all this time. The Nymph was a pirate ship, but her captain and crew loved adventure more than gold, and that was why they sailed the Strait of the Iron Teeth, a passage of jagged rock and treacherous shallows that were guarded by a dragon to boot, not for the treasure that lay at the other side but to say that they’d done it. In fact, when the crew did find treasure, it tore them apart: the crew accused Captain Alan of hording it; Alan buried it so that none would have it; the first mate, Gregory Lark, killed Alan, and then the crew killed Lark for revenge. There were a dozen versions, with more arising every year. Grace always told herself that Gregory Lark was someone else and people could say anything they liked about him, she didn’t care.
The moments passed and Grace remained silent. If she spoke, her voice would crack, and she would be finished. Kate had on a beseeching expression, so eager she nearly trembled. Just like Alan when he’d said, We can do it, Grace. We can sail the Iron Teeth.
Kate bit her lip and looked at David, and Grace looked at him as well. She nodded a little. He returned the nod. If he was willing to take on the task of telling Kate, let him have it.
“She didn’t kill him,” David said to the girl. “Far from it. Captain Alan was your father.”
Kate furrowed her brow and her gaze fell. She sat like that for a long time, with David and Grace watching her. Once or twice she acted like she might say one thing, then changed her mind, and finally said, “And he really was hanged at Hellwarth? He’s not going to come through the door, a shadow from a story, is he?”
“I watched him die,” he said softly. Grace looked away. She hadn’t had that privilege—or doom.
Kate twisted her fingers in her lap. “What was he really like? Do the stories tell any truth at all?”
“He was the best and bravest man I ever knew,” David said. “When I find myself in a fix, I ask, ‘What would Alan have done?’ and come out better for considering the answer. I knew who you were as soon as I saw you because you have his face and his sea-gray eyes.”
Her eyes were going red, now. Then, she smiled shyly. “Really?”
“On the soul of my ship, I swear it’s true.”
“Mum—do you miss him?”
“I do. Every day I do.” Sometimes she looked out to the ships and swore she saw the Nymph, sailed by Captain Alan, come to take her away.
“Mister Lark, sir. Ma’am—” David said, “I truly didn’t wish to disrupt your life here. You of all people deserve peace and quiet. But this is a matter of life and death. I must know how you sailed the Iron Teeth.”
Grace smiled crookedly. “Don’t you know? You were there.”
“You locked us all in the hold. That’s where Blount got the idea you’d hidden a treasure.”
The tale was famous:
The crew set the sails. A strong wind followed, and they moved fast. Alan was at the rudder, and when the crewmen realized where their course was headed—toward the rocky pinnacles reaching up from the ocean like clawed hands—they set up a cry. Was he mad? Did Alan mean to kill them all? Do you trust me? he’d said, a wild grin on his face. Most of them did, to the ends of the earth and beyond. But a few, Blount and others, threatened mutiny. That was when Lark appeared with a musket leveled at the lot of them, and four more stacked behind, loaded and ready. He ordered them all below decks and locked the door behind them. There’d be no mutiny on his watch. The crew, David among them, spent the entire journey arguing: Did they break free and mutiny, despite Lark and his muskets? Did they trust the captain and wait it out? Every shudder that rocked the hull, every roll they made over every wave, each man held his breath and prayed. The Nymph moved fast and sure, and six hours later, Lark opened the hold and the Teeth were behind them. Alan and Lark kept the secret of how they did it, and the stories that spread about a hidden treasure seemed credible.
Only Lark—Grace—still lived and knew the truth.
She said, “We never dropped anchor. We never landed—you could tell that, even locked in the hold.”
“That’s what we told Blount, but he sold us out anyway, didn’t he? He thought the dragon must have dropped a chest of gold on deck mid-flight because of some deal you made with it.”
“You see,” Grace said, leaning toward Kate. “Alan’s reputation was so fantastic, even among his own crew, they had him making deals with dragons.”
“Why? Why is this a matter of life and death?”
“The Strait of the Iron Teeth is the shortest distance between Hellwarth and Elles. The Teeth are probably Hellwarth’s greatest defense against Elles’ warships.”
“They can always sail around, if they want war with Hellwarth.”
“Yes. But if a messenger sailed the Teeth, word would reach Hellwarth long before an enemy fleet arrived. We could prepare.”
Thoughtfully, Grace played with the collar of her shirt. “When Elles sends a fleet to take Hellwarth by surprise, it will be up to you to warn the Marshal. You’ve become quite the dutiful patriot.”
He blushed, looking for a moment like the boy who had stumbled onto the ship, wet behind the ears and eager to please. Alan had kept the boy close, protected him, taught him what he knew, turning it into a game so he would learn better. He’d been almost a son, like the best cabin boys were to the best captains. Alan had seemed to like having an almost-son.
Was that why he had seemed so pleased when she told him she was with child? Why he’d been so desperate that she live? What would he have thought of a daughter?
She continued, “You’re here under the Marshal’s orders. He told you that Gregory Lark still lived.”
“Sailing the Teeth was my idea. When I told him my plan, he said I should come find you.”
“Why should I help you? He killed Alan.”
“This would save many lives. If I can bring warning in time—”
She raised her hand, stopping him mid-breath. “You’ve turned into a noble young man, David. Alan would have been proud.”
Slouching over the table, David breathed a sigh heavy enough he might have been holding it for sixteen years. “All this time, I’ve felt like I’m betraying him, serving the Marshal. But—I owe him my life. That means something as well.”
“You survived. You stood by Alan as long as you could, and then you survived. That’s as he would have wanted it.” Live. That word, his voice, haunted her nightmares. She wondered what haunted David’s.
“Will you help me, sir? Will you tell me the secret?”
She laughed. “Can’t you guess? Don’t you know what made the Nymph different than every other ship? You and the Marshal are the only ones who know Alan’s and my secret, and you still don’t know?”
“What a riddle. What made the Nymph different? She was a ship of legend. Her captain was a pirate, but with a code of honor. He never sought treasure for its own sake—only enough to keep up his ship and pay off his crew. She sailed free, under no nation’s flag. She navigated the Teeth, she outran the Marshal until one of her own betrayed her. She was proud, beautiful, an honor to serve like no other ship has been for me since. All that made her different.”
It was Kate who said, “She had a woman on board.”
The wind cut through the strait like daggers, and the Nymph had it behind them. They raced to the Iron Teeth, too fast, too many sails unfurled, and the crew shouting in outrage. Even locked in the hold, the screams echoed topside.
Alan had grinned. “I feel bad, really I do. But it’s better this way.”
“Aye,” Lark had said with a sigh.
Alan kept tight hold of the wheel and steered them true.
The rocks towered, rough and dark, shining with damp. They cast wide swathes of shadows, so that the strait was always in twilight.
Then, the pinnacle of a tower of rock moved. The shadow spread, and two great wings made a canopy over the water. Some of the rock wasn’t rock, but scales, which sparkled when the light struck them. A snake-like neck stretched up to a dagger-shaped head, and wide jaws gaped open. The silver teeth inside were like the jagged strait itself. Both would happily swallow anything that crossed their paths. The Iron Teeth and the dragon were the same.
The Nymph’s captain and first mate gazed up at those teeth and felt not fear but wonder.
“Are you ready, Grace?” the captain called, and this time the first mate’s answer was joyous.
She yanked her kerchief off her neck and pulled apart the buttons of her shirt.
“You’re beautiful!” Alan shouted over the wind.
“You’re a maniac!” she shouted back, laughing.
Running away from him, across the deck to the ship’s prow, she pulled the bandages off her chest, left them trailing on the wind and tangled in rigging.
The dragon groaned, a guttural sound that made the water tremble and pressed around the ship like a weight. The great, wicked head looked down on the Nymph. The wings flapped once, and the ship rocked back. Then the beast jumped to a lower perch, and he was in front of them, staring them down, and they were racing into his jaws.
Standing at the railing, leaning over the water, bare chested, breasts freed, Lark raised her arms to the dragon. Wind and sea spray lashed her.
When the beast sighed, hot breath washed over her. Its wings folded back, and its scaled eyelids drooped.
“A lovely vision,” the dragon said in a deep voice that sounded like crunching gravel. “Why don’t I see more of you? Why does your kind not sail?”
“I don’t know,” she’d said, taken aback by the question, because before the monster the usual reasons scattered like dust. “I really don’t know.”
The dragon let them pass.
He flew overhead, guiding them through the rocks and shoals. All the while Lark spoke to it, told stories and sang songs, though many of the songs he asked for were ancient, and she didn’t know them. When they’d cleared the last of the rocks, the dragon bade them farewell and returned to his lonely perch.
When Captain Alan released the crew, the Iron Teeth were behind them, and he and Mister Lark never revealed how they’d done the impossible.
David stared wide-eyed. This amused Grace—the solution was so simple he hadn’t seen it.
Grace nodded. “Putting the crew in the hold kept my secret while I talked to the dragon. Think what Blount would have done if he’d known a woman had been giving him orders all that time.”
“You talked to the dragon? Talked to it?”
“He can be soothed by the sound of a woman’s voice, and by the sight of her body. Seems he lost his mate some few hundred years ago and misses feminine company. He only wants a few words, a sweet voice to tell him how brave and strong he is. He’s really not a bad fellow, but ships in his territory make him ill-tempered. As for the rocks—if you keep to the right-hand way and have a steady hand at the wheel, you’ll pass them by.”
“That’s all?” David stood. “Grace—Mister Lark, sir. Will you come with me? Will you sail the Teeth one more time?”
She almost said yes before she could think to stop the words. That was her life. She’d left it involuntarily. Why not go back? Why not, indeed? Her lean body had grown soft and curved with years and weight. She’d never be able to carry the disguise now. And she had the tavern to run. That life was gone. She’d left it involuntarily, yes. But people always left their lives involuntarily, didn’t they?
“I can’t. I must return the Marshal’s honor in kind. I promised him I’d never set foot on a ship again.”
He nodded, not surprised by the answer. “Do you miss the sea?” he said.
“No. Thinking of sailing reminds me too much of Alan.”
Kate half-jumped from her chair. “I’ll go. Take me. I can learn to sail, I already know all the parts of a ship, I watch them come and go every day and I’ve always wanted to sail. You need a woman to pass through the Iron Teeth. Please take me.”
Grace nearly hit her. “Kate, sit down.”
She didn’t sit. Grace’s daughter glared back at her, rebellion in her eyes. Grace had known this day would come, when she would tell her daughter to do something—and Kate would realize Grace had no power over her. Damn Davy May a second time for bringing this on.
“Kate. Sit down,” Grace repeated. Kate sat. “Kate—you’re all I have left in the world. You’re the only reason I left Hellwarth alive.”
“If you tell me to stay, I will. But this is my chance. My only chance.”
David added his pleading gaze to hers. “The Queen’s Heart has room for a cabin boy, if you can advise her how to dress like one. I’ll guard her with my own life, as well as Captain Alan looked after me. She’ll be safe.”
Didn’t they see how simple the answer was for her? That there could only be one answer for her, and no amount of reasoned argument would change that?
“No,” she said. “Not on anyone’s life. Not for all the world’s wealth. Now, Captain May, this reunion has been pleasant enough, but get out of my tavern.”
He didn’t move right away, and Kate made a sound that might have been a stifled sob. Grace stood. She couldn’t beat David in a fight, not anymore. She could rely on her reputation, though. Her anger. She trusted that the captain of a ship like the Queen’s Heart wouldn’t start a fight here.
Finally, David nodded at her, touching his forehead in a salute as he replaced his hat on his head. Then, he left.
Kate looked like she might scream, as if one of the tantrums of old had returned. Her face flushed, her lips trembled. But she didn’t scream, she didn’t say anything, not even I hate you. She turned and fled to the kitchen.
“Kate!” Grace called after her, wanting to say a hundred things. Let me explain, let me give you all the reasons you shouldn’t go, I want you to have a better life than mine, and a better life isn’t at sea—but it was no good. The girl was off to her bed to have a good cry.
Over the years Grace had listened to a hundred stories that painted her as a villain, the traitorous first mate who shot his captain in the back, who ended the glorious voyages of the famous Nymph.
Only now, at this moment, had she ever felt like a villain.
At midnight, the only audible sound was the rush of waves running along the coast. They were regular, constant in form, but in detail they always changed. Some waves struck heavily, some lapped, some were large, some small. One could listen to the waves for a lifetime and never guess their patterns.
“Your eyes are bright as the moon on the waves,” Alan told her, when he’d first wooed her.
“You got that line from an untalented minstrel, didn’t you?” she’d said, smiling.
“Who am I to say whether he had talent? I passed him by in the marketplace; it was the only line I heard. Perhaps the next was better. But if I’d waited for the next, I’d have been late meeting you.”
She’d laughed, because he was so heartfelt, and it probably happened exactly like he said.
What would Alan say if he saw her now? He’d have hated what she’d become: soft, frightened, not a bit of adventure left in her. I’m only following orders, sir.
The moon shone on the waves this night. The Queen’s Heart was still anchored in the harbor.
Though Grace went to bed long after dark, she did not sleep, but listened to the waves instead, so that she also heard the shutters over Kate’s window open, heard a rustling and scraping as someone climbed out the window. The girl thought to avoid waking her by not using the door, but Grace knew all the tricks.
Still dressed, Grace rose from her bed and went out to the common room, then through the front door. She caught Kate sneaking around the side of the building. Hands on her hips, frowning, Grace blocked her daughter’s path.
Kate wore her cloak and hugged a satchel close to her chest. This wasn’t a stroll, this wasn’t just wanting a last look at the new galleon. This was fleeing. In her mind’s eye, Grace saw a little girl with gold hair, a round face, and wide eyes staring up at her, filled with guilt at some petty crime like breaking a clay jar or tracking mud through the kitchen.
But that wasn’t the Kate who stood before her now. Now, a young woman, lips tight with determination, looked her straight in the eye. When had she gotten to be so tall? Why hadn’t Grace noticed?
“You can’t stop me,” Kate said. “I’m going. I’ll fight you if I have to, even if you are Gregory Lark.”
Grace didn’t believe that name really held so much terror. It was a story, a fairy tale.
If she hadn’t had Kate, she wouldn’t have remembered what Alan looked like at all. And what would Alan have done at this moment? Let her go, or you’ll never have a chance to say goodbye.
“You’ll cut your hair and bandage your breasts,” Grace said. “You’ll learn to walk and speak like a boy. You can never forget for a moment that you’re playing the part of a boy. Do you understand?”
Quickly, bird-like, Kate nodded.
“The men who like boys—David will keep them off you. But you must learn how to look after yourself. Tell David he must teach you how to fight. I trust David, but no one else, and he might not always be there to protect you. Do you understand, Kate?”
“Yes, yes I do—” And suddenly she was crying, without a sound, tears wet on her cheeks. Grace opened her arms and the girl came to her, hugging her with all her strength.
“Come back to me safe, Kate,” Grace said, whispering, because her throat had closed and her own tears were falling. She had so much to tell Kate, so much more advice to give, but there wasn’t time, because the tide was turning and David was no doubt waiting at the pier. But she had time for one last piece of advice. One last, desperate plea. “And for God’s sake, don’t fall in love with your captain.”
© 2008 by Carrie Vaughn, LLC.
Originally appeared in Fast Ships, Black Sails, edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer.
Reprinted by permission of the author.