Stormcaster – Cinda Williams Chima

Evan of Tarvos stood at the stern rail, his eyes fixed on the ship that had been following them for the better part of a day. The sleek three-master stayed just at the horizon, neither approaching nor losing ground. Strange. Most ships fled in a hurry when they spotted Captain Latham Strangward’s stormlord standard. People said that all of the Strangwards were true stormcasters—weather mages—though Evan had never seen his captain conjure up so much as a shower. People said a lot of things, so maybe it was just a tale. Or, maybe, as he got older, Strangward’s magery was fading. Evan should have felt lucky to be crewing for a pirate whose reputation kept trouble away. But trouble looked a lot like a chance to make his name, since he’d never had one of his own. Cloud Spirit’s hold was already overflowing with stolen goods, but he was still salivating for a fight. Evan had been sailing before the mast for three years, since he was a ten-year, by his best guess. This year, for the first time, he’d been given a share of the takings. Captain Strangward had watched with a faint smile as Evan pawed through the long strands of Sand Harbor pearls and Tamric gold glitterbits, holding them up so they caught the light, sliding rings onto his narrow fingers, slipping the gold cuffs onto his wrists. Evan favored wearables and coin—portable wealth. He had no use for silver goblets or candlesticks.

When he’d made his choices, he tucked them under his roughspun shirt and jammed them into his breeches pockets. He tried not to think of all the books he could buy with his portion. You can’t spend it all, he thought. You’ve got to save enough to buy a piece of a venture. And go on from there. Ships were the key to a future in which he could buy all the books he wanted. “You might want me to hold your share for you,” the captain said, frowning, as if now reluctant to let it go. “There’s plenty in this crew would be happy to win that lot from you at cards or nicks and bones before we get to port. Or club you over the head and take it outright.” Evan pressed one hand against his shirt, protecting his stake.

“Tully says that a shiplord always wears his wealth. That way, anyone who means to take it has to fight you for it.” “Tully is a man who’s always looking for a fight,” Strangward said. “A man who’s looking for a fight will usually find one.” Strangward was a peace-loving sort. For a pirate. “Ev. Look alive.” Startled out of his reverie, Evan turned, and Brody Baines slapped the spyglass into his hand. “Captain says to lay aloft again and have another look at the ship that’s been eating our wake.

” “They’ve kept their distance so far,” Evan said, rolling his eyes. “Besides, we’re almost home.” He nodded shoreward, where the high cliffs of Tarvos smudged the horizon. Brody was two years older than Evan and more than a foot taller, with broad shoulders, muscled arms, and a growing collection of tattoos. Evan envied Brody’s shoulders, his muscles, and his burnished skin, the color of coppers that had passed through many hands. Evan felt pale as mare’s milk by comparison. Maybe it wasn’t exactly envy. More and more, Brody stirred feelings in Evan that were hard to ignore on a small ship during long days at sea. Captain Strangward frowned on shipboard romances because they stirred up trouble. That was not to say that they didn’t happen—but if the captain got wise to it, the least valuable party would be put ashore.

No doubt that would be Evan, the skinnyshanked harbor front foundling. Which would be a waste, since Brody had made it clear that Evan’s feelings were not reciprocated. Reciprocated. Evan had come across that word in a book, and now worked it into every conversation. That and proclivities. “Ev!” Brody said, poking him. “You ain’t paid to daydream. Captain thinks it’s the Siren, by the way she’s rigged. Either that or the wetland navy’s got itself a better shipbuilder.” “The Siren?” Evan’s heartbeat accelerated.

He had heard stories about the flagship of the empress of the isles. It was a legend along the Desert Coast, though nobody had seen it for years. But. “What would the empress be doing this far south?” “That’s what the captain wants to know,” Brody said, winking at him. Brody knew Evan itched for action. “Now step lively.” Captain Strangward had an agreement with Iona, the Nazari empress of the isles. She sailed out of the Northern Islands and raided wetland traffic from Middlesea and northward, while the stormlord sailed from Tarvos and hunted from Baston Bay and southward. Deepwater Court was a free port, open to all. Agreements between pirates never lasted very long, and, truth be told, Strangward hadn’t always followed theirs to the letter.

Especially since Iona was rarely seen these days anywhere along the Desert Coast. Stuffing the glass into the waist of his breeches, Evan trotted forward to the mizzen and began to climb, his bare feet finding the ratlines as they had a hundred times before. Below, on the quarterdeck, he saw Captain Strangward conferring with Abhayi, the helmsman. Evan climbed past the topgallant to the royal, straddled the empty yard, put the glass to his eye, and looked astern. The other ship was a pretty thing, her lines clean and fine as those of their own Cloud Spirit. As he watched, he could see her crew scrambling over the decking, working the halyards, shaking out more sail. The mains’ls luffed at first, then swallowed the wind, and she surged forward, splitting the swells like a sword through silk. It could be the Siren, Evan thought. There weren’t many other ships on the Indio that could match their speed. If she kept to her course, she’d be coming up on them before long.

“Still no colors, Captain,” Evan called down. “But whoever she is, we’ll know soon enough. She’s making her move now.” Strangward planted his hands on his hips and scowled. It was not a good day for a hostile meetup. They’d taken a fat merchant schooner off Baston Bay. Because of that, and their other takings in the wetlands, the Spirit sat low in the water—so low that in heavy seas her gunwales were all but awash. Too tight a turn might cause them to founder. They were thinly crewed as well. The quarrelsome quartermaster, Tully Samara, had chosen out some of their best sailors to take their prize around the Claw to Hidden Bay.

There he’d find a willing buyer, no questions asked, and add hard money to the split for the crew. Evan fingered the movables around his neck, wishing he had the coin to get in on the bidding. One day, he thought, I’ll have my own ship, and I’ll be giving the orders. He kept his lofty perch, high above the deck, the wind whipping his hair around his face. As he watched the other ship come on, he debated what his orders would be. “Come about,” the captain called to Abhayi. He looked up, searching until he found Evan still clinging to the rigging. “Boy, go down and help Samuel ready the twenty-four-pounders so we can give them a proper welcome if they go foolish on us.” Strangward always called him “boy,” and this was beginning to get under Evan’s skin. I’m not a boy, Evan thought.

I’m nearly grown. Besides, the gunnery deck wasn’t his favorite. He preferred to be above decks. Though Evan was agile and quick, and fair with a curved Carthian blade, Strangward never allowed him to join the boarding parties that followed their grappling hooks onto the enemy decks and fought hand to hand if the crew declined new management. “If a gale came up, you’d blow away,” the captain always said. “Wait till you muscle up.” Evan was strong and wiry from climbing in the rigging, furling sail and hauling lines and scrubbing all the things on a ship that seemed to need scrubbing. Still, he’d not got his full growth yet, and he had a slender build. Given his years of starving on the streets of Endru, he worried that he would never “muscle up.” Why couldn’t he at least stay on deck with Brody and the others and get an up-close taste of the fighting? How could he improve if he didn’t get to practice? If he couldn’t get in on the hand-to-hand, his second choice was to serve as lookout in a pursuit, calling out to the helmsman from a perch high in the rigging.

That always provided an excellent view of the goings-on, even if it made him a target. For sure, he’d rather play powder monkey than swab decks or repair sails or polish the brightwork. But it was hot work in the thick air belowdecks, where they had to blindly follow orders without really knowing what was going on. His ears rang for days after a watch on the gunnery deck. Plus there was always the danger of a misfire that would leave him a smear of blood and powder on the wall. Still, orders were orders. Evan scrambled down the shrouds, dropping the last ten feet to the deck. He swung down the ladder to the gunnery deck, where the master gunner Samuel and his crew were already hard at work preparing the guns. Evan joined in, running sacks of powder and wad to each of the cannon. He’d had enough practice that he could do it in his sleep.

First the powder, then the wad, then the cannonballs. Then it was down to the magazine, back to the gunnery deck, his thighs complaining about the extra weight of powder and shot. There were eight twenty-four-pounders. The gunners could prep all eight, but once they touched the match to the lot, it would take time to reload, especially with the guns hot from firing. Speaking of heat, the back of his neck burned as if a bit of match might have fallen in somehow. Evan slid his hand under his collar, groping for the cause. When his hand touched metal, he ripped it away and sucked at his fingers, swearing. It was no wonder his neck was burning. The medallion embedded in the back of his neck was blazing hot. Cautiously, he brushed his fingers over it again.

Captain Strangward called it a “magemark,” and it had almost cost Evan this job. “I’ll take you on,” the pirate had said, after plucking him off the streets in Endru, “but you need to keep that thing hidden. Sailors are a superstitious lot, and I don’t want them getting worked up about it. The next thing you know, someone will be pushing you overboard or trying to slice it off you.” Evan hadn’t made a fuss. He knew he was damned lucky to be chosen to crew with a master like Strangward, and keeping secrets was a small price to pay. People said that magemarks were a sign of royal blood and magical power. If so, Evan was still waiting for that promise to be kept. Right now, his biggest worry was that he might start shedding sparks and set the powder off. “I’m going topside for a minute,” he said to Samuel, the gunner’s mate, and skinned up the ladder before he could say no.

Cloud Spirit had come about to windward and shortened sail in order to hold her position. Captain Strangward stood on the quarterdeck, his glass trained on the challenger, which by now had come within shouting distance. Even without the glass, Evan could make out the figurehead now—a nude woman with long, webbed fingers, erupting out of a rock. Underneath was emblazoned: The Siren. Evan turned away before he could be spotted, all but running into Brody. “Aren’t you supposed to be below?” Brody said, clapping his big hand on Evan’s shoulder and spinning him back toward the stairs. “Latham Strangward!” a voice called, clear and cold as the snowmelt that ran down off the Dragonback Mountains in spring. “Are you really going to turn your guns on me?” Evan and Brody swung around in unison, as if they were chained at the hip. A woman—or maybe a girl—stood in the bow of the other ship, like a second figurehead in loose breeches and a white linen shirt, a fine gold belt at her waist. She glowed with a brilliant blue-white light that burned so brightly that it hurt Evan’s eyes.

Still, he couldn’t tear his gaze away. “She’s beautiful,” Brody whispered, his voice thick with longing. He was gazing at the young captain in a way that he’d never looked at Evan. Her hair was silver—not the dull color that comes with age, but as bright as a merchant’s tea service. It whipped around her head like a halo of snakes. Two locks—two streaks of bright color— had been braided and beaded. Red and blue. Her eyes were a pale purple—the color of sea thistle. She couldn’t be much older than Evan, and she was already a ship’s master. She was also a mage, from the shine on her.

People claimed you couldn’t throw a rock in the north without hitting a mage, but they were rarely seen this far south. Her crew glowed, too, but in a blue-purple color, like a bruise. They lined the decks, blades in hand, as if they’d come looking for a fight. Automatically, he counted. She had double their numbers. A ship crewed by mages—that had to be bad news. Apparently, Captain Strangward agreed. He had a good battle face, but right now he looked like he’d opened a hatch and found death waiting below. Instead of answering back, he turned and scanned the open deck, as if looking for someone. Evan slid behind the mizzenmast to avoid being spotted and dismissed.

Finally, Strangward turned back to face the girl who’d called to him. “Celly!” Strangward said. “Bloody hell, girl—is it really you? What’s it been—five years?” “Five very long years,” she said, planting her hands on her hips. “Longer for me than for you, I’ll wager.” “Let me come around, so we can talk,” Strangward said. Evan knew he was buying time. “Abhayi, I’ll take the wheel for the moment. You ready the crew.” With Strangward at the helm, Abhayi walked the deck, swinging his big head from side to side, speaking to one crew member, then another, descending the ladder to the gunnery deck. Brody was still staring at the other ship, looking a little more wary, a little less starstruck.

But only a little. “Who is she?” Evan whispered. “Celestine Nazari. Firstborn daughter of the empress Iona.” “I didn’t know she had a daughter.” Brody snorted. “Why would you know?” He had a point. “Celly was on her way to becoming the most powerful pirate mage on the Desert Coast, but she disappeared five years ago—when she was thirteen.” So she was the age I am now when she disappeared, Evan thought. He did the figures in his head.

“So she’s eighteen now?” Brody shrugged. “She must be.” “Then she’s too old for you,” Evan said, sliding a look at Brody. “Maybe,” Brody said, pushing back his shoulders and drawing himself up, but not quite pulling off the display of confidence. “And maybe not.” Evan could understand Brody’s fascination. He was drawn to the girl, too, though for different reasons. It was as if, when he looked at her, he saw some version of himself reflected back. The two ships had been maneuvering so that the captains could converse from a safe distance. The closer the Siren came, the more painful the burning on the back of Evan’s neck.

Yet curiosity kept him on deck. “Look at that silver hair,” Brody said, with a shiver. “She must be a blood mage like Iona.” “Blood mage?” Evan blinked up at Brody. “What do you mean?” “They make people drink their blood, and turn them into slaves.” “Well, I wouldn’t drink it,” Evan said. “Yes, you would. She’d make you. See those streaks in her hair?” Brody pointed. “Magelocks.

All of the Nazari have them. Each one represents a kind of magic. The more, the better. In the old days, the Nazari had a hundred colors in their hair.” Evan reached up and fingered his own hair, finding the smooth, metallic strands by touch. They were silver and blue, barely visible against his white-blond hair. Though he scrubbed at his hair to mingle them in with the rest, they always seemed to slide free. I’m magemarked in more ways than one, Evan thought, puffing out his chest. In a story, that would mean that he was destined for greatness. “Captain Strangward knows her?” Evan said.

“He’s her uncle, sort of,” Brody said. He loved being in the know. “The empress Iona goes through husbands like a dose of salts through a sailor. Harol Strangward was the last of five—the only one that stuck. Harol and Iona agreed to split the Desert Coast between them. Now Harol’s dead, and our captain took over.” “What about the purplish people?” Evan asked, pointing at the crew on the Siren’s decks. “Are they mages, too?” Brody looked at him like he was sun-touched. “What purplish people?” “The ones that—” “Shhh,” Brody said. “I want to hear this.

” “And now, here you are, a woman grown,” the captain was saying. “If I’d known it was you, I’d have tapped my best barrel and welcomed you properly.” The stiffness in the captain’s posture, and the tension in his face and shoulders, told a different story. Celly wasn’t fooled. “If you’d known it was me,” she said, “you would have found a hole to hide in.” Strangward chose not to respond to that. Instead, he shaded his eyes and scanned the Siren’s decks. “Isn’t Iona with you?” “My mother is dead.” This news seemed to knock Captain Strangward back on his heels. Again, he took a quick look over his shoulder, scanning the deck; then he turned back to Celly.

“I am so sorry to hear that. When did this happen?” “A year ago.” Strangward went ashen under his sun weathering. “I wish I’d known. I would have liked to pay my respects and—” “Telling you was the last thing on my mind,” Celestine snapped, “though I’m sure you’d have liked more warning. After Mother died, I found the strength to break out of the prison you built for us, only to find that your gutter-swiving stormcaster brother had surrounded the Sisters with a wall of storms.” Evan knew she must mean the Weeping Sisters, three small islands, in the Northern Islands chain, that spewed steam and flame and hot-spring water the year round. He’d never gone there—nobody

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