Like last year I have decided that for my birthday I would release the first chapter of the upcoming book! Now, if you haven’t read Those Who Wander, you may want to do that! (Alert for the future: Those Who Wander will be going on sale for HALF PRICE two weeks before and two weeks after the release for Wanted!) Now, whether you don’t care about spoilers or if you want to see if the second book sounds good, here it is!
All That Glitters
The Stars’ Bounty docked in Talegrove around dawn. The air bit into Song’s cheeks as winter winds seeped through her clothing to settle in her bones. The pirate haven in the northernmost part of Jashedar’s Blind Woods, where the trees clung in desperation to the steep mountainside that came to an abrupt stop at the first of many cliffs, was nothing like Song had anticipated. The perpetual fog that blanketed the city, casting it in an eerie gloom, was the only thing she’d expected—the Blind Woods were on the southern side of the Screaming Cliffs, which she’d encountered over a year before with Altain. However, she’d imagined Talegrove as a city filled with filth and lawless barbarism. Instead, the streets were paved with cobblestones, men behaved themselves, and the establishments—even the obvious brothels—were well kempt.
“I don’t understand,” Song said to Sunshine as they made their way to a tavern across town, where a shipkeep was said to be having his morning eggs and rum.
Sunshine grimaced. “This is the only safe place for pirates, if you cause trouble you can never come back. Keeps a lot of men in line when there is that much to lose. That and the man in charge. Showed up out of the blue and changed this whole place around eight years ago, making it more respectable. At least for pirate standards.”
“Maps told me he’s the most skilled and ruthless man in the world.”
Sunshine nodded in agreement. “That’s what the stories say. He has a code—just one. Mind yourself or he’ll kill you.”
“That’s quite the code. Though it’s not really an actual code, so much as a threat.”
“It’s a promise, lad.” Song spun to look down at a man at the shorter end of whatever ugly stick he’d been beaten with. It wasn’t so much that he was ugly, but his nose had been broken several times and scars streaked across the pocked skin of his face. He squinted up into her hood and smiled. “Lass?” She wanted to lower her head more, but the angle at which to keep him from looking at her would have been impossible. “What business have you in Talegrove?”
“Who’s asking?” Song demanded.
“They call me Shadow.”
He lowered his brow and an expression of sarcastic mischief crossed his face. “Because I am barely tall enough to cast my own, of course.”
Song hissed a laugh through her teeth.
“I ask again what business you have in my city.”
“Oh, so you’re the man in charge then?” She asked in disbelief. Sunshine’s eyebrows rose with mild amusement.
“Astounding, isn’t it? Answer the question.” His palm settled over the shining black handle of a pistol nearly the length of the thigh it was strapped to.
Song looked to Sunshine. He shook his head, assuring that he’d have no part in it. This was her rescue plan and she was in charge. “I’ve come to requisition a skyship.”
“For what purpose?”
“I believe that is my own business.”
“Only if the ship you commission returns safely and does not bring trouble to Talegrove. So, I ask again, what sort of purpose?”
Song thought, testing her wording. “Retrieval of an item of great import.” She wondered if a person could be called an item, and if Dashaelan would scold her for it.
Shadow gauged her, scrutinizing every aspect of her demeanor. After a moment he smiled. “You are either a pretty boy or an ugly girl, child. I’ll figure it out eventually. But you seem an acceptable sort. You don’t want to commission one of Keenan’s ships, he’s a drunk and many of them are unreliable and have…reputations. Speak with Ambrose. He’s a friend of mine. You’ll find him on the lower docks.” He motioned to the edge of the cliff which Talegrove was built on, where a single metal lift sat in wait for passengers.
Song held back a shudder. “Thank you, sir.”
“Remember, child, whatever trouble you get into, do not bring it back to Talegrove.” With that he sidestepped around her and went on his way.
When he was out of earshot Song let out a breath. “An ugly girl or a pretty boy? Seriously?”
Sunshine avoided the subject as though he hadn’t heard anything. “Lower docks, then?”
They set off, but Song was not finished being indignant. “I mean really, is it so strange that a girl could be a pirate?”
“Actually there’s a few that crew a little schooner called the Jolly Jane,” Sunshine said. “Any woman who’s a pirate travels with them.”
“And what am I, then, if I do not travel with those women?” She stopped in her tracks and stared him down.
“Apologize!” A disturbance across the city center caught their attention. Shadow was shouting up at an inebriated man while a woman gripped her torn dress.
Sunshine tutted. “Now that’s what not to do in Talegrove, go and try takin a whore without payin…”
Their voices lowered. Song couldn’t hear what was being said on the other side of the fountain, which marked the center of the area. In the blink of an eye Shadow had the man on his knees and screaming in pain. An argument rumbled between them, distorted by the distance. Song heard the boom of the shot before her mind registered the quick movement of Shadow’s hand retrieving his pistol and aiming between the man’s eyes. It was too late to look away and she couldn’t erase the image of the man’s brains spraying out the backside of his head. Without missing a beat, Shadow searched the man’s pockets and tossed the discovered quoine purse to the prostitute.
Song stood petrified, her fists balled at her sides. “He just…just like that…”
Across the distance Shadow caught Song’s eye. He nodded once as a warning to keep her in line.
“Yes,” Sunshine said, “just like that. Let’s go.” He steered her by her shoulders to the lift, forcing Song’s hesitant feet over the threshold. “You alright then?”
“Is there another way down?” she asked on a frightened whisper.
“I doubt it.” He closed the gate and Song’s heart clenched. She pressed herself into the corner as he pulled the lever indicating the lift should make its descent. He eyed her. “What’s got you so bothered?”
“I don’t like this,” she squeaked.
“You fell from the Bounty and a little ride down a cliff has you looking like you saw a ghost?” He scoffed.
“It’s not the height, it’s the—” The lift lurched and bumped as the flow of steam adjusted itself. A small scream squeaked out of her mouth and she gripped the metal grating behind her. “I can’t save us if it falls,” she admitted.
He leaned against the other side, folding his arms over his chest and studying her terrified state. “If this bloody thing falls then you worry about you. I’m an old man and I know what happens to old men. Just promise me you won’t stop for nothin until you have Dash safely out of Tamminpring.”
Song looked between her boots through the grating; no ground was yet in sight. “I’m sure we haven’t far to go…”
“You just worry about you, Song.”
She pursed her lips and gave him a curt nod. When the metal cage bumped to the ground and hissed to a complete stop, Song shoved her way past Sunshine to open the gate and leap out onto solid ground. She rubbed her sweaty palms against her thighs and gave Sunshine a weak smile. “See? Nothing to worry about, right?”
He shook his head and strode after her.
They found Ambrose at the end of a dock, reclining in a wicker chair beside several fishing poles. Each pole had a bell attached at the tip and had been secured so their lines could sit in the water, waiting for a bite. Ambrose himself was unimpressive in a white linen shirt, thick brown trousers and vest and boots made with grey fur, a furry cloak rested on his shoulders. Smoke curled upward from beneath a wide-brimmed woven straw hat.
“You gonna stare all day? Or do you have some business with me?”
Song looked to Sunshine for support, but he used his shoulder to shove her forward. It was clear he was not helping her with any of her plan.
“I w-would like to req-requisition a skys-ship.” She stuttered over the request then pinched her eyes closed, flinching in humiliation.
He observed her. “No need to be nervous, boy.” He stood and tested his lines. “Where will you be going?”
“What does it matter?”
“Well the only skyship I’ve got available is a small cargo transport. However, I do have some sailers available that may suit your needs better.”
“Tamminpring,” Song said.
“Ah, land-bound. Skyship it is. That’ll be five hundred quoines per day, plus a mortem deposit.”
“A mortem deposit?”
He nodded. “Just in case you don’t return. Come back and you’ll get it back—so long as my ship is still intact. It’s two thousand.”
“I’ll be returning it!” Song argued.
“That’s fine, but if you don’t I won’t be left hanging. No mortem deposit, no zeppelin.” He folded his arms over his chest and set his jaw.
Song turned to Sunshine to consult in private. “Thirty-five hundred is steep,” she whispered.
“I say it’s a fair price, given our need for it.”
“I brought two thousand,” Song hissed.
Sunshine reached under his coat where a small quoine purse was tied to his waist. He opened it and counted out the missing sum and dropped them into Song’s small purse. She waited as Ambrose re-cast a line, then handed over the required quoine. He withdrew a pre-written contract from a leather satchel, filling in the pertinent information, and waited as Song signed it.
Ambrose read the signature. “Pleasure doing business with you, Captain Song.”
“I’m not a captain.”
“You are now.”
~ * ~