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A Daughter of No Nation
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A Daughter of No Nation

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Author: A. M. Dellamonica
Publisher: Tor, 2015
Series: Sophie Hansa: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

As soon as Sophie Hansa returned to our world, she is anxious to once again go back to Stormwrack. Unable to discuss the wondrous sights she has seen, and unable to tell anyone what happened to her in her time away, Sophie is in a holding pattern, focused entirely on her eventual chance to return.

With the sudden arrival of Garland Parrish, Sophie is once again gone. This time, she has been called back to Stormwrack in order to spend time with her father, a Duelist-Adjudicator, who is an unrivaled combatant and fearsome negotiator. But is he driven by his commitment to seeing justice prevail, or is he a sociopath? Soon, she discovers something repellent about him that makes her reject him, and everything he is offering.

Adrift again, she discovers that her time spent with her father is not without advantages, however, for Sophie has discovered there is nothing to stop her from setting up a forensic institute in Stormwrack, investigating cases that have been bogged down in the courts, sometimes for years. Her fresh look into a long-standing case between two of the islands turns up new information that could get her, and her friends, pulled into something bold and daring, which changes the entire way she approaches this strange new world...


Excerpt

Chapter 3

Bram was the elder statesman of a shared house occupied by a transient roster of graduate students, usually physicists and mathematicians, who were working their way through advanced degrees in the various Bay Area universities. The space was divided so that it had seven bedrooms and was known, on multiple campuses, as Dwarf House. To those in the know, Bram was, predictably, Doc.

The top floor, a converted attic, was her brother's domain. It had good light on clear days, wood floors, and spartan furnishings. The bed and wardrobe were tiny in comparison to the computer workstation and a big drafting table devoted to whatever research project was serving as Bram's latest obsession.

Her little brother was a bona-fide kid genius. He had been collecting advanced degrees like a hunter gathering game trophies, or a high-altitude climber bagging big peaks, since his early teens.

As she and Garland disembarked from the cab, one of Bram's roommates was just stubbing out a cigarette near the weathered fence. She got a look at Sophie's tear-streaked face, stepped out of her way, and then did a double take as she took in Garland.

"Can't talk, sorry," Sophie said, hustling past her.

Her adopted brother and biological half-sister were waiting in his room, talking quietly next to a pile of stuff: a duffel full of unbranded, plain-Jane jeans and shirts, a plastic bag jammed with medications, and a pair of fresh diving tanks. Everything was disordered: Verena had searched it, presumably.

Sophie had cried herself out in the cab, but at the sight of her brother she almost welled up again.

"How'd it go with the parents?"

"Big ugly scene." Sniffling, she handed over his phone. "They're freaking out, Bram."

"I'll do what I can." Parental inquisitions never bothered him; he'd been fighting with Dad since he was ten.

"We need to get going," Verena said. She was ratcheted tight with tension--no hug on offer there. "Last chance to come along, Bram."

"Tempting, but we can't both disappear at once." He shook his head. "I've got things going on here."

"Okay. We'll check in with you. Sophie, are you carrying any electronics?"

Sophie handed Bram her phone. "Want to pat me down?"

Verena looked like she was considering it.

Be that way. Sophie bent to repack her bags, putting her back between herself and her half-sister as she sorted through the collection of generic casual wear: hardy, easy to wash, suitable for hiking and camping.

As she zipped the bags shut, she glanced around Bram's room, checking for anything that might expose their research into Stormwrack.

For the past six months, Bram's worktable had been devoted to the world where Sophie's birth parents had been born. They had reconstructed a map of the world, using information gleaned on their last visit to lay out its enormous oceans and the tiny archipelagos that were its only landmasses. He'd told his roommates he was designing a map for a gaming project. He was a polymath; they just accepted that he'd take it into his head to design an MMORPG in his copious spare time.

Now the incriminating evidence--all their notes and speculations--had been packed away. Bram'd flipped the map to face the wall, instead displaying a photo Sophie had taken in Africa, impala grazing under the watchful gaze of a pride of lions. The broken pieces of Aunt Gale's brass watch were out of sight, too, probably hidden under his model of the TARDIS from Doctor Who. There was no visible sign that either of them had given Stormwrack much thought.

"Stop fussing with your stuff." Bram took her by the shoulders. "Be safe, Ducks."

"Don't call me that," she said, bumping her forehead against his. Best you stay here. Safe and out of trouble.

One last hug. "You better come back."

"I'm not on a one-way shuttle to Saturn."

"Yeah, yeah." He had that pale look, the one he got when he was trying to be brave. Like Dad, she thought, and guilt surged again. "Find some way to keep in touch."

Verena pulled a palm-size pewter clock from a satchel and drew first Parrish and then Sophie to within touching distance of both her and the stack of luggage. They fell silent, and the ticking of the timepiece took over. Sophie's vision swam, the temperature dropped, and there was a wobble that felt like her ankles giving. But it was the deck of a ship, suddenly underfoot and rocking with the rhythm of the sea.

Nightjar was a seventy-two-foot cutter with a crew of twenty-five. It had been enchanted so that it was ever-so-slightly inconspicuous, easily overlooked by casual observers.

They were out on the oceans of Stormwrack, the world whose existence she'd promised to keep from her parents--from everyone on Earth.

Excitement burned through her, banishing the physical fatigue from self-defense class, frying even the guilt over the scene with Mom and Dad. This entire world, unexplored, was filled with mysteries and new species. Its very existence raised questions about the nature of the universe. She and Bram were going to unlock them....

"What's our position?" Sophie said. She had expected they'd be in or near the Fleet, the massive seagoing city that was the world's capital, but there were no other ships in sight.

"Northwater," Parrish said.

Verena shot him a look that seemed to say, pretty clearly, Shut up. What she said was: "We can catch the Fleet in a couple days."

Verena was seventeen, eight years younger than Sophie and, as far as anyone had known until recently, the only child of their mother, Beatrice Vanko. Beatrice had given Sophie up at birth, to the Hansas.

Sophie had only just met the two women, mother and sister, six months ago. They all three had dark brown eyes that seemed just a little big and widely spaced--Bram called them anime eyes--but Verena's face was more angular than Sophie's, her nose a bit sharper, her chin a fox tip. She wore her hair pulled back in a screamingly tight ponytail that made the eyes seem even bigger.

She packed away the pewter clock and turned to Sophie with an air of bracing herself for a disagreement.

"What's up?"

"You swear you didn't smuggle in any scientific equipment? Cameras, electronic measuring devices like that laser range finder Bram brought last time..."

"You've searched my bags. Anyway, the cameras are here; you confiscated them." Sophie wasn't offended; she was too happy to be here again, here in this puzzle of a world. "Are they aboard?"

"No," Verena replied. "And I'm to ask you to promise you won't do any research while you're here."

"That's ridiculous!" Sophie said. "I'm not promising anything."

"I told Annela you'd say that." Verena cast a last glance at the bags. "In that case, she says, we have to limit your access to information."

"Information about what?"

"About anything. About everything."

Verena was far too serious for seventeen. Today she wore a tunic that left her arms free for sword fighting. It hung to her thighs, over tight-fitting ankle-length breeches. Would that make it a kirtle? None of it was green in color, but Sophie found herself reminded of Peter Pan.

"That is just--are you going to bag my head, then? What does Annela think I'm going to do?"

"Find out a bunch of stuff about Stormwrack and then text it to the White House? Then a bunch of aircraft carriers will get in and wreak havoc--"

"Until you sink them using magic. Which would take about five minutes, right?"

Verena shrugged. "The government regards you as unreliable, Sophie. The few people who know about Erstwhile pretty much see us as an armed barbarian hoard, gnawing on the gates of civilization."

"If I'm so dangerous, why let me back in now?"

Verena gave the plastic bag of painkillers and sunscreen one last, sour look. "Court stuff. The case with Mom."

Sophie's birth parents had married against their family's wishes. Stormwrack had a lot of countries, all of them islands, all tiny by Earth standards--and when Beatrice Feliachild of Verdanii had married Clydon Banning of Sylvanna, their prenup had been as complex as an international treaty. It had allowed divorce but only until the marriage produced kids.

Beatrice wanted out of the marriage, badly enough to give up her firstborn, to hide her in San Francisco. When Sophie found her way to Stormwrack, the deception had blown up in her birth mother's face. She'd been charged with fraud, breach of contract, and bigamy.

"Basically, Mom's been denied bail," Verena said. "She's confined to the Verdanii sailing vessel Breadbasket--"

"Until her trial?"

"That's just it. The case is deadlocked. She's stuck here and my dad"-- by this she meant Beatrice's second husband, in San Francisco--"he's losing his mind."

"What am I supposed to do about it?"

"It may be," Parrish said, "that your father, Sophie, could exert his influence to speed the judicial process."

"Ah ha. You're hoping I'll talk him into mellowing."

"His Honor did seem taken with you. With the idea of having a child."

"Why shouldn't he?"

Parrish smiled. "I'm sure anyone would be pleased."

Sophie found herself momentarily flustered.

Verena coughed. "There've been unofficial hints that if he could see you again, it might loosen the red tape."

"Of course I'll talk to him," Sophie said. "I got into all this to meet my birth relations, remember? I want to know Cly better."

Parrish and Verena shared a look: Beatrice's side of Sophie's newfound family seemed to have an extremely bad opinion of Cly Banning. But any reply either of them might have made was interrupted by a cry from the fore of the ship: "Coming up on the wreck, Captain!"

They rushed to the bow.

The derelict was sun-bleached, riding high in the water, and listing slightly. Its main deck was scorched and its hatches had been torn from their hinges. Salt, or what looked like salt, was sprayed across its boards. Bird droppings fouled the decks and the rails; the water around it had an oily look.

"Whitebirds. There must have been shellfish aboard," said someone behind her.

Sophie cried out, happy to have been startled. "Tonio!" She practically pirouetted into a hug.

"Ah, ginagina, it's good to see you!"

The ship's first mate was a compact and clever-looking man in his early twenties, relentlessly cheery and utterly loyal to Parrish. When Sophie had seen him last, he'd been carrying a weight of grief--they all had--over the murder of the Nightjar's owner, Gale Feliachild, Sophie and Verena's aunt. Now that some time had passed, she could see more spark in him, a zest that had been dampened before.

"No Bram?" he asked, kissing her cheek. "What a shame."

"Not this time," she replied. They all look better. Verena looked drawn, after Gale's murder, and Parrish...

Well, with Parrish it was impossible to tell. The last time she'd seen him, she'd been flirting with a man she'd met at sea, and the good captain had taken it upon himself to get all flustered and run off--

"What's with this, Tonio?" Verena said.

"We spotted the wreck about two hours ago," he said. "After you and Captain went... you know, to find Sophie."

"Doesn't look like there's anyone aboard."

"No. She appears to have been attacked and abandoned. There've been rumors of raids. But the birds--there must have been something for them to eat aboard after she was set adrift, or it wouldn't be such a mess."

Sophie felt a little chill. "Not a body?"

He shrugged. "Maybe. But look for yourself."

She did. There were mussel shells aplenty, mixed in with the piles of salt, but nothing that hinted at human remains: no bones, no clothes.

"Why not burn it?" Verena said. "If someone raided it?"

"Looks like they tried." Sophie pointed at the wheel, which was blackened and scorched. A burned-out bucket sat beside it.

"Maybe it rained," Tonio said.

Sophie's attention had been drawn past the ship. "There's someone out there."

Tonio squinted, reaching for a spyglass at his hip. "Are you sure?"

Verena pointed. "There!"

He or she was about a hundred yards off, draped over a hunk of log, and for all they were moving, they might have been dead.

"Helm, come about!" Tonio ordered.

The figure's head came up, as if it had heard, and its log rolled. Distant arms flailed to maintain a grip.

Sophie didn't hesitate. She skinned off her jacket and jeans and leapt to the ship's rail, diving into the water. There was an exhilarating rush of air as she fell, then the silken, chilly kiss of the sea rippling through her T-shirt.

She came up, checked her direction, and swam for all she was worth, distantly registering a splash that meant someone had followed her. Parrish?

Don't go under, she thought at the drifting figure.

For six months, all those long days when she'd been awaiting a chance to return to Stormwrack, Sophie had trained. She'd upped her endurance training, going for a long run or a swim daily, and hit the gym hard, too, building her core strength. She'd defended her master's thesis in biology, renewed her first aid certifications, and got some extra coaching from a diving instructor.

She'd also gotten serious about meditation. She couldn't tell a therapist where she'd been or that she'd witnessed a murder. Meditating seemed the best way to deal with the nightmares and anxiety created by the violence she'd encountered here on her earlier visit.

The physical preparation, at least, was paying off. A satisfying bounty of healthy energy sang through every muscle as she cut through the water. The figure in the water was a woman--no, a girl. She had lost her precarious grip on the log and was batting feebly at the surface of the sea. Her face was grotesquely sunburned.

"Stay calm," Sophie shouted in her most authoritative voice--and then, as she realized she'd said it in English, she switched to Fleet and yelled again.

She caught the girl by the arm, alert for panic--if she freaked out, they might both drown. Instead she coughed and obligingly went limp.

"You must save him," she begged.

"You're okay, you're all right." The girl had a huge bruise behind her left ear. Had someone hit her?

Sophie secured a rescue grip, confirmed that there was no "him" immediately handy to save, and saw Verena about ten yards behind her, swimming with a lozenge-shaped flotation device and trailing a rope. The crew had brought Nightjar around in a gentle curve that had halved the distance between them.

"Here." Verena tossed the float ahead and swam to catch up. Treading, they worked together to tie the girl to the float. Verena signaled the crew and they began to reel her in.

"She says there's someone else."

"Nobody in sight," Verena said, between breaths. They treaded and turned, in opposite directions, double-checking. "Maybe on the derelict?"

"Hope so."

The girl moaned.

"Just a kid," Sophie said.

Her half-sister blew salt water in a sputter. "Fourteen, fifteen. Here, that's a grown-up."

Great, I've offended her. Verena might be seventeen, but most of the time she seemed to act a testy fifty.

She had been warming to me, Sophie thought. Something's wrong.

Rather than sit out in the water chatting and losing body heat, they focused on getting their charge aboard ship. Parrish had the crew lower a sling and they eased her into it. Then Tonio dropped a net into the water and Verena and Sophie clambered back up to the main deck.

"Carry her to the forward cabin," Parrish said. "Sophie, we're displacing you before you're even settled."

"Doesn't the ship have an infirmary?" Sophie said. She had pulled a leg muscle during her last visit, and that time Parrish had carried her to his cabin.

A brief memory of that--being lifted in his arms, him settling her on his bunk--momentarily distracted her from here and now.

Parrish shrugged. He was keeping his eyes up, on her face, and Sophie realized she was soaked to the skin and dressed in nothing but a thin T-shirt and a pair of purple-striped bikini briefs.

"She said, 'Save him,' " Sophie said.

"Beal," he said. "Up the mast with the outlander binoculars--have a good look."

"Yes, Kir."

He turned to Tonio. "Take two crewmen aboard the derelict and make sure there's nobody aboard. Find the ship's log if you can."

Someone handed Sophie a heated blanket and a mug of heavily milked tea; Verena, too.

"Can I go with them?"

"I'll go," Verena said, a bit sharply.

Parrish said, "If you wouldn't mind looking at the girl, Sophie--our medical officer left us recently."

"Richler's gone? Sure, okay."

"Cannon on deck," Parrish ordered, and one of the other crew took up the cry.

A dozen questions rose to Sophie's lips, but Parrish had already walked away.

Never mind. Parrish had his hands full, and she probably could figure out the rest.

"Someone clocked the kid," she said to Verena. "You're making sure they're not aboard the derelict."

"Her attacker or the mysterious 'him' she was babbling about. They probably tossed the girl overboard and sailed off, but..."

"And... 'cannon'?"

Verena nodded as a rangy-looking guy, fiftyish, with huge eyes and black skin, stepped onto the main deck carrying a wooden keg full of black sand. "Krezzo."

"An... oddity?" Sophie took a second look. The man didn't appear unusually brawny; there were no overt signs of magic about him. His hands were a little flat--scooplike, she thought.

"A transform. We say 'transform' if they look like people," Verena said, voice low. "Oddities have visible characteristics of animals or plants."

"Okay." Sophie committed the fact to memory.

"Also, it's insulting."

"So transforms are regarded as useful members of society, but oddities are kind of freaks?"

"Yeah, but--" Verena broke off, scowling. "Dammit, stop info gathering!"

"Stop me," Sophie told her. Verena didn't return her grin.

A female sailor called from below, "Kir Feliachild. Do you know where Cap'n means to put Kir Hansa?"

"Maybe she can bunk with Sweet for a day or two?" She looked at Sophie. "Now I suppose you want to know why the shuffle."

Sophie thought about what she remembered of the layout: crew quarters, guest cabins, and a galley between decks, with the hold for storage below. "If 'my' cabin is that double room aft... it locks from the outside, doesn't it?"

Verena nodded. "She got coshed on the head and dumped. It's possible there was a reason."

"She didn't look dangerous." Sophie felt a weird sense of dislocation. People weren't dangerous at home--well, they were, but not usually to her.

"Nightjar doesn't have a brig, and a lot of the bulkheads are mobile. The aft guest cabin has fixed bulkheads and a locking door; it essentially doubles as a holding cell."

"So maybe the girl is a victim, or maybe she did something to warrant getting tossed off a ship? What could possibly rate that?"

Verena didn't take the bait this time, just shrugged.

Sophie made her way belowdecks, through a hatch, down a ladder to the galley, then aft to the improvised brig. An auburn-haired sailor passed her going the other way, carrying her duffel.

"Hold up," she said, grabbing an opportunity to snatch out a dry pair of jeans and a shirt.

"I've got drugs in there, too." She slid into the jeans, managing the awkward transaction of freeing up the plastic bag full of pills and bandages.

The sailor tugged out a small hand towel. "Want me to fetch the medical officer's kit?"

"Definitely. Thanks." Giving up on the juggling act, she dropped the pills on the floor, toweled off, and switched into the dry T-shirt. "You're Sweet, right? The bosun's assistant?"

"Bosun now." The woman looked pleased that Sophie had remembered her name. "Of Redcap Island."

"I hear we're rooming together," Sophie said. "Sorry about that."

"You're welcome. Unless you snore?"

"Nobody's complained." Sophie scooped up the pills again and headed aft. "Nice to see you again."

The crew had pulled back the bedcovers but laid the girl on the floor leaving her also for Sophie to examine.

No point in putting her abed until she's dry, Sophie thought.

"Okay." Sophie said. "You're not bleeding, and we've already moved you once. There doesn't seem to be any harm in drying you off and warming you up."

She didn't have any scissors and found herself forced to untie the belt knotted around the girl's pantaloons and then fight the wet fabric off her legs.

She talked as she worked: "We're going to help you, it'll be okay, nobody's going to hurt you now."

No response.

The pantaloons were crudely made, of a wool spun from some kind of coarse animal hair. Goat? As Sophie pulled them free, Sweet reappeared and nudged an empty basin at her. She dumped them inside, the better to keep the floor dry.

The girl wore an anklet that looked to have been made of pieces of horn.

"Dry her legs," Sophie said. The shirt was easily unbuttoned, but working it over the sunburns on her arms was a delicate job. The girl moaned but did not wake.

"She'll be dehydrated as well as cold," Sweet said.

"Maybe we can get her to swallow some broth?" The two of them lifted her into bed. "Chicken? Fish? Warm but not hot?"

"I'll ask Cook," Sweet said. "Richler left a burn salve, if you don't have one."

"Thanks." She dug in the wooden box for it. It smelled of aloe pulp and maybe a bit of peppermint. She tried a patch of it on a two-inch square of healthy flesh on the girl's shoulder, waiting to see if any kind of allergic reaction manifested. When it didn't, she smeared the rest on the burns on the girl's arms, back, and face. Her inner arms, where she'd been clinging to the piece of driftwood, were less burned. Her hands bore a dense crisscrossing of what looked to be cat scratches. Sophie salved those, too.

Then she looked at the bruise behind her ear. If she probed it, would she be able to tell if the skull was fractured?

No. She wasn't a doctor. At home, she'd have long since called an ambulance so they could zoom the injured girl off to a nice clean hospital for an MRI.

"Anything could have done this. You might have hit your head accidentally. A loose spar, tripping on deck..."

Her mother's words came back: You haven't been attacked--are you expecting to be?

Was this going to be her life? Longing for a chance to explore Stormwrack whenever she was home in San Francisco but then at hazard and perpetually culture shocked when she was here?

Sweet returned with the broth. They propped the girl's head up, just a bit, and took turns spooning tiny sips into her mouth. She swallowed about half the time; the rest dribbled out.

"I can sit with her, Kir," said Sweet, once they'd done all they could.

"Okay, thanks." Sophie's eye fell on a thick envelope sitting on the bedside table. "Was this for me?"

"I meant to move it with the rest of your things."

"No problem," she said absently. The envelope had one of those oldfashioned wax seals--though the color was royal blue rather than red or black--and its paper was thick, more board than page.

Sophie cracked the seal and found, folded within the board, three sheets of delicate, onionskin paper, bordered top and bottom by rough edges that hinted they'd been cut with a paper knife. Two were blank. The third was crammed with dense black letters, elegantly formed, that had soaked through the page.

It was from her birth father.

Dearest Sophie, the letter began,

When I learned of your existence, it was barely spring. Now summer will soon be waning; autumn thrusts her eager face into the Northern Hemisphere, blowing cold winds ahead of her as the Fleet of Nations makes ready for its great annual cruise across Northwater.

I have been much engaged with those in the Convene and the Watch who keep secrets for the government, ensuring them of my discretion and taking many oaths, and so I have been privileged (and astonished!) to learn a certain amount about the outland regime where you spent your youth.

"What is it, Sophie?" Parrish was at the hatch.

"The Convene told Cly about San Francisco. About Earth, I mean."

"Erstwhile," Parrish corrected quietly. The few Stormwrackers who had heard of Earth at all seemed to think it was a remote island nation, somewhere the Fleet never sailed--and not a member of its 250 island nations. They thought it was a place someone could reach on a ship.

They tell me it is a place of wonders, unbelievable savagery, demonic entities, and wasteful habits, but that you, my child, were raised in comfort and security. For this, naturally, I am grateful.

But sentiment is not my purpose. In your absence I have not been idle--I have, among other things, successfully documented proof of paternity. I may very nearly call myself your father now. The next step, if you wish to claim me, would be to have you recognized a daughter of my home nation, Sylvanna.

I am on leave from my Judiciary duties; I would suggest a short visit to introduce you to the place, and to acquaint us with each other.

I await your soonest reply and enclose papers to that end. Until then, I remain your eager servant,

The Honorable Clydon Eblis Banning, Duelist-Advocate for the Fleet of Nations.

Sophie refolded the letter. Parrish's eyes were on her.

"He wants me to meet his people," she said. "Go to Sylvanna, grand tour, all that."

"As a starboard nation, Sylvanna--" Just then, the castaway moaned and opened her eyes.

Sophie took the girl's hand. The red of her sunburn was more vivid against the starched whiteness of the sheets.

"Where am I?" she managed. Her lips were cracked, her voice almost gone. Her Fleet accent was thick, barely comprehensible.

"Aboard the sailing vessel Nightjar," Parrish told her. "We found you in the water. Do you know how long--"

"Two nights and three days. They're ahead." An expression of desperation crossed her face.

"What happened?"

"You must make for Tibbon's Wash, Kirs. I beg you."

"Why?" Sophie said. "What's up?"

"My only--my beloved. His name is Rashad." She struggled to sit. "Rashad swore that if I did not return from this voyage, he would take his own life."

"Tibbon's Wash is home?" Sophie asked.

The girl nodded. "I sought the Queen's favor; it's the only way for us to marry. Without permission..."

"Royal permission?" Sophie said. "Because you're in agriculture and Rashad is..."

Parrish gave her a faint, surprised look.

"Rashad is every noble thing you can imagine," the girl protested. "He is generous, beautiful--"

"But forbidden?" Sophie said.

"His parents own a great fishing fleet." She frowned. "How did you know I was a goatherd?"

"From your stuff."

"What are you called, Kir?" Parrish interjected.

"Corsetta."

"How did you end up in the water?" Sophie asked.

"Rashad's brother, Montaro, offered to make a sailor of me. To take me in pursuit of the Queen's favor. Our task was to tame a snow vulture. I'm good with animals. If I could do it, my way would be cleared."

Sophie asked, "What's in it for Montaro?"

"The vulture," she said. "We use their eggs in an inscription."

"And you had no luck?"

"I befriended the bird." Corsetta sighed. "Montaro's men took it and tossed me overboard."

Parrish asked, "And the derelict?"

"Nothing to do with me!"

Her reply was hasty; she was hiding something.

Parrish went on: "Someone attacked that ship, that much is obvious.

Its crew--"
"I tried to swim to the derelict, to save myself. That's all I know. Please,

Kir! Montaro didn't believe me about Rashad's oath. You must help. He'll die!"

Nightjar corrected suddenly; Corsetta involuntarily gripped the bedsheets, as if she felt about to tumble out of her cot. Parrish seemed unaffected; whatever was up, he trusted Tonio to take care of it.

"We must make for my homeland at full sail," Corsetta mumbled. She was losing consciousness again.

"We'll do what we can, Corsetta," Parrish told her. "Rest."

They left her to sleep.

Nightjar had been brought alongside the derelict, close enough for boarding; the two ships were very nearly lashed together. Tonio was overseeing a delicate operation; a lifeboat had been lowered to the derelict's deck. Long coils of rope connected it to Nightjar. The cannoneer, Krezzo, had set his arsenal aside and was standing ready at the rope.

"What is it?" Parrish asked.

"Another survivor," Tonio said, and his expression was unmistakably satisfied. He pointed at Verena, who was climbing into the lifeboat, holding a wrapped something in a blanket.

Sophie's breath caught. "Not a baby?"

"No, Kir, nothing like that," Tonio said.

"It's a cat, isn't it?" Parrish said.

She remembered him, suddenly, sitting on her mother's porch with Muffins, counting the cat's extra toes, looking sexy and sensitive, as though he were posing for a poster slated to go up on a thousand moony girls' bedroom walls.

"There's something I'm missing here."

Krezzo and the others began hauling the ropes, raising the lifeboat. As it rose alongside, the other members of the crew balanced it so that Verena wasn't bounced against the rail or the sides of the cutter. "I like cats--don't get me wrong. But from the look on all your faces, you'd think we'd found a bag of diamonds."

Parrish said, "Cats are hunters. They're a danger to birds, fish, small rodents...."

"Sure, yeah." Cats transported by sailors had wrought their share of devastation on island ecosystems at home, too. They'd done incredible damage in Australia to the marsupials.

"Their kind is cursed. If a cat leaves the protection of its home isle, it must ever after be aboard a ship. No cat who leaves the protection of a seacraft may live."

"Huh?"

"If it falls into the sea or sets a paw on an island without cats, it dies," Verena explained.

By now the lifeboat was up above the rail--the crew guided it down to the deck, between mainmast and foremast. Tonio reached for the bundle and unwrapped an ordinary if emaciated gray tabby with enormous green eyes and a strangely mashed look to its ears. It had a thin orange collar, braided from goat-spun rags.

So much for Corsetta having nothing to do with the derelict.

"Captain," Tonio said, bowing. "May I present the newest member of our crew?"

Parish broke out into a dazzling grin and said, "Have Cook spoil him rotten, Tonio."

"Won't earn his keep mousing if you do that."

"It's string and fire," the cannoneer opined. "Feed'm up a little or he'll keel."

"Take it below. And keep it away from the ship's ferret until they're an even match." With that, Parrish turned. "Did you find anything else?"

"Derelict's stripped to the very boards," Tonio said. "Old bloodstains but no bodies. No papers, but I think she might have been from Tug Island."

"Why?" Sophie said.

"No reason you need," Verena said, before Tonio could reply.

Parrish gave Sophie the barest hint of a sympathetic glance. "Cast off the derelict."

"Yes, Cap'n!" Sailors scrambled to obey.

"Krezzo?"

"Ready!" The cannoneer scooped black sand from his barrel, molding it into two perfect spheres, as if he were a kid prepping for a snowball fight. He waited until Nightjar had cleared the ship.

"Fire when ready."

Krezzo cracked the spheres together--there was a sound like a thunderclap--and thrust his fists forward. Flames rushed up his arms and both globes seemed to explode out of his palms, leaving smoking trails in the still air. He had aimed for the main deck of the derelict and they punched through handily, spreading fire across it with a deceptively gentle puff of smoke.

"What about our young Juliet?" Sophie said.

"Who?" Verena asked.

"Miss True Love. Finding Corsetta here, near the derelict--it's possible she's one of the raiders."

"Couldn't she be part of their crew?" asked Parrish.

"If so, why not admit it?" Verena asked.

"She's lying about something. Maybe whole bunches of things," Sophie said, filling them in on the little Corsetta had told her.

"I do believe her about Romeo and a suicide pact... you say she's panicked," Verena said.

"Do we swing her by... what island was it?"

"Tibbon's Wash. Tibbs, sometimes. From the port side," Parrish said. "No, it's too far."

Sophie chewed on that. "Be a shame if the boy of her dreams did himself in before they had a chance to outgrow the infatuation naturally."

"There's nothing natural about falling out of love." Parrish frowned. "Her partners will have made for the Fleet, to sell the snow vulture's eggs. We'll hope to catch them and send a message on to Tibbon's Wash. But..."

"But what?"

"Corsetta is sunstruck," Parrish said. "She may yet die."

Her suspicion of Corsetta, paired with the adolescent high drama of it all, had made Sophie forget, momentarily that they were talking about a gravely wounded teenager. "We'll bring her through it," she vowed.

He smiled, ducking his head in agreement he might not have truly felt.

Copyright © 2015 by A. M. Dellamonica


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