Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Adventure  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Short stories

Pirates of the High Salt

 

 

PIRATES OF THE HIGH SALT

 

a novelette

 

 

James R. Sanford

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Copyright © 2017 by James R. Sanford

All Rights Reserved

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

More books by James R. Sanford:

 

Magesong

Call of the Flame (Knights of the Flaming Blade #1)

The Hidden Fire (Knights of the Flaming Blade #2)

Black Spice (Knights of the Flaming Blade #3)

The Winter Beast and other tales

 

 

Prologue: Calanda

 

Calanda was born between two worlds, where the rim of Sanlin Island meets the flat of the High Salt. In her youth she had often climbed the rim to a ledge overlooking the far side, just above the tram station, and waited for the great steel gondolas to rise up through the cloud cover on their massive cables, hauling travelers exotic and mundane to the town of Southport and the 42-wheel merchantmen that would sail them across the Salt. Even in winter, when the hard dry cold erased the clouds and Calanda could see all the way down to the mottled green floor of the island, they came seeking passage.

The air on the Salt was too thin for islanders, the unfiltered sun too punishing, and they always looked exhausted and ill when they disembarked from the newly-arrived ships, some of them having to be carried to their hotel. But the tough, wiry people of the rim were born to it, and every ship that sailed the Salt was crewed by rim folk.

Calanda had lost her parents when she was very young and had been raised by her grandfather. He had been a sailor, and she had always wanted to be a sailor. She already had a pilot’s rating in 3-wheeled catts at the age of fifteen. She worked a heliograph as well as anyone. And she knew all her knots.

She also knew that in Southport, if you didn’t get away when you were young, you didn’t get away at all. Seventeen, the age of legality, still seemed a lifetime away. “Let the wind take you,” her grandfather would say to her, “Go as soon as you can.” But company ships hired no one under twenty-one years, and warships didn’t take girls. She might have despaired and languished but for two occurrences: when she cut her hair short for catt racing the other kids laughed and said she looked like a boy, and an old privateer captain came to Southport, trying to scrape up a new crew for one more adventure.

 

 

1. Wind Ferret

 

“You’ll make rimfall on islands you’ve never even dreamed of,” he said enticingly, his eyes and his earrings flashing in the gaslight. “You’ll see things that you won’t believe even whilst you’re seeing them. And I’ve a fast twenty-wheel barque to take us there, just fitted with brand-new rubber. She mounts a triple rocket-launcher on each side — can destroy anything nimble enough to catch her, and can run from any ship too big to handle.”

Jek Maysin, the oldest of the young men there, cleared his throat. “How long have you held this Admiralty commission as a pirate hunter, Captain Dicer?”

Calanda leaned back into the shadowy corner; Jek was the one fellow there that might recognize her. But he had been gone a year on a company ship. She wished she had smeared dirt on her face — boy’s breeches and a hat might not be enough.

“Well,” Dicer said, “it’s a new commission to be sure, but I‘ve seen my share of pirate fights.” He leapt onto the carom table and drew a sabre that shone like a mirror. “Not work for the faint of heart. But if ye was faint, you’d not be here now. No. This is for daring men who can face a rocket shot as easily as the brazen girls of Wildtown — men who can laugh at the cutting wind and blistering sun for a chance at enough loot to see them the rest of their lives. Now who among you is such a man? Who’ll be first to sign articles and receive a platinum ounce as bonus here on the spot?”

“I am! I’ll go! Let me sign!” came a dozen shouts at once. These boys were as desperate to get away as Calanda. But she noticed that Jek slipped quietly out the front door.

“One at a time lads,” Dicer said with a grin. “Form a column there in front of that table where sits my quartermaster, Mr. Astone. He’ll sign and pay ye. And to save time I’ll read the articles to all of you at once.” Over his shoulder he called, “Hey barkeep, a full pint for every one of these lads here whilst they wait.”

Calanda stood at the end of the line with a boy nearly her age. They were the youngest there by a couple of years. When the barman came to them he shook his head and wouldn’t serve them. The boy turned to her and said, “I think that if we’re old enough to hunt pirates, we’re old enough to drink.”

Calanda was afraid to speak, afraid that her girl’s voice would give her away on the spot.

“Hi,” said the boy, “my name is Dawny.” He had curly golden hair, and was handsome and confident.

“I’m Cal,” she said.

“Are you from saltside?”

“No. Rimside. But I race catts off of Sandy Head.”

“I hear that can be pretty rough. How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

He smiled at her obvious lie. “You’re older than you look. I just had my seventeenth last week.”

It was working, she decided — he thought she was a boy. “I can’t wait to get out there.”

Dawny cocked his head. “Why do you want to leave so bad?”

She looked him in the eye. “Why do you?”

He said nothing, and Dicer quickly read the ship’s articles, covering them in less than two minutes. Minor infractions of the rules resulted in punishment by the rod. For major crimes, all of which seemed most unlikely to Calanda, such as desertion, or killing a shipmate, or stealing water in life-threatening quantity, there was but one penalty — death by dragging. But compensations for maiming injury were beyond generous: from two thousand sovereigns for the loss of a foot, to ten thousand for blindness. Calanda wondered how a small privateer could afford it. She began to suspect that she had no idea of how much wealth passed across the High Salt.

The other young men signed and took their coin. When Dawny and Calanda reached the table Mr. Astone looked up with his bulldog face and said, “What’s this then, a brace of cabin boys?”

“No sir,” Dawny barked out fearlessly, “we be topmen.”

That caught the Captain’s ear and he came over to the table. “Topmen, eh?” He looked at Dawny. “Can you reef a t’gallant in a frozen gale, with the ship swaying like a teeter-totter?”

“Aye, sir,” answered Dawny, almost defiantly.

Dicer turned to Calanda. “And you. Can you swing from sheet to yard to line, agile as a spider monkey?”

“That I can, sir,” she belted out. Dawny had inspired her.

Astone harrumphed. “We should test them, see if they know the ropes.”

Captain Dicer stroked his greying beard. “We’ll find out soon enough whether they be topmen or no. Sign ‘em.”

When they had signed, and each had pocketed his platinum ounce — more money than Calanda had ever seen — they stood there just grinning at one another. Then the Captain’s demeanor changed, his eyes becoming sharp where they had been bright, his mouth hard where it had been gentle.

Astone stood and shouted harshly to the room, “Crew is to fall in before the Captain at once!” They all stood dumbfounded, staring at him wide-eyed.

“Fall in at once!” he commanded, “or you’ll feel the rod before you even see the Salt.”

They quickly massed in front of Dicer.

“You have all signed ship’s articles and accepted token of payment. You are under my legal command from this moment until the completion of our voyage. I hereby order each of you to report aboard Wind Ferret at two bells in the morning watch.”

“That’s five o’clock,” said Astone, “in lubberly talk.”

“Say your good-byes tonight,” Dicer told them, “and bring your kit. There’ll be no leave before we sail.”

Calanda suddenly felt very young and very naive. She turned to Dawny and whispered, “What have we done?”

 

Ninety feet above the deck the main mast creaked and strained in the high wind, and Calanda held tight to the yardarm as Wind Ferret rolled away mile after mile of salt-encrusted earth. Dawny perched lightly on the footropes, almost lounging against the yard. The blister-cream on his lips and nose and ears made him look like a clown and Calanda laughed.

They had been on the Salt only two weeks, their skin already scorched and scrubbed raw by sun and wind and the dryness of the freezing night — their breath started coming out frosty as soon as the sun went down — but each day had been as full as a month spent at home, and Calanda had begun to imagine that she was a journeyman sailor. She had known most of the ropes, and it was obvious that many of the other sailors up there had never worked the tops before.

Dawny shone in the tops. More agile even than the older hands, he also learned the tricks of top work quickly, passing them on to Calanda, for on their first day aboard they had made a pact to look out for one another. The tops were an isolated world aloft, dangerous and dream-like and Calanda loved it.

Dawny gave her an easy smile. “Laugh if you want my bold and secretive friend.” The way he sometimes looked at her, a mischievous light to his eyes, made Calanda think that he must know about her, and now it seemed that he was letting her know that he knew.

She was a strong girl with an athletic figure. Even so, she had sewn shoulder-pads in all her shirts, worn baggy breeches, changed clothes in the dark, and only went to the head in the one-holer near the cockpit, but this boy was with her all the time. She hung her hammock right above his, and she had even slipped once and giggled like a girl. She wondered if he had noticed the way she blushed when he took his shirt off. Sure. He must know.

With only one moon in the sky, the night became too dark for sailing, and the ship was hove-to and staked out for the first time since they left Southport. The next day they reached the Porpentine Shoals, several thousand square miles of wrinkled ground dotted with natural stone towers and patches of deep sand — the perfect hiding place for pirates wishing to haunt the southern Salt.

“Man the sweeps!” called Mr. Astone, and a dozen sailors ran to a huge contraption lying amidships sporting several pump handles. Calanda had seen the broom-like appendages mounted astern and on the outriggers, and now she saw what they were for. The turning of a few screws on the gunwales lowered the sweeps into place behind the wheels, and as the men on deck pumped, the brushes began an odd undulation that swept the ground. It covered Wind Ferret’s tracks surprisingly well.

Calanda leaned toward Dawny. “This makes me think that we’re doing something really dangerous.”

“Of course we are. We’re hunting pirates.”

“Then if we are the hunters, why are we the ones sneaking around?”

“The Captain wants to surprise them. It makes sense.”

“What about these cutlass drills we have all the time. How many battles are fought hand-to-hand these days?” She lowered her voice. “And haven’t you noticed that there aren’t any old salts in this crew? Most of us have never been in a real fight.”

“What are you trying to say? That we‘re all going to get killed? Captain Dicer and Mr. Astone are hardened privateers — they‘ve been doing this their whole lives.”

“Yeah, and what have they to show for it?”

Dawny threw up his hands. “They have this ship for one thing. Doesn’t that count?”

She looked at the faces of the young men pumping the sweeps. “I hope so.”

 

Calanda stood lookout her third afternoon in the Shoals. Sailing on the Porpentine, as they called it, had proved treacherous. The flat of the Salt gave way to ground littered with boulders or cut by gullies, and the buttes and mesas baffled the air currents, making them veer and sheer unpredictably. No sooner did they trim the topsails than the Captain would bear away, or call for another tack, and many times a wind shift would strike them head-on and they would be thrown back in irons. It wore hard on the ship and crew.

Eddies of dust drifted on the gusting airs, a burnished haze in the waning sunlight, cutting visibility to only a few miles. Calanda and the other lookouts scanned the horizon in silence, with an unbroken concentration mustered by anxiety — that morning they had crossed another ship’s tracks, a bigger one with at least twenty-eight wheels.

“Sail ho!” came a cry from the foremast. “Three points to starboard!”

Calanda strained, but couldn’t see it through the haze.

“Ready about!” called Mr. Astone, and they brought the ship around, steering away from the sighting. Captain Dicer climbed the ratlines into the mizzen tops and took out his spyglass, gazing through it for a long minute.

“Take us into the shadow of that rock formation and heave to,” he called down to Astone.

When it was done and the crew had set brake-blocks, Dicer and Astone walked out past the stone tower lugging a large tripod telescope. When they returned Dicer called the crew together.

“It’s the ship we’ve been looking for alright,” he told them. “Black Magic.” Dicer searched their faces, one by one. “I see that some of you have heard of it. Well I can tell you this: its crew is only men, no more and no less.”

He waved them all to come in close, so he could speak in plain fashion. “Wind Ferret is outclassed here, lads, and there’s nothing for it. Black Magic mounts heavier rockets and more of them, and is likely to be nimble as the Ferret. So we’ve got to give them the dirty.

“Now it’s only an hour to sundown, and the enemy has already staked-out for the night. They may have a bigger ship but there’s as many of us as there are pirates, so what I mean to do is cut them out in the dark — board them afoot whilst they sleep.”

 

An hour after sunset the arms master issued swords and pistols. It was Calanda’s first time to hold a gun and the weight of the double-barreled pistol surprised her, near as heavy as the cutlass. She suddenly didn’t feel well.

Astone gathered them around for one last talk before they went over the side.

“Okay boys, the whole idea here is to sneak right up to their ship and climb aboard before they know it. There’s sure to be some kind of fight with the night watch, so be ready for it. And use your weapons properly. If an enemy comes at you with a sword, don’t cross blades, shoot him. If he presents his back, give him cold steel. It sounds dirty and bad, and it is. But they’ll be trying to do the same to you in any fight, be they pirate or gentleman. That’s just how it’s done.

“Now we don’t want to get into a pitched battle. If we’re quiet and quick we can sweep away the watch then lock the rest of the crew below before they’re out of their hammocks.”

Captain Dicer came on deck then, and Mr. Astone said to them, “Form up by section now. Stay with your section leaders at all times.”

Dicer sauntered up to them like he was out for a stroll. “Mr. Montage’s section will remain aboard Wind Ferret. Your orders Mr. Montage are to stay here and guard the ship until we return. Understood?”

Montage was twenty and trying to grow his first beard. “Aye, sir,” he managed to squeak.

“All others will follow me,” Dicer said. He calmly climbed over the side, and the rest of them went with him. A minute later they were all lost in the darkness.

And Calanda shook and had to fight back tears as it sunk in. Her section was staying behind. She didn’t have to go. She didn’t have to go.

“Dawny, Cal,” barked Montage, snapping her out of it, “I want the two of you all the way forward. And keep both eyes peeled.”

After they had taken their posts, Dawny muttered, “Just our luck to miss the action. That Dicer is one wily captain, huh? Cutting them out in the middle of the night — what an easy prize. And I was starting to get good with a cutlass.”

“Yeah,” Calanda said, “lucky we got all that practice time.” Then she thought about it. “Dawny, do you think that Captain Dicer knew the strength of the pirate ship all along?”

He shrugged. “I reckon so.”

“If that’s true, then he must have figured from the beginning that we had to board them — that’s why the long cutlass drills. What a son-of-a-dog.”

“A brilliant son-of-a-dog.”

“Maybe. How long do you think it’ll take for them to get there?”

“I heard that the pirates are staked-out six miles away. So it would be two or three hours.”

She looked up at Onis, high in the sky and far and dim, not much bigger than a planet. Its pale orange glow made it barely light enough to walk without stumbling.

The night went on forever. When they were sure that four hours had passed, Montage checked his pocket watch and found that it had been only two. They kept a close watch on where lay the pirate ship, even knowing that the stone tower would block their view.

Then a dozen sharp reports, echoing across the Porpentine. The tower suddenly outlined in bright light. Then the long whoosh and short thud of rocket fire, followed by a volley of gunshots. A tracer arcing skyward, ending in another burst of light.

Calanda, like the rest of them, ran to the starboard rail and stood there staring dumbly. “Flares,” she said. “Someone is launching flares. Something’s gone wrong.”

A great hiss briefly drowned out the small arms fire, the roar of a dozen thudding explosions coming soon after.

“That was a salvo of rockets,” Montage said. “Sounded like a full broadside.”

“You’re in command,” Calanda said to him. “Give us our orders.”

“The Captain told me to stay here.”

“I don’t think he was expecting a catastrophe. Listen, if the pirates are firing rockets, it must mean that our boys never reached the ship. I think they‘ve been caught in the open — we‘ve got to help them.”

Dawny pulled her aside. “It might not be that way at all. Our mates could be on deck right now, victory at hand.”

They all looked at Montage. Another flare soared into the night sky.

“Those flares should give us enough light to sail by. Pull the chocks. We’re going in to get them.”

“But there’s only eight of us,” said one of the others.

“We’ll go with mainsail only — we have enough hands for that. I’ll steer. Cal, you get into the cockpit and read the ground for me. Everyone look sharp now!”

As soon as they got under way Calanda discovered that she couldn’t see far enough ahead of the ship. She picked up the speaking-tube and shouted to Montage that they were running blind, but he just told her to do the best she could until they got closer to the flares. Then, as they picked up speed on the downhill, Wind Ferret plowed into a sand-filled gully, and they were all thrown to the deck.

Montage leapt up and over the side. “Shovels,” he called after a quick look. “We’ll have to dig her out.”

The gunshots in the distance became sporadic as they dug, at last fading away as no more flares were launched. They were still digging an hour later when the pirates came sailing out of the darkness and parked across Wind Ferret’s stern.

A voice from Black Magic hailed them. “Come out into the open and disarm yourselves! Your shipmates are all kill’t. No need to join them.”

“We don’t believe you!” Montage yelled back at them.

The pirates brought out lanterns. “Believe,” said a man in a shaggy fur coat. He waved his arm and two men stepped up, supporting a third man between them. It was Astone.

They barely recognized him. Half his outer clothing had been burned away, and he was scorched and bleeding from one eye. The big pirate prodded him and he managed to croak, “It’s true, lads. We’ve been done in.”

Montage led them out. They lay down their weapons and looked at one another in shock. The pirates took their arms and escorted them to the foredeck where stood the man who had spoken.

He was stocky and thick-limbed, his hair and beard shaggy as his coat, with pepperbox pistols and grenades and throwing stars and knives hanging from belts and bandoliers.

His eyes bulged just a little too crazily for Calanda. He pointed to the side. Astone had fallen unconscious and lay slumped against a coil of rope.

“You can attend to him if you like,” he said.

Montage tore a strip from his undershirt and bandaged Astone’s eye. They didn’t know what else to do for him.

The shaggy pirate seemed to be in charge. He led a boarding party over to Wind Ferret and spent an hour salvaging rockets, sails, tires, and hardware.

Montage shook his head. “A perfectly good prize ship, and they’re simply scouring it for spare parts. And they pulled the drain plugs on our water tanks. I don’t get it.”

When the salvage party returned and all was stowed away, a tall thin figure came down from the quarterdeck and spoke to the lead pirate in a soft and rasping voice. “Offer the honors to our captives, Mr. Shiv, then prepare to get under way”

“Aye, Captain.”

Shiv came over and stared at them with his wild eyes. “Since you gave it up without a fight, we’ll offer you a choice. You can be marooned here with one shot and a cup of water apiece, or you can take pirate colors and join with us.” This was how pirates replaced their losses.

“You would each get a one-sevenhundreth share, which ain’t bad compared to dying of thirst. Because you’ll never make it out of the Porpentine. You’d all die before you got to the High Salt — where there would be little chance of even sighting a passing ship.”

Calanda and the others looked at Montage.

Shiv laughed. “He ain’t your boss no more. You got no ship and no crew. You’re just a few sots left over after a battle. Each of you is free to make up his own mind.”

“We’re honest men here,” Montage said, “and we will not be part of a pirate crew.”

Shiv waited a moment. No one moved. “So be it then,” he said.

Dawny grabbed Calanda by the forearm and dragged her up to Shiv. “We’ll join.”

Calanda opened her mouth to speak, but Montage cut her off.

“Dawny, Cal, what you’re doing is treason.”

Dawny squeezed Calanda’s arm and looked her in the eye, and she thought she could read that look. He seemed to have a secret plan, a way out of this for them. He wanted her to trust him. So she did and said nothing.

“Please, boys,” Montage said, “it must come to a bad end. Don’t do it.”

“Enough,” said Shiv. “They’ve decided. Now go.” He waved a pistol at Montage and his group, who with the half-conscious Astone climbed over the side.

“Give ‘em their desserts,” Shiv called, and a pirate tossed Montage a canteen and one pistol with a handful of balls and cartridges.

“When the time comes, you’ll have to share the gun,” laughed the pirate. “Hope you don’t mind.”

As the horizon began to glow with predawn light, the crew pulled chocks and set the ship on a westerly tack. Then Shiv pointed at Calanda and Dawny, saying, “Go up to the quarterdeck. Captain Cyan wants to talk to you.”

They made their way aft, with no one really minding them. Black Magic was fitted-out like a regular warship, except for a small windowless housing amidships the main deck, steel plated and with a locked door. Stepping up to the quarterdeck, they found the Captain at the taffrail, watching the stripped hull of Wind Ferret recede into the morning twilight.

He stood nearly seven feet tall, and seemed comfortable in leathers and silks that were far too light for the freezing nights on the High Salt. Strangely, he carried no weapons, only an astrolabe.

Dawny cleared his throat politely, and the Captain turned, his long white hair loose in the breeze. Calanda saw the pallor of his skin, and the silver-colored eyes, and she knew then how Black Magic could sail in the dark and why Dicer’s raid had failed.

He was a nightling.

He looked down on them with a cold and penetrating stare, and they saw the sign of arcane science burned into his forehead. “Wind Ferret,” he rasped, “did she travel in company with warships or other pirate hunters?”

Calanda suddenly felt a pressure against her thoughts, along with a panicky sensation in the gut. She had heard that nightlings could look into a person and force out the truth.

Dawny at last managed to say, “No sir.”

“Any threats or surprises waiting for us out on the Salt?” He looked directly at Calanda.

“Not that I know of,” she found herself saying.

He nodded, apparently satisfied, and dismissed them with a wave of his long, slender fingers.

Back on the main deck, Calanda looked at Dawny and shuddered. “Spooky.”

Dawny nodded. “We’d better report to Mr. Shiv.”

“Wait a minute. Tell me your plan.”

“What plan?”

Calanda’s mouth fell open. “Th-the reason you joined us with these pirates. The way we’re going to get out of this.”

Dawny glared at her. “The reason is so that we don’t die with Montage and the others. What Shiv said is the truth.”

“But there’s always a chance, isn’t there?”

“No. There isn’t. They are going to die, and horribly, and that’s all.” He put his hand on her shoulder and said gently, “This is the only way for us to live.”

“We could steal a cask of water and go over the side, make it back to the others.”

“We’re making close to forty knots, Cal. We’d both break our legs at the very least.”

“But you don’t mean for us to be pirates. We’ll get away as soon as we come near a civilized port, right?”

“Sure,” he said. “Sure we will.”

But that night, after the ship had been staked and boarding nets raised, Mr. Shiv’s protégés held them down while a skinny cutthroat named Scribbler gave them the mark: the skull inside the wheel tattooed on the forearm, the sign of the pirate. The tattoo would make Calanda’s life forfeit even in Southport where people knew her, and she saw that they were now pirates, for there was no one alive to say different.

 

 

2. Black Magic

 

Black Magic reached the open Salt the next afternoon. Dawny was sent to work with the mechanic’s mate, and Calanda had been assigned to Legbone, the cook, a wiry old pirate missing a hand and an ear. Legbone worked her mercilessly and told stories of mayhem. He had been a pirate twenty years, far longer than the others, and while they cooked he would dispassionately instruct her on the finer points of murder, such as the proper way to backstab a man. When at last he gave her a half hour of free time she went out on deck to squint against the sharp reflection of the featureless Salt.

She felt it loosen, but before she could reach up her hat flew off and was gone, lost to the Salt. Stupid, stupid idiot. She hadn’t tightened the chinstrap. This was more than inconvenient — you had to have a hat out here.

Some of the pirates were laughing and pointing over the side. Her hat had caught on the trailing arm of the outrigger, held fast by the apparent wind.

“We have a winner,” they called to her. “Go get it new boy!”

The pirates whooped and laughed and made wagers as Calanda crawled out onto the arm. Made of cross-braced tubular steel, it sloped downward and bounced and shook violently, and salt dust from the hull-mounted wheels stung her eyes and nearly blinded her. She made it to her hat, but a pebble hit her in the face as she tried to turn and she reeled, clutching at a brace, almost falling. The ground was only a few feet away but it was going by awfully fast.

“Don’t fall, kid,” yelled one of them, “I’ve got a fiver riding on you!”

From where she sat, at the far end of the outrigger, Calanda could see the underside of the hull. She had to blink once to be sure, but yes, there was a man under there, sheeted with salt dust and strapped to the axel blinds with cartridge belts. She stared in disbelief. How could anyone take that kind of abuse?

He looked right at her, asking for her silence by putting his finger to his lips. Then she recognized him. It was Captain Dicer.

 

Calanda didn’t tell the pirates. Dicer was still her captain, and, though it might be foolish, she believed that he would think of a way out of this for all of them if she could just get him aboard. She didn’t tell Dawny either. She couldn’t risk getting him in trouble if they got caught — death by dragging would be the punishment.

Pacing the deck after her supper duty ended, she figured that Dicer couldn’t survive another night dangling from the underside of the hull. But darkness had fallen and Black Magic sailed on in the light of two gibbous moons. At midnight, when the last moon finally set, a halt was called and the ship staked-out. The boarding nets were raised once again. Calanda wanted to scream with frustration. With the nets up, it was impossible to slip over the side unnoticed.

After the ship settled into a night watch, she took a lone candle and went down to the orlop deck, the lowest level of the ship. No one paid her any mind. As the cook’s helper she was always going down there to fetch supplies. If this didn’t work, she didn’t know what she would do.

She found the access plate to the steering linkage, pulled the bolts and removed it. Every little clink of metal against metal seemed to echo the length of the hull. Slipping past the linkage, she lowered herself to the ground and crawled over to where Dicer still hung in his makeshift harness.

He was alive, but cold as ice and groggy. She cut him down and somehow pushed him through the hatch, up into the orlop. He couldn’t walk, and couldn’t stop shivering. At the back of the orlop stood a sail locker where they had stored all the spares from Wind Ferret. She dragged him over to it, wrapped him in sailcloth, and wiped the salt dust from his face. He had a deep, ugly gash across his forehead.

Legbone slept soundly enough for her to sneak some biscuit and a canteen of hot water from the galley. When Dicer had drunk all of it and ate a few bites, he could at last speak and make sense, but a glaze lay over his eyes and his voice shook.

“Your name is Cal, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” She was surprised he knew her name.

“Have you turned pirate, Cal?”

“No, no,” she stammered, “I didn’t mean to — it’s just that . . . I thought that we were — “

“Start from the time I left Wind Ferret and tell me everything that has happened.”

So she did, and when she had finished Dicer smiled sadly. “At least Astone made it through the ambush.”

“Are they truly doomed? Do Astone and Montage and the others have any chance at all?”

Dicer shrugged. “Maybe. Hard to say. Are you sure that the pirates took all the water from Wind Ferret?”

“They didn’t take any at all. They just opened the tanks and dumped it on the ground.”

“Really now?” Dicer’s eyes brightened. “That’s very interesting. That means . . . yes, if they twig it. Montage might not, but Astone would surely figure it out. If Astone is well enough to lead, then I’d say they had a chance.”

After a long silence Dicer said, “I should be with them now.”

“What happened to you, sir?”

Dicer’s face turned hard, but he spoke even more softly. “When we were caught in the open by the flares, my group stood closer to the pirates than Astone’s group, so I led a charge right at them. If we could have made it up on deck and stopped the rocket fire for a moment, Astone could have retreated to cover. But they shot us down as we climbed aboard. When I came to I was lying beneath the wheels and the fight was over. The pirates upped stakes and set sail, so I hitched myself to the hull, thinking that the next time they stopped I would deliver this to their captain.”

From under his jacket he pulled a steel canister, about the size of two grenades, inset with a tiny clock and crystals in the shape of weird runes. “I would have slipped aboard last night, but I fear my raid made them cautious, for the boarding nets had been raised.”

Dicer ate another biscuit. Then Calanda asked him, “What do we do now, Captain?”

He grabbed her forearm with one hand, and though he was weak, his grip felt like an iron shackle. “Don’t call me that.”

“But why?”

“I got them all killed. Every one of them. Your shipmates. Your friends. All dead. Every single one of them. From now on, I captain no one. And for what I‘m going to do — as soon as I feel fit I shall take this bomb and thrust it down the throat of this ship‘s master. After that, I don‘t care what happens.”

Calanda hadn’t expected this.

“No,” she said, suddenly angry, “you’re not going to do that, sir. The pirates will know I helped you and they’ll kill me, and Dawny too. I’m only fifteen and I’ve never had a life. And I want one. Not a pirate’s life — a real one — and I need you to figure a way out of this for us.”

Dicer stared past her into the darkness. Calanda still felt numb from the slaughter of her shipmates; she couldn’t imagine what Dicer was feeling.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she said. “The captain of this ship is a nightling.”

“A nightling? Are you sure?”

“I saw him up close.”

Dicer let out a long breath. “A nightling. No doubt he saw us coming from a quarter mile out. It must have been funny to him — us sneaking through the dark when he could see us plain as day. No one knew, not even the Admiralty. No one had ever seen him. Does he wear the mark of the occult?”

“Aye, the serpent and the abacus, burned into his forehead.”

Dicer’s eyes narrowed. “It has become curious. You see, these pirates have been doing peculiar things of late, such as stopping a cargo fluyt and taking nothing but a barrel of distilled zinc.”

“What is zinc used for anyway?”

“Mostly for making brass. They also use it for filler in ship’s tires, especially the nine-footers. I doubt that this nightling wants it for brass or rubber. Is there anything of the weird about this ship, an apparatus or even a strange smell?”

Much about this pirate ship seemed strange to her. “There’s a little house on deck with no windows and a locked door, and it has more steel plating than the hull.”

“Indeed?” said Dicer. “Curious. Do you think you can get a look inside?”

 

Calanda could see the armored deckhouse from the window of the galley, and for two days she kept watch as best she could, but Legbone kept her busy. The pirates worked as hard as any crew, in their own way, and Calanda was surprised that she and Dawny suffered none of the bullying they had received on Wind Ferret. She saw the why of it when one sailor’s sarcastic remark was returned with a pistol shot. These outlaws were highly strung, and unlike most ships Black Magic had no arms locker, each man keeping his own weapons close at hand. Without ceremony, they threw the pirate who fired over the side. The other, despite his wound, was tied to a grating and beaten on the bare back with a rod.

She visited Dicer twice each day in the hidey-hole she had made for him out of sail bags and tires at the back of the locker, and prayed that Black Magic didn‘t rip a jib or have a flat.

The next day they reached a place the pirates called The Broken Mirror, a vast plain of rock salt that glittered in the sun like endless shards of crystal. The watchmen aloft were issued spectacles with dark glass.

“He’s taking us to the Well of Infinity,” Dicer said when she told him. “It must be our destination — there’s nothing else out here.”

“A well? For water?”

“No. It’s a bottomless hole at the center of The Broken Mirror. Supposedly it has . . . I don’t know, some kind of power.”

No one entered the mysterious housing during those two days that Calanda watched, but Mr. Shiv glanced at it with a knowing eye when he told some of the crew to look lively and keep sharp and they’d all be filthy rich after the big raid that was coming soon. When she asked Legbone what was in there, he smiled.

“Only Captain Cyan knows for sure.”

Because of her duty, Calanda had to sleep on a cot in the galley. She awoke at midnight with an eerie feeling, like a moon shadow had passed over her. Legbone slept soundly in his hammock — he slept like the dead, and Calanda could come and go in the night without waking him. Rising, she went to the window and peered through the shutters.

The nightling captain was just then opening the door of the deckhouse. Stooping, he passed within, and a moment later a dim, flickering light outlined the entrance. He had left the door ajar, and Calanda saw the chance to take a peek inside.

She slipped into her coat and out of the galley. The wind was sharp, the ship still under way. As she crossed the deck a voice came from behind her.

“What are you doing up at this hour?”

It made her jump, but it was only Dawny. “I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “What are you doing?”

“I just got off duty an hour ago.” He looked hard into her eyes. “Is something wrong?”

“I hate the way they have us separated. I miss you.”

He laid his arm across her shoulders and led her along the rail, not tenderly, the way she’d always imagined he would, but more like a sailor to his brother. Here on a pirate ship, what else could he do?

“I hate it too,” he said. “Look, I know you’re scared, but it’s going to be alright. You’ll see.”

He was right about her being afraid. She leaned into him, wanting really to bury her face in his chest and weep and tell him about Dicer and why she needed to spy on Captain Cyan. Then she noticed the smell he had to him.

“What’s that stink coming off you?”

“It’s nothing.” He shrugged. “The men on my watch cooked-up some gazox in the back of the forecastle.”

“You huffed gazox with the pirates? Dawny, are you crazy? We both have to stay clear headed if we’re going to get out of this. Besides, that stuff is bad for you.”

“It’s okay — I can handle it,” he said, a little testy now. He waved a finger in her face. “And it earned me a little bit of respect, by the way. I think the crew is on the verge of accepting me, so quit acting like my mother.”

“Of course they’re accepting you,” she said, squaring off to him, “you have their mark on your arm.”

Then she thought about it. “Hey, if you’re so in with them, what are they saying about this armor-plated deckhouse? I just saw the Captain go into it.”

Dawny’s eyes flashed in the moonlight. “It’s a weapon. Made by occult science. And it’s almost ready. The Captain just has to put the finishing touches on it.”

“What kind of a weapon?”

“No one knows, but they all say that it’s going to be more powerful than anything ever made before, that no one will be able to stop us.”

 

The sun grew to a blistering fierceness the next day as Black Magic sailed deeper into The Broken Mirror, the wind feeling like air pumped through a furnace. The surface of the world danced with sparks of light, and anyone coming off deck had to stand still and blink into the sudden dimness.

Calanda’s luck with hiding Dicer held fast, but her stomach turned over each time the mechanic went down to the orlop to rummage for spare parts, and that afternoon, when a t’gallant tore away, she couldn’t breathe until the replacement had been brought up from below. She told Dicer about Cyan’s ultimate weapon, hoping he would laugh and tell her that there was no such thing. But he only nodded, saying nothing.

In her dreams that night, lightning flashed black against a yellow sky and a great saltstorm arose. She awoke at first light as the brakes sighed and motion ceased. Just off their portside lay a gaping rent in the Salt, large enough to swallow a 62-wheel galleon.

No orders came down for the crew, and each man stewed all day in whatever shade he could find. As the sun set Calanda saw something she had only seen a dozen times in her life — all three moons rising at once, all of them full. Then Mr. Shiv came on deck with some carpenters and mechanics. They dismantled the deckhouse, exposing the occult device that lay within, and after Calanda had looked at it for a long time, it still didn’t look like anything she had ever seen — a huge metal spider flipped onto its back, made of coils and plates and fins, its legs curled inward in death.

Draped in the robes of weirding, Captain Cyan appeared on the quarterdeck bearing accoutrements of the occult: the wand, the dagger, and the slide-rule.

“Remove the pile,” he commanded, and they detached the central section from the contraption, a stack of metal plates bolted together in the form of a half-ton cylinder, hoisting it up and over the side into an awaiting sling. Then Shiv ordered the crew to unload the hold, and whatever Calanda had expected it wasn’t rope.

But the hold was filled with it, coils and coils of it — several thousand feet of rope — all of it marked with a red stripe every ten feet.

Shiv attached a pair of ropes to the sling, the crew running them through block-and-tackles and using them to maneuver the pile over the center of the huge crevasse. Captain Cyan checked the position of the moons with his astrolabe, then gave the command, “Lower away!” And one stripe at a time the men lowered the pile into the realm below the Salt, the realm of the nightlings.

They lowered until the pile was lost in moon shadows, and no word to halt was given. Cyan began chanting an incantation, and the men spliced more rope and lowered steadily to the cadence of his chant. The moons rose higher and still they lowered the pile. Calanda stopped counting after three hundred stripes.

At last, when they had used almost all the rope, Cyan gave the order to halt. He looked up at the bright triangle in the night sky, and the three moons came to their zenith. The wind stopped and everyone stood still in the silence.

A mile down the crevasse, the faintest light flashed. Calanda blinked, not sure that she had really seen it. Cyan immediately signaled two men standing at the edge with an open barrel, and they began to shovel a yellow powder into the Well. The air soon stank of sulfur.

A distant crackle, and lightning danced blue-green in the depths of the crevasse. More flashes, silver inside a green mist. The mist churned and turned, spinning faster and faster. Then moonlight poured into the shaft, melting the mist and calming the lightning.

Cyan made a final pass with his wand, a long copper rod wrapped with silver wire. “It is done,” he said. “Raise up the pile and connect it to the Jinn. Then we will go out upon the High Salt and summon destruction.”

 

 

3. The Jinn

 

It took until sunrise to raise the pile, the crew near exhaustion at the end, for even with block-and-tackle the weight of the rope proved almost too much. But Captain Cyan meant to drive them hard on the Salt that day, and he called the crew together to tell them the words that would drive them.

“We are ready to take our prize now. I have contracted with the Doge of Galmentin Island to raid the lichen farms at High Garden. The Jinn will give us the power to break through the walls. We will fill our hold with their harvest, destroy their farms and all that remains, and return to Port Galmen.”

He paused and looked at them to see if any understood the deep significance of it. They simply stared back at him. Calanda didn’t get it either.

The nightling continued in his harsh whisper. “For this we will be paid forty million sovereigns and given leave to retire in Galmentin.”

The pirates understood that. They leapt onto barrels, whooping and throwing their knit caps in the air. They prodded the fiddler into playing, and danced little jigs, drawing their knives and miming what they would do to the inhabitants of High Garden.

“We’ll all be stinking rich!” Calanda heard above the din. “With that kind of money we could start our own country!”

When the celebration at last quieted, Mr. Shiv called them to set sail. The pirates jumped-to, no longer tired, and Black Magic soon raced eastward. But it was afternoon before the crew truly settled into their old routine and Calanda could slip away and tell Dicer.

“Have you ever heard of the Baderic?” he asked her.

“It’s a serious disease that the island-born get.”

“Yes, deadly in fact. And do you know the cure?”

She shook her head.

“It’s called Baderibane, but it is made from a lichen that grows in only two rocky outcroppings on the whole Salt. High Garden is the bigger one, shared by the Alliance — that’s why they maintain the military base at Alkali Wells. Can you guess where the other patch lies?”

“Somewhere close to Galmentin Island?”

Dicer nodded. “Yes. Almost on the rim, right next to Port Galmen.”

“So if Cyan pulls this off for them, they corner the market and charge whatever they want for it.”

“And only the rich survive the Baderic. Common folk will die by the thousands.”

Calanda had an evil thought. “And they could simply withhold it from their enemies.”

“You’re beginning to understand how it works,” Dicer said.

“Is there any way we can warn them at High Garden?”

Dicer shook his head. “No. But if this occult weapon can do what the nightling claims, it shan’t matter. And if the device fails, then the walls will keep them out. High Garden is nearly a week away even with good wind. Let us bide our time for a few days. Certainly this captain will test his weapon before taking it into battle. I’d like to know what it can do.”

But Black Magic continued to run before the wind for five days and nights. No one was allowed near the Jinn.

Calanda began to suspect that no test was coming. She cornered Dawny next to the scuttle-butt and asked him about it.

“You can’t test sorcery,” he said to her. “But it’ll do its job. Rigs has been telling me some of the other arcane science the Captain has worked. He’s never failed yet.”

Dawny had been spending more time with Rigs, his section leader, than with her. Rigs had sold him a pistol and some fancy clothes against his future share of the profits, and with the pistol in his sash Dawny had acquired the pirate swagger as well. Certainly this was all craft — it’s easier to escape when you’re one of them. But the way he smiled and joked with these pirates, like he was truly having fun, made Calanda a little uneasy.

“Will you jump ship with me at High Garden?”

“If we need to, I will, but let’s not be stupid. Why risk getting shot in the back if we can ride this ship all the way to Galmentin. Do you know how much our shares would be? Over fifty thousand apiece — we could buy a small estate together, become landlords and live well the rest of our lives.”

“Do you want to be a landlord in Galmentin, Dawny? I don‘t. I want to be a sailor and live my life. I want to learn math and navigation and work my way up to the quarterdeck, maybe even captain my own ship one day.”

“I wanted that too. All I’m saying is let’s just see how it goes at High Garden, and if we can‘t get away, it won‘t be so bad to be rich.”

That evening she took Dicer some fresh water. He had taken to pacing the length of the locker when she was there with a light.

“Cal,” he said, “what’s our heading?”

“Due east, same as it’s been since we left The Mirror.”

Dicer nodded. “That’s the course I would have taken. No doubt he plans to pass Alkali Wells to the south, then turn due north for High Garden. What was the absolute time this morning at sunrise?”

“I heard it called out, but I don’t remember . . . zero-two-something.”

“That’s near enough.” He stopped pacing. “I’ve thought of a way to foul their plans and maybe save High Garden. Are you with me?”

“Of course, sir. What do you want me to do?”

“Do you know where they keep the ship’s chronometer?”

“Yes. It’s in the wardroom.”

“Good. As soon as you can, without fail before the watch changes at midnight, I want you to sneak in and reset the time. You need to set the chronometer back one minute.”

“Back one minute,” Calanda repeated. “Is that all?”

“That should be enough. You see, the military base at Alkali Wells is on the same latitude as High Garden, but it’s fifty-five miles to the west. Now at this latitude, one second of arc works out to just under one mile — “

Calanda gasped. “So they’ll think it’s High Garden, but we’ll really be sailing straight into Alkali Wells Base and a whole squadron of warships. Captain Dicer, you’re a genius.”

“Not so fast,” he said. “Fifty miles is a long jump — the nightling may get suspicious and call for an odometer reading. And even if it fools them, we could both be killed in the battle that’s sure to take place. But I want you to know something, Cal. If we get out of this I will speak my best for you before the court. I’ll do all that I can to see you acquitted.”

“Oh.” In the excitement over the raid she had forgotten. As far as anyone knew, she and Dawny were pirates. “Thank you sir, you’re very kind.”

She waited until three bells in the night watch, Black Magic still running east by the light of two moons. With her heart pounding and her breath coming out in clouds, Calanda stepped into the companionway on tiptoes. No light around the wardroom door. She went in quickly, uncovering her lantern and going straight to the chronometer. Release the safety, turn the middle knob one click to the left.

Immediately, the door opened behind her.

She turned, caught in the act, then she saw that it was Dawny.

“You almost gave me a fit,” she whispered. “Get in here and close the door.”

“What were you doing to the ship’s clock?”

“Resetting it. I’ll explain later.”

“I think you’d better explain now,” he said.

“This is our way out. Changing the time will cause a position error — we’ll end up at an Alliance base.”

“And get hanged as pirates. Great idea.”

“No. I’ve got Captain Dicer stowed away in the orlop. He’ll testify for us.”

“You’ve got who? Dicer? How? Are you insane? If anyone finds him they’ll kill all three of us.”

“They won’t find him.”

“You don’t know that. No, you’ve got to turn yourself in and tell Mr. Shiv about Dicer.”

Calanda faced him fully. “You always act like you’re protecting me, but you’re really just protecting yourself. I’m not letting you decide things for me anymore, Dawny.”

“But I’m right about this. It’s tough luck for Dicer, but they’ll spare you for admitting your fault — like the way they let us join because we didn’t put up a fight — it’s sort of a pirates’ code.”

“Now you’re telling me about pirate honor.”

He was thinking fast now. “Sure, it’ll work. They’ll give you a dozen or two with the rod, but you’ll still be one of the crew, and you might still get a share after the raid.”

Calanda suddenly felt her throat tighten. She couldn‘t stop her tears. “You would really let them do that to me? Tie me to a grate and whip me? Just so you can have money and a nice place to live?”

“No. So the two of us can survive.”

“And what will you say when they strip my shirt off and everyone sees?”

“Sees what?”

“That I’m a girl.”

Dawny opened his mouth, but speech had been torn away. She saw now that he had never known. He looked her carefully, maybe for the first time, recognition spreading across his face.

“You are a girl,” he said, shocked and angry. “No wonder all the bad luck.” He backed away from her, nearly losing his balance.

“Dawny, I’m still me.”

“No you’re not,” he said. For some strange reason she had become a person to fear and hate. “I have to report this.”

“You can’t!”

He turned and fumbled for the door latch. She picked up a stool and hit him across the head as hard as she could. He fell heavily and lay still.

He was limp and unwieldy, but she managed to get a shoulder under his arm and half-drag him onto the deck. If anyone noticed them in the dark, they would think little of it. A passed-out sailor being helped to bed wasn’t unusual on a pirate ship.

By the time she got him to Dicer the tears on her face had turned to streaks of ice.

“Did I kill him?” she asked timidly.

Dicer felt Dawny’s head, thumbed open his eyelid and held the lamp close. “His skull isn’t broken, but you did him a good one. What happened?”

“He caught me. He was going to tell.”

“That’s a shame,” Dicer said.

Calanda would never understand it. Why did it matter that she was a girl? A friend might have hurt feelings from being deceived, but would surely understand. Dawny had hated her.

“I’m not sure why,” she said.

“Perhaps it was the money — I’ve seen men do murder for a great deal less. Were you not tempted yourself?”

“Yes, I suppose I was.”

“Then what kept you from joining them?”

She shrugged. “Money doesn’t seem as important as being what I want to be. I want to go home to Southport one day, and walk down the street with my head held high, proud, and have people nod and say, ‘There goes one of our best.’”

“I hope you do just that.” Dicer gave her a pat on the shoulder. “Well, this one could come to at any time. You’d better leave him here with me. It’s risky, but we haven’t another choice. Now, did you reset the chronometer?”

“Aye sir, back one minute.”

“Good. Go get some rest. If my timing is right it will be a busy morning.”

She went to the galley and lay on her cot, knowing she wouldn’t sleep. The ship came to a halt at midnight. She heard the watch change, heard the bosun marking the exact time for the Captain, and her heart beat faster. A few minutes later Black Magic sailed on, and Calanda dozed fitfully.

At three o’clock the cry went out, “Clear for action! All hands to stations!” A few minutes later the ship made a hard turn to port. Captain Cyan set a course heading due north.

Calanda went to her action station on the quarterdeck and manned a fire extinguisher along with Legbone, but she had the feeling that no one expected to take damage. Rocket crews stood idle at their launchers; the captain had not even ordered them to load.

The bosun reported to Mr. Shiv. “One crewman unaccounted for. One of the new boys, assigned to the mechanics mate.”

“Have you looked for him?”

“Aye. If he’s still on board, he’s hiding somewhere.”

“I don’t like it,” Shiv said, “someone mysteriously missing just as we’re going into a raid. Form a search party and find him. Look in every compartment, every locker.”

Captain Cyan had overheard. “That may not be necessary, Mr. Shiv,” he rasped. “The young ones sometimes run away.“ His gaze fell upon Calanda. “You boy, come here.”

She approached the nightling almost unwillingly. His cold silver eyes looked right into her.

“Do you know what happened to your friend?”

She suddenly felt hot in the freezing night air. Her mind seemed to tilt a little. She wanted to give him the lie, but all she could do was nod her head.

“Did he jump ship when we were stopped?”

She tried to say yes. She couldn’t. He stared down at her impatiently. If she didn’t say anything, he would know she was trying to lie.

“He let fear get the best of him. He was a coward, and he deserted his shipmates.” Strange that it should come out so easily now, this truth she had run from in her loneliness.

“There,” Cyan said to Mr. Shiv, “mystery solved.” He dismissed Calanda with a wave.

Black Magic continued northward as the moons set, Captain Cyan taking the wheel himself as they pushed farther into the blackness. At five o’clock the order went up to shorten sails, the ship slowing to a crawl as something blacker than the dark loomed ahead of them. At last they came to a stop just as Calanda noticed a distant light off the port bow. Shiv passed a quiet word to furl all sails. Cyan took up his wand and everyone waited for the dawn.

At the first hint of twilight in the east, before Calanda could make out any shapes in the darkness, Captain Cyan stiffened, looking all around, seeing what the others could not.

“This is wrong,” he rasped. “We have come to Alkali Wells, not High Garden.” His face hardened into a mask, as if his fury were too great to release. He turned to Shiv, leaning in close. Shiv tried to look away from those terrible eyes but couldn’t. “How is that possible Mr. Shiv?”

“I . . . I don’t know, sir.”

“You will come to know, but we have no time now. Get the hands aloft and make sail, go about as soon as we have headway.”

But all sails had been tightly furled and well secured as if against a saltstorm. Before any could be sheeted home the sky grew lighter and all of them could see the rocky upthrust of Alkali Wells and the ships lying in the harbor roads.

Two fast sloops were already under sail, obliquely reaching past them to perch on Black Magic’s flanks. Three heavy frigates had just got under way and made their first jibe.

“They have the wind, Captain,” said Shiv. “They‘ll be on us before we come about.”

Cyan nodded regretfully. “Just so. Now I must summon the power of the Jinn.”

“All hands down from the rigging,” called Shiv as the nightling approached the device. Cyan threw a forked switch and said an incantation that ended with him touching the pile with his wand. Green lightning jumped from the long copper rod, dancing along the length of the apparatus.

Calanda heard a low hum, coming from everywhere at once. The air felt strange and her hair began to crackle and stand on end. A swirling wind gathered around the ship, quickly gaining in strength, throwing up salt dust, circling faster and faster, and still it grew stronger. The ship inched forward, held quiet in the eye of the whirlwind, soon gaining speed as the funnel rose a thousand feet into the air.

Cyan took the wheel, for the whirlwind was at one with the ship and obeyed the course set by her captain. He steered directly for the lead frigate, the wind screaming and punishing the Salt, the loose sheets snapping overhead.

The three frigates bore up into a line ahead, and as Black Magic closed with them they raked her with one broadside after another, but the rockets exploded harmlessly against the wall of wind. Cyan held his course for the lead frigate, Black Magic now moving faster than any ship could sail. The frigate turned toward them, and Calanda saw boarding parties with grapples assembling on her deck.

And she watched them die. As the two ships collided, the frigate, in a single instance, was torn to splinters. The ship disintegrated before her eyes to become dust and detritus carried aloft by the Jinn.

The pirates cheered and Shiv called out, “No prisoners!”

I can’t let this go on, Calanda thought. The Jinn seemed to be part machine. Perhaps she could simply turn it off.

She started across the quarterdeck, but a bony hand fastened around her wrist. “Where do you think you’re going?” Legbone said.

“I, I’m going to be sick.”

“Then you’ll have to be sick right here, boy. If you try to leave your station again during a battle, I’ll kill you.”

The impact hadn’t slowed Black Magic in the least. Cyan spun the wheel. The two remaining frigates now fled in different directions, and Cyan gave chase to the nearest. It ran for the open Salt, tacking to place a formation of massive boulders between them. Calanda stared in disbelief as Cyan headed straight for the rocks.

This time the collision checked the ship’s momentum a little. But the whirlwind still grinded the stone to dust as it ripped through the line of boulders. As Black Magic bore down on the fleeing warship the pirates took up the chant, “No prisoners! No prisoners!”

Movement near the Jinn caught Calanda’s eye. Then she saw Dicer, tossing his steel canister into the workings of the device. Then a detonation, a flash of white light, and a white-hot spray of molten metal. Calanda could feel the heat all the way from the quarterdeck.

As the whirlwind died and the ship rolled to a stop, Dicer made a run for the starboard rail, but he was cut off and encircled by the pirates. He turned and bowed to Cyan.

“Dicer, commanding Wind Ferret, at your service. I’m glad for this chance to tell you who brought your house down. And I want you know that I couldn‘t have held fast and done this simply for Admiralty wages. No, I did this to you for all those boys you killed. You had us beat. You didn‘t have to do that. Now if you desire vengeance I challenge you to come down here and take it with your own hand.”

Without a word, the nightling Captain stepped down to face Dicer. Captain Dicer drew his sabre, and Cyan tapped it with his copper rod. Instantly, the green lightning ran down the sword and up Dicer’s arm, surrounding his whole body. Dicer arched his back in a great spasm, then he fell to the deck, pale as death.

Cyan turned to Mr. Shiv. “Get us under way at once.”

“Topmen aloft, hands to sheets,” called Shiv. He turned to Calanda and Legbone. “You two go help the rocket crews.”

When Legbone went to the portside launchers, Calanda split-off towards starboard, to where Dicer lay. In the confusion, no one even noticed her as she dragged him to the bow and slid with him down the forward cowling. The frigate they had been chasing had come about, and now long arcing contrails traced the path of her rockets as Black Magic began to take fire.

She carried Dicer to behind some rocks as the pirate ship pulled away. She couldn’t tell if he was breathing. He looked dead.

“No!” she cried. “You can’t die now — we’ve made it. We’ve made it through. Please don’t die. You’re the only one who knows, you’re the only one who can tell them.”

Then it all came out of her, all the death she had seen and all the fear she had known. It came out of her in a long, angry sob. “Noooo!” She beat on his chest in blind fury. “You can’t die! You have to tell them!”

She scarcely heard the whoosh of rocket fire and the crackle of small arms. She absent-mindedly noted that Black Magic had been surrounded by the sloops and frigates and now they raked her mercilessly. At last they boarded and the black flag was brought down.

Then Dicer coughed and took a ragged breath.

 

 

Epilogue: The Judgment

 

They placed her in a narrow cell by herself, because she was a girl. When the officer who found her on the Salt with Dicer had asked, she told him her real name. There was no more Cal.

Her jailers were frightening as any pirate. The older one leered at her openly. He had told her on her first day, “They can’t hang ye if ye be with child. Think on it my little sweet.”

On the third day they made her put on a skirt fashioned from old linen, and took her to a room with polished granite walls, windowless, like her cell. Much of Alkali Wells lay underground.

A tribunal of Alliance captains had her tell her story, often stopping her to clarify details or ask questions. A secretary wrote down everything she said. There were no lawyers and no ceremony. Justice on the High Salt was summary.

But they rendered no verdict that day, sending Calanda back to her cell. Dicer came to see her then.

“I have spoke my best for you,” he said. “These captains are harder than the Salt though, and I cannot say your fate, miss.”

“You don’t seemed surprised that I’m a girl.”

“I never suspected, if that’s what you mean. In fact, I had begun to think of you as a fine young man.”

Days and weeks passed and Dicer did not return. Calanda saw no one but her keepers. At last they brought her before the tribunal again.

Dicer was waiting there with them, wearing a fine brocaded jacket with gold buttons. He stood with her for her sentencing and she was glad. It didn’t take long.

“In the charge of piracy and treason, you are found not guilty,” read the lead judge. “The capital charge of desertion is dismissed in favor of the lesser charge of dereliction of duty, and in this you are found guilty — sentence to be time already served. And it is the command of this court that the mark of pirate tattooed upon your arm be scourged by hot iron before you leave this port. You are free to go.”

Dicer led her from the room, up two flights of stairs, and out of the fortress. They stood above the harbor, and a hot pulse of wind drove away the morning coolness. At the end of a long docking-platform lay Wind Ferret, her yards crossed and ready to set sail.

“I salvaged her with the prize money from Black Magic,” Dicer said. He glanced down at her tattoo. “I can have the mechanics mate burn that off for you right now, if you want to get it over with.”

“Why can’t I get another tattoo to cover it?”

“They meant this to be part of your punishment, I think.”

“Oh. I see.” She was silent for a moment. “What happened to the pirates?”

“Most of them fought to the death along with Shiv and Cyan.”

“Was Dawny taken alive?”

“Yes, he and a dozen others.”

“Do you think they would let me talk to him?”

Dicer looked at her the way men look at each other. “They hanged him with the rest of the pirates. Yesterday morning.”

Calanda had to look away, far away across the Salt. It seemed a hard fate for a boy so young, even one who had sided with evil. But the Salt was a life or death place, and the Salt was unforgiving. Dicer had taught her that lesson the night they signed with him.

She wanted to hate Dawny for his selfishness, his lack of honor, for being who he was, but if he had betrayed her all along, then she had betrayed herself as well. So she couldn’t hate; she could only grieve for her own misplaced affection and misplaced trust.

“So,” Dicer said, “do you know what you’ll do now?”

“Aye, sir. I want sail the High Salt. That is, if you‘ll still have me as a topman.”

Dicer shook his head. “I’d be foolish use a girl like you as a common sailor. No, if you want to sign with me again it will have to be as my ensign.”

She didn‘t know what to say. “An officer? Your ensign?”

“Yes, my ensign. I already have the promising Mr. Montage as my third lieutenant — I can’t very well put you ahead of him.”

“You mean Montage is alive? He made it off the Porpentine?”

“They all did. Remember when you told me how the pirates had dumped Wind Ferret’s water onto the Salt? Astone figured, like I did, that they didn’t take any because their own tank was full. Astone reasoned that the pirates must have known about a secret spring on the Porpentine. He only had to follow Black Magic’s tracks back to it. They spent a week constructing a big three-wheeler from the remains of Wind Ferret — used a sheet metal sail and wooden wheels.”

“I’m glad they made it.”

“Well, Ensign,” said Dicer, “shall we go aboard? I’ll have the surgeon give you some ether before we take that mark off you. It will still hurt badly tomorrow, but we can keep you from suffering today.”

She shook her head. “I don’t think the judges meant for me to do that either.”

Captain Dicer gave her a grim nod, perhaps thinking her brave. But hot iron could do nothing but sear her flesh this day. It could not hurt her this day.

And tomorrow she would hold her head high.

 

THE END


Pirates of the High Salt

  • ISBN: 9781370944880
  • Author: James R. Sanford
  • Published: 2017-07-21 23:35:10
  • Words: 12272
Pirates of the High Salt Pirates of the High Salt