While her surviving crew cling to flotsam and struggle to salvage a few longboats, the Arusian merchant ship burns.
Keith turns and looks back at the wreckage once or twice, eyeing the smoke that billows off of the sea like some dark spectre. Things had quickly gotten out of hand, as they so often do among a crew of kill-mongering pirates.
While his men drain a barrel of rum and sift through chests of pilfered loot, Keith steers the Songbird out into open water, letting the sloop get lost in the rolling waves and settling dusk. That rising column of soot and ash marks the horizon like a smudge of charcoal—a beacon to any roving ships of the Empire or the Coalition who might come looking to investigate.
Once he is satisfied that they’ve made it safely away, into the cover of the nighttime darkness sweeping over the sea, Keith entrusts the wheel to Rolo and strides down to the main deck to take stock of their haul.
There is a fair share already set aside for him, but even that is more than Keith wants or needs. He’s not one for spending gold on drink or company while they sit in port. He doesn’t like clutter in his cabin, either. While the crew watches on like greasy-beaked vultures, Keith cherrypicks a few pieces that catch his eye—a new pair of boots close to his size, a pretty letter-opener, a fine pistol, and a fat purse of gold to cover the Songbird’s future repairs—and leaves everything else behind.
“Divy the rest up amongst yourselves,” he says once he’s done, a round of approving nods and cheers rising as he throws a small chest of coins and silver candlesticks back into the crew’s pile.
“To Captain Keith!” one of the older hands cries out, cup spilling over as he raises it high.
They’re in good spirits, the crew. Drunk on rum and victory. Pleased with their captain’s generosity. Content to continue deferring to him.
“To Captain Keith!”
The cry is echoed on three dozen sets of lips, and even after a year, the mantle still doesn’t sit quite right. Captain. A title Keith had never asked for, nor particularly wanted, but had fallen to him nonetheless. It’s a dangerous thing, being captain to these men, on this ship, upon these seas.
But if Keith keeps the Songbird and her crew moving like the sleek-bodied sharks under the waves, there’s less trouble. And so long as the pockets of his inherited crew remain weighty with coin, and the galley filled with food and liquor, he can sleep with both eyes closed.
Gone are the days of making meager pickings off of local traders and taking the schooners of lesser nobles for ransom. Under Keith’s capable hand, the Songbird’s crew has gotten a taste for greater and grander prey—foreign merchant clippers laden with gold, whalers hauling barrels of oil, and the heavy trading brigs of the Coalition and the Empire alike. And Keith cannot deny the heady thrill of outmaneuvering ships two or three times the Songbird’s tonnage, or in seeing their pedigreed captains aghast as all their marines and mounted cannon fail to buckle one lone pirate sloop.
While his men laugh and make plans for how to spend their coin when they next find port, Keith sets a watch shift and begs off to the privacy of his cabin, which is downright palatial compared to the simple hammock he’d slept in for his first six years at sea. His current quarters are the coziest home he’s ever known, even if it’s only been a year.
A plush, intricately woven rug from a Taujeerian brig covers the worst of the blood stains seeped into the floorboards—a remnant of the previous captain, whose goodwill with the crew had suddenly run short. His bed, built into the starboard wall, is soft with stolen silks and fine cottons. Clothesline stretches haphazardly from wall to wall, his socks and breeches still damp where they hang.
Keith ducks under the line, lights lanterns one by one, and then throws open the windows at the back of his cabin, letting the nighttime breeze carry in the clean, comforting smell of salt and sea. He strips down to his shirt and breeches before bending over a basin of rainwater, washing his face and hands clean of black powder and smoke and dried blood—none of it his, this time.
Even with the door to his cabin closed and latched tight, the sound of the crew’s raucous celebration carries. There’s assurance in it, though. Keith keeps one ear trained on the drunken singing and shouts while he props his bare feet up on his battered desk and leafs through the scavenged leather journal he’s repurposed into a sketchbook.
He hums to himself while drawing fanciful things by lantern light, thinking of the stories his father had often told him before bed—when he wasn’t away at sea, that is, leaving Keith to the care of a neighborhood woman who would mind others’ children for a few pence per week. Mermaids and hippocampi with gleaming scales. The slithery tentacles of a kraken around a mizzenmast. Sea nymphs and feathery sirens, wet-haired where they emerge from pools of dark graphite and charcoal.
And when the lantern oil burns low and the celebration above deck has died to a murmur, Keith stows his sketchbook away and drops into his bed, charting tomorrow’s course behind closed eyelids.
The Songbird might be a small ship, but Keith wields the sloop’s flightiness like a blade, like a rapier.
She cuts clean through the waves as Keith circles his lumbering prey—a brig easily twice their size, the pale blue and white of the Coalition flag on full display—with both hands deftly spinning the Songbird’s wheel. They might only have a dozen cannon aboard, but slipping in close to strike at point-blank range lets Keith’s crew rip right through the brig’s stout hull.
The struggle is violent, but brief. The merchant ship’s captain and crew fight to the last, but they’re not swordsmen or sharpshooters. And once the Songbird’s hold is filled with their spoils, Keith steers clear of the brig as it’s slowly drawn under the waves, the groaning of the wood almost like the mournful song of some leviathan.
It’s a good bounty—enough to see them through another month’s travel to some lawless port where they can fence whatever they can’t put to use.
Keith’s spirits are almost as high as his boisterous crew’s. There’s a freedom unlike any other in being on the open sea, his hand at the helm. The sun is high and the skies are clear. A salt-flecked breeze toys with the locks of hair that have come loose from the tie at his nape. It’s almost idyllic enough to goad Keith into joining in on the sea shanty that the crew have started up while they sweep the decks clean, the sounds of song and sea reminding him of childhood visits to the docks on his father’s heels.
Almost. But as much as the words move him, Keith knows better. Nothing good has ever come from other people hearing his voice raised to sing.
A shadow on the horizon catches his eye, sighted well before any of the men on watch take notice. Keith wanders to the taffrail and pulls the lead eyepiece from its place at his hip, near his dagger.
The ship is still far off, but he can make out a few details. It’s an old frigate, larger than Keith’s sloop but still nowhere near the size of a proper ship-of-the-line. The colors of the Coalition Navy fly at her mast and a trim of reddish-orange runs the length of the ship.
“The Calypso,” Rolo reads out through his own lead eyepiece, and sure enough there is a lovely bust of the famous nymph herself at the bow.
Her aim is the Songbird, unmistakably. And while the Calypso ought to be slow, old and outdated as she is, Keith can’t help but notice that she’s slowly, steadily gaining on them.
“Is that a Coalition man-of-war?” Rolo asks somewhere beside him, thus far the only other crewman aboard to have noticed their distant shadow. “Looks like someone’s taken notice of our work.”
Without the eyepiece, the Calypso sits small and unassuming in the distance. Keith shields his eyes from the sun as he stares out over the glimmering waves, as curious as he is perturbed. The Songbird has never been tailed before, much less by a full-fledged warship.
“We could take her, Captain,” Rolo murmurs, eyeing him sidelong.
Keith doesn’t doubt it. He’s outmaneuvered ships thrice the Calypso’s size and half of it, and his crew is nothing if not vicious when it comes to blows.
“Not much value to be had in military ships,” he decides, weighing the aging frigate against the wealth of their usual targets. The Navy isn’t known for transporting silver bullion or spices worth pillaging, and it’s not as though the Songbird is running short on food, rum, or anything else. They can’t carry any additional cannon shot, either. “Not enough to make it worth the trouble of a fight.”
Rolo grunts, not quite in full agreement but unwilling to challenge his captain, either. “So… your orders?”
Keith turns back to the helm, the dark, well-worn leather of his fingerless gloves protecting his palms as he grips the wooden spokes of the wheel. “Have the men loose the sails. I’m taking us through that chain of islands we laid anchor in a fortnight ago.”
Rolo stares a moment longer than he should, brow furrowed under the grey-tan scarf wrapped around his head. But if he has doubts, he seems to think better of voicing them. His footfalls grow fainter as he treads down to the quarterdeck, relaying Keith’s orders to the crewmen in the rigging, all of whom have by now sighted the Coalition Navy frigate giving distant chase.
With full sails, Keith steers them toward a long ring of coral islands, bright and beautiful where they rise from the surrounding sea. The crew gathers along the railing as they get close, peering over the sides and into the water; there’s a gathering silence as they glance from the treacherous, hidden reefs lurking below to the man-of-war trailing behind them to Keith, who has eyes only for the sea ahead.
The Kuiper Atoll and its reefs are still largely uncharted, as far as Keith knows, but he needs no map to guide him through its perils. It’s instinct that lets him read the rise and fall of the sea, a gut feeling telling him to steer the ship just so. His father’s love of the ocean, perhaps, passed down into his blood.
With Keith’s handling, the sloop effortlessly glides through reef-fraught waters where the lumbering Coalition frigate would be hard-pressed to follow. And if the Calypso does take the longer, safer way around, they’ll lose precious hours in the process—and the Songbird, too.
With a comfortable distance and several jagged coral reefs between them, Keith finally turns to look back.
The Calypso is still well beyond the firing range of even long cannons, though the gap between them has narrowed. Already she seems to be slowing, aware of the dangerous waters that lay ahead if she is to maintain her pursuit.
Keith draws his lead eyepiece up once more, scanning the deck. The crew must number in the hundreds: seamen and sailors, marines with muskets and bayonet, royal Coalition officers in crisp blue uniform coats.
It’s the officers that Keith studies the closest, taking measure of the Calypso’s command as they run to and fro. They’re all cut of the same cloth—wellborn nobles sent to fine academies, born and raised with every privilege. Keith hunts through them, upper lip giving a faint curl, until he lands on a figure near the stern, blue-coated and sporting a captain’s bicorne hat.
He’s too far to make out a great deal of detail, but Keith can tell the Calypso’s captain is tall, well-fed, and dark of hair. That imposing silhouette—broad-shouldered under the peak of his bicorne, all white and navy blue—lingers in his mind’s eye long after the Songbird slips around the far side of an isle and loses her pursuer completely.
Not more than a week passes before Keith lays eyes on the Calypso again, the wind at her back as she chances upon the Songbird in the middle of a raid.
Keith is standing on the deck of a captive merchant ship, his crew scattered as they hunt through personal quarters and carrying holds, only half-finished hauling loot over to their waiting sloop.
He swears, turns on his heel, and calls out, “Take what you can carry and get back to the Songbird! Spread the word!”
The surviving merchant crew, currently bound and lashed to the mainmast and rails, begin to fidget at the sight of the pirates and their captain withdrawing.
Keith pays them little more than a sideways glance. He has chests and crates of loot to hastily move onto his ship, a crew to gather up again, preparations to be made—and only so much time in which to do it with the Calypso racing their way. “Raise the anchor! And keep moving, quickly!”
It’s anxiously slow going, moving what supplies they can across the narrow planks that join the two ships. Gold coins spill over and plunk into the water; a bolt of silk tumbles from Letch’s arms and falls in shortly after, bobbing in the murky waves.
Keith paces the gangway, equally frustrated watching his crew’s sloppy work and the ever-growing shape of the Calypso. “I want you ready to drop sail as soon as I give the word,” he orders, knowing minutes might make the difference in making a clean escape. “Ready the cannon, but hold for my word.”
His new boots snap hard against sun-dry wood as he storms up to the quarterdeck, taking the stairs two at a time. At the moment, they’re more or less dead in the water, having left their sails tied and anchor dropped while they ventured back and forth between ships. They’re at a decided disadvantage if Keith can’t get them clear of this damned merchant chipper and gain some speed.
While the last of the loot is carried over, he draws out his lead eyepiece and peers through it.
The Calypso is practically bearing down on them. Marines stand ready at the railing and in the rigging of the sails, their long muskets glinting in the sunlight. Her crew is a-stir, some drumbeat no doubt urging them all to their battle stations. And though Keith cannot see the Coalition captain amid all the flurry, he can picture his figure just as clearly as he’d sighted him in their last encounter.
Keith’s frustration is fever-pitch by the time they draw the boarding planks down and prepare to make way. “Drop those sails and bring me a shortbow,” he calls out, simmering as the dark barrels of the long cannon perched on the Calypso’s bow loom closer, clearer.
Keith dips an arrow into a pail of heated pitch left over from some last-minute repairs to the deck. With the first third of the shaft coated in tar-like ooze, he knocks it and leans toward a few of his crewmen. “One of you, give me a light.”
It’s Janka who fumbles for a lit lantern from below deck, holding it close to the tip of the arrow. It bursts into crackling flame, feeding brightly on the pitch. Its color flares bright even as Keith looses the bow and sends it shooting over the merchant clipper.
The arrow pierces its foresail, leaving a narrow hole that smokes before it conflagrates. The flames spread outward and upward in short order, devouring canvas and eating up the rigging that spans to the other sails, too.
Keith exhales heavily through his nose, a taut coil of anger and anxiety within him slowly unspooling. The blaze ensures the Coalition Navy will be obligated to stop and give aid rather than chase the Songbird further out to sea. It’ll be enough distraction to give them an out, but… it’s a closer thing than Keith would like.
As the sloop quickly picks up speed, the winds at their back carrying the scent of fresh ash and splitting wood, he turns to look back. The Calypso slows and her crew rushes to help the merchants tied up aboard clipper before the ship is consumed in flames, as he’d expected. And there on the stern, not yet sparing a glance for the beleaguered merchants, is the Calypso’s captain.
It’s the closest yet that Keith has seen him, and been seen by him. With a lead piece held up before his eye, the Coalition captain studies him just as intently—until Keith and the Songbird once again slip away.
They cross paths with the Calypso again in the Balmera Sea, although the Songbird is quickly forgotten when a cutter from the Imperial Galra fleet sails into view, Keith swiftly turning south while the two navy captains trade cannonfire. War still takes precedence over bringing pirates to justice, it seems.
Keith is grateful, if annoyed at the thought of that captain still roaming the same seas as him.
Barely two weeks pass before the Calypso comes upon Keith again. He spies her sails while pursuing a whaling ship worth its weight in oil, the Coalition frigate closing in quick enough that a few of her cannon shots sink into the water not forty feet shy of the Songbird.
Keith is forced to abandon his hunt for the whaler, taking flight before they can be caught. The breeze and the current remain in his ship’s favor, and his gunners fire a few parting shots toward the Calypso before they outrace the frigate entirely. They all fall shy of their intended target, to Keith’s simmering disappointment.
And he’s tempted—only for a moment—to wrap his hands around the spokes of the wheel and turn the Songbird around. To charge the Calypso head on. To fill the sides of her hull with craterous cannon shots and let his pirate cohort deal with the forty, fifty, sixty marines that must be stationed aboard, muskets at the ready. To find the Calypso ’s smug captain and put a blade through his ribs, staring him down one last time.
But there is more than his life and smarting pride at stake. There is the cost of taking such a heavily armed ship, a toll to be paid even if they are victorious. The Songbird’s crew have followed him this long only because he has not yet led them astray, and taking a ship of the Coalition navy promises no riches—only bloodshed and military rations.
Keith is an expert at evading damn-near anyone on the high seas, but the Calypso… she’s a blight he can’t quite shake. Her captain has it out for him, to be certain. The cursed frigate appears on the horizon again and again, trailing Keith like a prowling lioness chasing away a would-be scavenger.
It thwarts their raids. It keeps them away from port.
The crew begins to grow surly. Keith’s frustrations mount. Whenever he’s able to close his eyes for a few hours of sleep, it’s with the thought of the Calypso’s captain still simmering his blood.
That man. That arrogant nobleman, born with a silver spoon, who dares to pursue the Songbird so doggedly—Keith dreams of cornering him, ruining his wretched ship, and tying a cannonball to that man’s feet before dropping him into the sea. And when he wakes, that low lying anger begins to boil again, even without a sighting of their very determined ghost.
Days pass without a glimpse of the Calypso’s now-familiar sails and colors. And then a week. And then Keith sees the cursed ship no more, as suddenly as a squall can blow through and leave clear, periwinkle blue skies in its wake.
He still thinks of her captain, though, whether he’s walking the deck on watch at night or standing over the wheel. Strange to think that a man he’s never met, never known—some noble’s son who’d never look twice at him on land—might be doing the same, bitterly remembering the pirate he’d let slip away. If he still lives, anyway.
Four months pass and the reaping is good. Keith continues skirting around the fleets of the Coalition and the Empire alike, nimbly plundering the trade route with nary a glimpse of the Calypso to set his temper roiling. The Songbird is fresh off of another raid—a stubborn merchant vessel Keith had left to burn to the waterline—when a strong, sleek bow suddenly appears around the cliffside of a nearby isle, much too close for comfort.
For a heartbeat, Keith takes it for the Calypso, back to relentlessly hound them once again.
But he blinks, and it’s clear this is a different beast. It’s a Coalition ship-of-the-line, all clean, modern lines and fresh sails. It’s painted smoke-grey and trimmed in midnight black, with a snarling, three-headed wolf carved upon its bow. Keith counts two gun-decks and at least sixty canon.
“Kerberos,” Rolo murmurs beside him, squinting behind his eyepiece. “She’s new.”
And although this is the first time Keith has laid eyes on the Kerberos, he immediately recognizes the way it angles toward him, gliding smoothly through choppy waves—and the captain standing on its quarterdeck, lead drawn as he stares Keith down, too.
“It’s the Calypso ’s captain,” Keith grates out, having long thought he’d seen the last of him.
This time, there is no choice but a fight, and Keith is spoiling for it. He rouses the whole crew and has them make ready their pistols, their muskets, the cannon and gunpowder bombs. The Kerberos may be heavier and faster than the Calypso, but it’s still a fourth-rate ship; Keith knows all the steps to dance around those.
But even as Keith brings his ship into firing range, he can sense that something is different—not so much with the Kerberos as with the man who commands her.
It’s as if the Coalition captain halfway anticipates Keith’s every move. Usually, the Songbird can dive in and strike first, unleashing a full battery before their prey can even properly aim their cannons; here, the Kerberos is prepared for them at every angle, too deftly managed to be outmaneuvered at any turn.
And when they line up broadside for an exchange of cannonfire, it’s devastating.
At least twenty guns send heavy, iron cannonballs hurtling across the Songbird’s deck, easily outmatching the small sloop’s meager six cannons. Keith barely has time to drop to the floorboards as the plumes of white smoke waft from the gunports along the Kerberos’ port side.
The high-pitched whistle of incoming fire gives way to the awful shriek of splintering wood. The mizzenmast cracks clean in two, ropes snapping as it topples down across the deck. The ship groans as direct hits pierce the hull. And above Keith, the wooden wheel of the helm explodes in a burst of cedar shards.
His gloved fingers bury into the messy waves of his own hair as he shields himself, curled up small to avoid the deadly crash of cannonshot around him. Before the battery even ends, the screams of the wounded rise and resonate in the smoke-tinged air.
Ears still ringing, Keith pushes himself up to his feet and draws his flintlock pistol from his hip. There is no hope for the Songbird now—not with one of her sails toppled and the ship’s steerage shot out. But there is no hope in standing down, either. Capture means execution, even if the Coalition bothers going through the motions of a trial beforehand.
And if Keith stands and fights, there’s at least a chance he can take the Kerberos’ captain down to the bottom of the sea with him.
While the Songbird flounders, practically dead in the water, the Kerberos draws in close enough to board. Marine sharpshooters up in her rigging rain down musketfire on the pirate ship, picking off Keith’s crew two or three at a time.
Keith can’t reach the musketeers, but he can take aim at the seamen and soldiers swinging over to board his ship. He eyes one of the closer Coalition marines, taking careful aim; with a flare of sparks and smoke, the flintlock fires and a lead shot catches the soldier right in the flank, collapsing him onto the deck.
As Keith sees the barrel of a rifle swivel in his direction, he curses and scrambles behind cover. Wood cracks and splinters from another volley, and the sharp thuds of musket shots follow Keith until he slips below deck, out of line of sight. So much for facing off with the Kerberos’ captain—he’d be peppered full of lead before he took two steps in the man’s direction.
There’s no less chaos below deck. Bodies—and pieces of bodies—are strewn across the cannons of the gun deck. Blood and seaspray make the stairs slick. Daylight shines in through holes in the deck above, while the horizon can be glimpsed through the damage to the hull.
Keith can feel eyes on him. Glares, from the rest of the crew who’d slithered down here to escape the barrage of gunfire. They lurk in the shadows with sharpened swords and bayonets, ready to make their final stand; Keith is half expecting to be pierced through the back as he traces the familiar path to the captain’s quarters, his dark gaze lowered.
The ship under him groans, already listing as it takes on water. There is a hole the size of a platter in the wall of his cabin, and his bed is smashed to smithereens. Loose papers blow around the room, tossed by the sea breeze as it drifts in. A number of his finer paintings lie on the floor, the canvases riddled with splintered wood.
It doesn’t matter, now. In minutes or hours, the home he’d made for himself will be swallowed up by the ever-hungry sea—and Keith along with it.
It’s a better fate than being hauled back to shore and killed there instead, interred in some mass grave for criminals, landlocked forever.
He turns back to the door and waits, knuckles blanching as he grips his sword tight. There is a distant clash of steel as they’re boarded, Coalition soldiers fighting their way below deck. It’s an inevitability, at this point. Every pirate aboard will be put to the sword or left to drown or clapped in irons, and all mean death just as certainly.
Guttural screams give way to muted thuds, and then heavy footfalls. Keith swallows, the red scarf knotted around his neck feeling unduly tight, and waits.
He expects the glint of drawn steel and the crisp blue of a Coalition uniform coat. He does not expect to see the figure that darkens the doorway— a man of unusual height and imposing shoulder-width, the gold-braiding and embroidery on his coat marking him as a navy captain.
“Captain Takashi Shirogane. I’ve been waiting to make your acquaintance for quite some time.”
It’s been nearly a year since this man first appeared on Keith’s horizon, and it seems the last few months have ravaged the proud captain who once stood on the brightly trimmed deck of the Calypso.
His hair isn’t all dark anymore. A slash of white runs through it, just above his widow’s peak, with a snowy fringe falling across his damp brow; and gone is the military-style ponytail at his nape, his hair shorn so close that it barely covers the tips of his ears. A dark, freshly healed scar crosses the bridge of his nose, cheek-to-cheek. And, most noticeably, the navy captain’s right sleeve hangs limp and empty, pinned up at his side to keep from flapping in the howling sea breeze.
“I thought maybe you’d died,” Keith says, his voice witheringly dry.
“Almost,” Shirogane answers, the ghost of a cordial smile on his lips. “We have a name for you, in the service, but I expect it isn’t the one your parents chose. What am I to call you?”
“Keith.” Not that it matters, truly, so close to the end. Even awash with resentment and fury and mortal fear, Keith wonders why such a pedigreed man cares to know his name.
“Keith. Your ship is lost and your crew is either dead or dying,” Shirogane reminds him. The Songbird gives a lurch under their feet, as if echoing the sentiment. “But you can still live, if you surrender.”
So he can sit in a wood-barred cell and starve. So he can idle and wither in the darkness. So he can be dragged into port and hanged in front of a crowd, his body left upon some wall for days to warn children of the fate that awaits all pirates.
“I’d rather go down swinging,” Keith decides, lunging swiftly at the captain.
His sword meets the steel edge of Shirogane’s cutlass, the thrust aimed at the man’s heart cleanly turned aside. Pity.
Keith draws back, but only for half a heartbeat. He lashes out again, seeking to plunge his blade into flesh and bury it between bone, lancing somewhere through the captain’s ribcage.
But Shirogane weaves out of the way just before the blow lands, as smooth as the ripple of scales underwater. He advances just as calmly, the long, wicked sweeps of his cutlass forcing Keith back one step, and then another, until his shoulders brush the planks of a bookshelf.
He dives under Shirogane’s next strike, tumbling across the ruined floor before springing back to his feet, little wooden splinters sticking in the leather palms of his gloves. He huffs out a sharp breath, as the towering captain immediately turns on his heel, already swinging his blade down in an overhand strike that threatens to cleave into his shoulder.
With a wince, Keith manages to deflect it. The sheer force of the blow jolts the weapon in his hand and reverberates through his bones, down into the marrow.
Shirogane fights well, even missing an arm. Better than Keith expected of a man born into privilege, spared every cruel lesson on killing in desperation and fighting dirty just to live. From the sheer breadth of his frame and how thickly it’s plied with muscle, it’s clear that Shirogane never lacked for good meat, fresh water, or bread that wasn’t cut with sawdust. And for all his recent injuries, he still moves with an infuriatingly languid confidence—the kind Keith recognizes from a childhood of being expected to make way for his so-called betters—and holds himself self-assuredly, even at rest.
And one-handed or not, the Captain’s reach is perilously long. The strength he sinks into every swing would be enough to dig deep through flesh and sever narrow bones. But it’s his focus that unnerves Keith the most—stark and unflinching, as fixed on Keith as the North Star is in the sky. He’d spent months chasing Keith thousands of miles, down the coast and across the seas; it only makes sense that he’d be just as relentless in his pursuit now.
They trade blows once, twice, and then again, still feeling each other out for weaknesses. And perhaps Keith is overeager to end this fight when he whirls and brings up his sword in a backhanded slice, hoping to dig deeply into Shirogane’s defenseless right flank.
It’s as though the navy captain can hear his very intentions, though. He whips around to meet Keith’s strike with one of his own, his blade catching against Keith’s at just the wrong angle.
The force of the blow jars the sword loose from Keith’s hand and sends it rattling across the floorboards, well out of reach. Without missing a breath, Keith draws the dagger from his hip, the lavender-tinged silver flashing with every strike.
Shirogane might be surprisingly nimble for his size, but he has to tire eventually. Keith dances around the small cabin with him, striking at the captain’s wrist, at the crook of his elbow, at the soft belly somewhere under that fine, gold-studded uniform. He’s deftly parried at every turn, Shirogane’s swordwork as bluntly efficient as anything Keith has seen on the lawless stress of renegade port towns.
Usually, fine gentlemen officers aren’t quite so well-prepared to stand toe-to-toe with him. Keith ducks low and aims for one of Shirogane’s upper thighs, hoping to find purchase along that inner seam, to bite deep into the artery that will bleed a man dry just as surely as a slice to the throat.
Shirogane turns the blade of his cutlass downward and blocks the jut of Keith’s dagger like he’s fending off a viper strike. His sides heave with panted breath. “That’s a bit of a low blow, don’t you think?”
“Wasn’t going after your family jewels,” Keith assures, already moving into another whipcord-quick lunge.
His blade falls just shy of carving its way into Shirogane’s abdomen. Keith curses and tosses the dagger into his other hand, before the man can wheel on him again, and swings up hard and fast enough to finally take Shirogane by surprise.
The short blade plunges into the thick muscle of Shirogane’s right shoulder, slowing only as the tip scrapes over bone. The man groans through gritted teeth, his brows knitted tight at the lancing pain and the bloom of deep, dark crimson that wets through his uniform coat. His cutlass falls to the floor, forgotten somewhere alongside Keith’s sword. And for the briefest moment, Keith is certain he’s gained the upper hand.
A sudden, bare-fisted blow to his gut chases all the breath right out of him; Keith barely has time to double over before that same fist hooks him under the jaw, snapping his head back so sharply that he sees stars bloom across the ceiling. He stumbles a step backward, but Shirogane is already closing the gap between them, a cool fury writ across his features as he rips the dagger from his own flesh and casts it aside.
There’s a hiss of steel dragging out of its sheath as Shirogane draws the shortsword at his hip, the blade clenched in hand as he lunges forward, all mass and momentum. He knocks Keith back against the wood-slatted wall and then surges in with his left arm carried defensively before him, sword raised high.
And Keith—trapped against a splintered wall with no weapon and spotty vision—has nowhere to go.
The length of the shortsword rushes toward him, head-on, flashing silver before Keith’s very eyes. They flutter shut the moment before he’s run through, trusting the tempered steel will make short work of him.
A metallic thunk lands directly beside Keith’s ear. No piercing blade runs through his skull, but there is a rather powerful forearm braced across his throat, pinning him tight against the wall.
Out of the corner of one eye, he spies the shortsword that might have killed him. Instead, it’s buried into cedar planking—although close enough to Keith’s face to discourage much movement.
“Last offer,” Shirogane whispers, a ragged edge to his words. The heat of his breath ghosts across Keith’s cheek and up the shell of his ear. His eyes—like grey iron, melted down and ready for casting—glint in the cabin’s dust-filtered light. “Surrender. I know you’re no fool.”
“I’d be a fool to trust the word of some royal lapdog who wants to ferry me to my own execution,” Keith hisses through clenched teeth, lip curled up to show his canines. He squirms against the pressure laid across his throat. “I’d rather die aboard my ship than be executed on shore.”
A beat of silence follows, as heavy and still as the doldrums. The pleading parts of Shirogane’s expression wither into something grim and resigned, the thinned line of his lips settling deeper into place. Keith swallows down every uncertain, unseemly emotion that threatens to well up out of him, determined to lay bare no part of himself.
“Captain,” a voice at the door interrupts—another officer, soot-smudged and blood-stained, his flaxen hair unruly where it’s slipped from the tie of his ribbon. His gaze darts repeatedly to Keith, still bodily pressed into the cabin wall with enough force to keep the toes of his boots an inch off the ground. “We must disembark before she starts to slip under.”
A resonant wail rises from somewhere below, deeper in the Songbird’s hull—seawater filling the bilge, timbers groaning at the pressure they were never meant to bear.
Shirogane sighs. Despite the ship already beginning to buckle underneath them, he seems reluctant to break from Keith just yet. Voice drawn low and weary, he faces Keith once more and says, “I am a firm believer in second chances. I would caution you against rejecting this one.”
Keith’s first instinct is to bite back, to spit on the hollow offer and seal his own fate. His second is to wonder why this Takashi Shirogane is so determined to spare him.
“Unless you truly do believe your place is rotting at the bottom of the sea, with the likes of this crew,” Shirogane adds, a question hanging in those thinly whispered words.
Keith matches Shirogane’s steady stare with an unflinching look of his own.
No. No. No. Keith had never asked to be the keeper of a perpetually hungering beast, bound to keep his crew fed lest they tire of him and mutiny. That had been a means to an end—the freedom he found in charting his own course, and the comfort of a place to make his own.
The resolved set of Keith’s mouth softens, jaw unclenching. He sags back against the planks of the wall, relenting to the steady press of the captain’s forearm. “I surrender.”
Shirogane blinks, a little sigh trailing out between parted lips. If Keith didn’t know better, he’d say the captain was pleasantly surprised. Possibly even relieved.
“Mr. Holt. If you would,” Shirogane says with all the tone of a commanding officer, gesturing at Keith as he draws back just enough to let the captured pirate breathe freely.
Keith bristles as irons are clamped around his wrists, regret seizing him like a bad night tremor. He glances back over his shoulder as he’s summarily led from the cabin, gaze lingering on the bloodied dagger lying amid cedar splinters and strewn paper at Shirogane’s feet. He half considers asking to turn back for the blade, and then thinks better of it—he’d rather it be lost to the sea than taken for some minor nobility’s prize.
Keith is brusquely tugged along by a chain attached to the manacles, Mr. Holt clearly anxious to flee the sinking ship. Along the way topside, Keith steps over the bodies of his former crew—Nolan, Letch, Rolo—many of them still sluggishly bleeding out.
Keith walks the narrow plank that connects the Songbird to the Kerberos, well aware of a hundred sets of eyes boring into him. Stepping onto the Coalition frigate feels like setting foot on alien soil, intruding in a foreign land where he is already well-hated.
The deck is eerily quiet, even as Shirogane returns to his ship and checks in with each of his officers in turn.
Eight royal Coalition soldiers are laid out upon the floorboards, eyes empty as they stare skyward. Eight dead is the price of slaying the Songbird ’s crew and taking him alive; Keith is a little sore that the toll is so low, so uneven. It’s a stark and bitter loss.
The Kerberos’ dead will no doubt be mourned and wept over. They will be rendered their last rites and read passages for the dead. They will be stitched up in their hammocks and given a proper burial at sea.
Not so for the Songbird and the bodies she still holds.
With his boots planted firmly upon the Kerberos’ deck, Keith stands apart from the gathered crew, bound in iron and chain, and watches as the ship he’d called home for the last seven years succumbs to the waves and the inexorable pull of the deep.
The brig is far from comfortable, but Keith could do much worse.
His cell is clean. There is a blanket to cover himself with when nighttime’s chill creeps into the berthing deck. He is given three fair, square meals a day, which is far more than he’d expected, and plenty of ale to drink.
It’s a far cry from the comfort of his captain’s cabin, though, or even a simple hammock. He lies on the wooden bench that serves as a bed and stares at the creaking timbers of the ceiling, steadfastly ignoring the radiating ache from his jaw and the slight twinge along his ribs that comes with every breath.
Takashi Shirogane pays him a visit the day after the Songbird’s sinking. His officer’s coat is worn draped over his shoulders; heavy bandaging peeks out from under its collar, bound tight over the wound Keith’s dagger had left him. Two marines hover in the narrow doorway to the brig, keeping a careful eye on their captain.
“Mr. Keith,” Shirogane greets, as he stands at rest before Keith’s cell. His fine boots have been scrubbed clean of blood and wet gunpowder; the breeches and tapered waistcoat he wears are a crisp linen white, untouched by the stains of battle. “Did I knock any teeth loose?”
Keith sits up and works his sore jaw again, prodding at his molars with his tongue. “No.”
“You’re lucky, then,” Shirogane says, giving him a rueful smile. His shoulders drop a quarter inch, relaxing slightly even as the nearby marines stiffen at Keith’s lack of respect. “Are you comfortable?”
Keith keeps his expression stony and his voice dry. “As comfortable as anyone can be, under lock and key.”
“Good. Now,” Shirogane says, stepping closer to the stout, wooden bars of Keith’s cell, “I was hoping to learn a bit more about you.”
“About me?” Keith questions, as puzzled as he is mistrustful. “Like what? I never stashed buried treasure on any island, if that’s what you’re hoping for,” he snorts.
“Nothing of the sort. I am a curious man, is all. Pages and pages of my personal journal are dedicated to you,” he says, the slightest twist of wryness to his faint smile, “and yet I know next to nothing about the infamous captain of the Songbird. You made quite the name for yourself in no time at all.”
Keith grunts under his breath, gaze drifting to the greyed wood of his cell’s walls. Pages and pages. Good to know that he plagued Shirogane’s thoughts in turn. “Well, that means nothing now. There is no Songbird, and I am no captain.”
Silence trickles into the space that follows his words. Keith likes it that way—curt and final, hopefully inviting no more questions.
“It is rather remarkable for someone so young and informally learned to have commanded a whole crew,” Shirogane says, softer. “And to outfox two warring navies all the while. Who taught you to helm a ship? To read the currents?”
“No one.” Keith is in no mood to talk with his jaw still smarting. He crosses his arms and redoubles his efforts to stare at the wall, pointedly ignoring the quiet, prying look from the Kerberos’ captain.
A sigh reaches Keith’s ears, short and soft as it is.
“Very well, Mr. Keith. I will leave you to your rest, then,” Shirogane says, not sounding vexed in the slightest by the brush-off.
But he’s nothing if not persistent, Keith reminds himself.
“Is there a bounty on my head?” Keith calls out as the captain turns to go. “Some vengeful Altean countess or Arusian baron who wants me delivered alive?”
Shirogane halts mid-step, brow slightly furrowed as he looks back over his shoulder. “Not to my knowledge, no.”
Then he takes his leave, the two marines disappearing with him. And aside from a lone guard stationed by the door, Keith is left to himself.
It gives him ample time to think.
Keith has nothing left to his name—no ship, no crew, no coin. Not even his sheafs of drawings nor the dagger left to him by his mother, by way of his father. Even freedom eludes him.
But he’d acquiesced to the offer of surrender with one hope in mind: escape. He’s always been nimble and quick and scrawny enough to slip out of most bindings. Once they reach port, he’ll find a distraction—or make one himself—and take the opportunity to flee. He can lay low. Find a new ship, with a captain and crew he can tolerate. Take to the seas once more.
Or, if he can find a way to pick the lock on the door unseen, perhaps he could slip away once they’re close to shore. He could swim, if they weren’t too far out. He’s always been a strong swimmer. Or maybe he could steal a longboat and row, if the night watch could be silenced…
Keith marks the time by the regular changing of the guard. Nine shifts after his capture, he snaps awake from an uncomfortable nap.
The ship rocks underneath him with the uncomfortable, familiar pitch of sailing through storm-churned waters. But that’s the least of it—somewhere deeper in the berthing deck, the brittle rattle of a snare drum sounds, calling the soldiers to their stations. Shouted orders echo their way back to the brig. Boots pound across the hard oak above him. And as a peal of timber-shaking thunder dies to a purr, Keith can make out another uncomfortably familiar sound.
As the Kerberos rocks against the waves, the wooden bench in Keith’s cell begins to slide across the floor, and him along with it. He scrambles to the cell door and holds fast, cheek pressed against the wooden bars for better line of sight.
“Hey, you! Uncage me!” Keith calls out to the guard, who is braced within the doorway and fighting the sway of the ship. “Just until this passes. If she starts taking on water—”
A shrieking crash overhead drowns out anything Keith might’ve said next. A cannonball tearing across the deck, if he had to guess.
If the guard hears him, he doesn’t give any sign. Too busy praying under his breath and trying to stay upright as the sea tosses the ship to and fro with all the care of a spoilt child. Keith hangs his head and breathes deep, letting the worryingly strong scent of cold seawater wash out the rest of his thoughts.
Outside, the storm and the battle both rage on. The ship underneath him shudders as heavy cannonfire connects, and groans like a dying beast as her hull crashes into wind-whipped waves. Thunder shakes the very air around them. And amid the cacophony of crewmen and soldiers shouting to one another, Keith overhears a voice just beyond the brig’s entry.
“—at once—the Red Shrike, immediately,” some frantic soldier says, pitch and volume both rising. “—his orders, not to be—faster, damn you! Here, just give it—”
A marine suddenly slides into view of Keith’s cell, a small ring of keys clutched in hand. He’s drenched head to toe, utter misery etched in every line around his weary blue eyes. He slings his musket back over his shoulder and works the key into the padlock, scowling murderously at Keith the whole time.
Keith wonders if this marine was one of the ones up in the rigging the day the Songbird sank.
The Red Shrike. Is that what they call me?
He’d heard the name whispered behind him once or twice in port, but Keith had never imagined the moniker was in widespread use.
“Come on, you,” the marine snaps as soon as the door swings open, grabbing Keith by the front of his stain-splattered shirt and wrenching him out. “Captain Shirogane wants you on the quarterdeck. Try anything funny and I’ll shoot you in the gut myself.”
“With wet powder?” Keith asks, eyeing the rainwater dripping from both the musket on his shoulder and the pistol at his hip.
The marine’s lips thin even as his cheeks puff with a little huff of anger. A tinge of furious red lights over his cheeks. “Just move,” he bites out, shoving Keith’s shoulder and pushing him forward.
Keith goes without protest. He’s out of the brig, at least, and free to swim for his life if it comes to that.
The berth deck is chaos. Crewmen push past him carrying wounded on stretchers. The cannoneers fire in volleys that leave Keith’s ears ringing. Rain and seawater pour in from the hatches that lead topside, making the planks below deck treacherously slick.
Keith braces himself as he treads up the narrow stairs and emerges from the hatch, wind ripping at his clothing and icy rain pelting across his skin. The sky above them is like a mirror of the angry sea—dark and roiling, the clouds undulating with currents of air that would see them all dashed to pieces. The waves are white-capped and frothy, twenty-some feet high at their peaks.
And, in the distance, are two Imperial ships-of-the-line. Large ones. First- or second-rate, easily.
Keith’s stomach drops down to the soles of his soaked feet. A prod at his back sets him moving again, clinging to rigging and railing as he clambers up to the quarterdeck, trying to move with the natural sway of the ship.
“Mr. Keith!” Takashi Shirogane greets, shouting to make himself heard over the storm. His hat is gone. His waistcoat and shirt are soaked through, the fine cotton thoroughly stuck to his skin. Rain pours off of his soaked hair and runs down his brow, over the scar across his nose, and runs rivulets down his lips. “I am afraid I have a favor to ask of you.”
Keith can only stare, dumbfounded, at the gentleman captain who stands before him, his single hand gripped tight around a spoke of the wheel.
“Take the helm, if you would,” Shirogane says, expression utterly serious. “I cannot steer quite as well as I used to, and our acting helmsman is currently on the surgeon’s table.”
“Me?” Keith questions even as he surges forward and grips the wheel, grunting at how much it fights his every move.
“You.” Shirogane trades his grip on the helm for one on Keith’s shoulder. The lurch of the ship sends them skidding, holding tight to the wheel and one another as seawater spills across the deck. His mouth hovers right at Keith’s ear as he says, “There is no one more capable of steering us out of this hell than you. I trust you’d rather not drown?”
“Not today,” Keith says, gritting his teeth as he forces the wheel to move to his liking.
“Good! Now, the Ulippa Atoll is three points off the bow,” Shirogane continues, raising his arm and extending it out in front of Keith to point the way. He is close to Keith—by necessity, Keith knows, given the tumult of the storm—but every slip of their boots over the slick deck shifts him closer, plastered against Keith’s back. “I can make sure we sink the ship on the starboard side. Can you lose the other in the Ulippan reefs?”
Keith nods, certain of it. He’s sailed these waters before. He knows the shoals, knows the reefs, knows where the currents want to take them.
A faint, relieved sigh catches in the shell of Keith’s ear, barely audible under the heavy sheets of rainfall and the surging sea. A chill courses down his spine at the nearness of it.
“I thought as much. Lance Corporal McClain, make sure Mr. Keith doesn’t get washed overboard!”
With that, Captain Shirogane draws back, steadies himself, and carefully makes his way from the quarterdeck to the nearest hatch, disappearing into the gundeck.
McClain—the marine, looking no less miserable as he holds fast to the railing—glares at Keith, like it’s his fault he’s been ordered to stand atop the quarterdeck in the middle of a stormy sea battle.
Keith ignores him.
All confounding circumstances aside, he’s been entrusted with the Kerberos and all the souls upon it. Keith has no intention of letting her sink, whether by cannonfire or toppling waves—he is, after all, one of the unfortunates standing on her deck.
He grunts with the effort it takes to get the wheel turning as he likes, moving the ship’s rudder just so. The Kerberos is considerably bigger and heavier than the Songbird ever was, and there’s precious little time to adjust.
Seawater erupts in a violent spray each time the bow breaks into a cresting wave; icy water spills across the upper deck, sweeping away anything that isn’t lashed down. Wind howls through the ropes of the rigging and whips at the bundled-up sails, itching to tear the canvas to shreds. There are dim, distant flickers of fiery magenta each time the Imperial cruisers fire off another cannon volley, followed by the ominous whistle of incoming iron.
And through it all, Keith manages to carve a path through the chaos, driving the Kerberos against the waves to line her up sidelong with one Imperial cruiser.
It is brutal work. His fingers go numb around the spokes of the helm, palms blistering against the waterlogged leather of his gloves. He stands steadfast against every buffet of wind and shrieking near-miss of cannonfire, clutching tight to the wheel every time the ship tips and lurches.
Under his feet, in the gundeck below, the rows of cannon fire off in neat, well-timed volleys. They’re well-placed, too. Even from here, Keith can hear the crash of iron through wood.
The stern is battered with at least a dozen strikes, blowing out the rudder entirely. One lucky shot cracks clean through the mizzenmast, sending it toppling backward across the cruiser’s quarterdeck. The rigging securing it to the other masts snaps taut, frays, pulls at the timbers until they groan like a dying beast.
Pushed by wind and pulled by gravity, the cruiser’s mizzen tips overboard and into the stewing sea. Its topgallant sail unfurls in the water, quickly becoming a sea-anchor that threatens to capsize the whole vessel. Rudderless and hamstrung by its own mizzenmast, the Imperial cruiser lists and sways, veering into a dangerous lean that sends the hands on deck skidding overboard.
The Kerberos sends off one more merciless volley, piercing through the ship’s exposed hull while she struggles just to stay upright. The Imperial cruiser would’ve sank anyway, in all likelihood, but it seems Captain Shirogane likes to be thorough.
There is still one ship left to contend with, and Keith is determined to make good on his promise to outpace it. And this? This part comes natural to him, even amid the howling of a frigid squall and its whitecaps.
There is still a current underneath all the tumult. Keith leans the Kerberos into it, trusting the waters to take him exactly where he wants to go. Instinct guides his hands as they dance across the spokes of the wheel, careful to keep just out of the cruiser’s effective range.
The narrow gap between them grows, at first by a sliver and then by leaps and bounds.
Keith knows the reef-studded shoals that fringe this atoll—and not just from navigating these waters before, or studying the aged maps he’d inherited when the mantle of captain fell to him. It’s something innate. Something he’d assumed everyone felt, until he saw the bones of long-wrecked ships littering reefs and shorelines, and heard the whispers of awe when he effortlessly avoided the same fate.
Keith’s fingers ache as he weaves the Kerberos through unseen shoals, mindful of her larger, deeper frame. The storm hasn’t abated one bit, and there isn’t one inch of him that isn’t soaked and shivering.
“You… did it,” McClain says, somewhere behind him.
Keith glances back over his shoulder, hunting for the silhouette of the remaining Imperial cruiser; it sits small and distant, shrouded in a grey haze of rainfall where it ceased its pursuit.
Keith sighs and briefly lets his forehead rest against the back of his hand, atop the helm.
“You actually did it,” McClain says, closer this time. He moves to grip the railing in front of Keith, squinting at him through the rain still running down his face. “You—how did—I can’t believe you actually did it,” he murmurs again, dumbfounded.
“Wasn’t in the mood to drown today,” is all Keith replies, wearily taking the Kerberos through the rest of the Ulippa Atoll’s deadly reefs.
Within a quarter hour, the thickness of the storm abates. Fragments of blue sky appear along the fringes of the swirling storm clouds. And, for a little while, Keith is able to enjoy the feeling of standing at the helm of a ship once more, free to move as he pleases.
But he’s unsurprised when two water-logged marines march up the quarterdeck to retrieve him, trailed by an officer who glumly takes the helm, looking nervous even as Keith assures them that they’re clear of all the atoll’s worst.
Under better circumstances, Keith would fight off the hands that hook around his arms, gripping him tight as they lead him down the steps from the quarterdeck. Exhaustion has the better of him, though. Right now, he’d welcome that too-short bench in his cell and the thin woolen blanket it came with.
But they don’t even take him down the hatch to the berth deck, though—much less the cargo deck and its dark, lightless little brig. Instead, the marines make a hard turn and guide Keith through the officer’s quarters, where young lords and ladies gawk as he files past, and into the hall just outside the captain’s quarters.
“You’re to wait here,” one of the marines says as they open the cabin door and shove him in. “Captain’s orders.”
Keith stares at the two of them as the door draws shut, utterly confused. There is a dull, metallic click as a key turns in the lock, followed by the receding of footsteps.
Keith stands in the middle of Captain Shirogane’s quarters, dripping a small pond onto the polished floors, at a loss for what to do.
He shrugs off his red-dyed jacket and wrings out his hair, to start, tired of being sopping wet. Then he empties the water from his boots out the stern windows, marvelling at how calmly the sea now lays. Those storm clouds sit on the horizon now, just a distant blur. And the smell of rain gives way to the familiar salt-tang of a sunny late afternoon, warm and welcome.
Keith paces slowly around the fine room, taking in everything he can. Books and papers litter the floor, sent flying from their shelves during the storm. He picks up maps and charts and returns them to their tables. He sets right several astrolabes and sextants that have toppled over and rolled across the desk, along with a number of other astronomical instruments he doesn’t recognize. And, at last, he finds a few clean, neatly folded rags with which he can dry himself off.
Keith is still squeezing the water from the ends of his hair, shirtless, when a key turns in the lock and the door opens.
“Mr. Keith, I—oh. Pardon my intrusion.”
Keith has never before been shy of stripping or washing—hard to be prudish when he’s spent his whole life in close quarters with four-to six-dozen other men and women—but the slight, softly shocked parting of Shirogane’s lips makes him reconsider. He is, after all, treating the captain’s private quarters like it’s his own.
“I was drenched,” Keith says in his own defense, giving his hair another wring. If he’s going to be flogged, he might as well finish drying off first.
But Shirogane looks far from outraged or offended at Keith making himself comfortable. His expression is mostly weary, likely from the battle, and after the shock fades, a subtle amusement settles in.
“I imagine so.” Shirogane closes the door behind him and moves to join Keith at the small dining table currently set up in the middle of the room. He lays a stack of dry, laundered clothing within Keith’s reach. “I had the acting quartermaster locate some spare clothing that might do for you. I realize the color is probably not to your tastes, but…”
But it’s blessedly dry, and these clothes smell of soap and saltwater rather than sweat and gunpowder.
“I… I’d take anything clean, at this point,” Keith admits, impulsively reaching out to thumb the soft linen in shades of cream, khaki, and sun-faded blue. Then he thinks better of sullying them with his touch, his dirtied, blood-smeared fingers curling as he withdraws.
“You’re welcome to use my washroom to clean up, first,” the captain says, nodding to the narrow room that offshoots from the cabin. “Take your time.”
Keith does, if only to help settle his shifting thoughts.
He has long grown accustomed to mistrust and mistreatment. He can weather it like a bad storm. He can recognize it, close himself to it, thicken his skin against it. But this?
He leans over the water basin and scrubs himself clean, indulging in the scent of the captain’s soap. It’s fragrant—cedar or cypress, maybe, with a touch of something like lemon. It stings a little against the open blisters and slices across Keith’s hands, but in a medicinal sort of way. And it cuts cleanly through a week’s worth of sweat and grime, leaving Keith’s skin soft and supple and pleasantly scented.
While he works the lather through his hair, Keith’s thoughts turn again to the man sitting just a few yards from him, on the other side of the door.
The one who’d convinced him to surrender to save his own life. The one who’d given him the helm to his own ship in the direst of moments. The one who’d praised his skill and banked on it. And then brought him fresh clothes.
They’re a little large on him, and a little loose. Keith doesn’t mind it.
He steps out of the washroom in the new linen trousers and flowy, cotton shirt, feeling refreshed. He leaves his soiled clothing in a bucket by the door, atop some old wash rags.
Captain Shirogane still sits at the table, blinking as he’s startled from his thoughts by Keith’s return. He smiles—reflexively, maybe, because it doesn’t quite reach his eyes this time—and motions for Keith to sit with him once more.
He looks just as worn out as Keith does. And dirtier. A sweep of wet gunpowder has dried along his brow. Blood flecks the white of his collar, like a bit of arterial spray caught him. His clothes are still damp, as is his hair, and it’s difficult for Keith to reconcile this very human man with the one he’d once only known from a distance, standing proud atop the Calypso as he chased the Songbird from merchant to whaler.
“So,” Keith says, groaning as he settles down into the chair, “does the entirety of the Coalition navy know me as the Red Shrike?”
“It is certainly one nickname for you, yes,” Captain Shirogane says, the bleak edges fading from his smile. “I think the Songbird inspired that. You had such a reputation, but we didn’t have a proper name to call you, so…”
“In your journal,” Keith continues, idly picking at a stubborn splinter still lodged in the fleshy pad of his thumb, “do you write of me as the Red Shrike?”
“A few times,” the captain says, leaning back in his chair and sighing. “I had a different name for you, though.”
Keith glances up, curious.
Captain Shirogane’s breath hitches, hesitant despite his smile. “Eurybia’s Star,” he sighs a moment after, looking slightly sheepish. “The sea always seems to work in your favor. I thought it might only make sense, if you had her favor somehow.”
“Eurybia,” Keith repeats, head tilting.
“An ancient goddess. Her realm was mastery of the seas. Something you seem to have in spades,” Captain Shirogane says, his grey-eyed stare roving over Keith’s bemused expression. He studies Keith like he’s a fine painting with endless detail, trying to commit it all to memory.
“Is that why you gave me the helm?” Keith questions, inwardly shying from the way the captain looks at him—intensely, but without spite or condescension or any of the things that Keith knows well. “I doubt many navy captains would allow a lowly, throat-slitting pirate to steer their command.”
“I doubt very many navy captains would’ve survived such a wicked storm, then. Much less with two Imperial ships giving chase.”
That’s true enough.
“You’re not half bad yourself,” Keith says, recalling how many times this very man had followed him like a blight, finding him time and again in the wide expanse of the sea. “You vexed me for months. You were my undoing, Captain Shirogane.”
Shirogane has no reply for that. His stare finally lowers, avoiding Keith’s eyes in light of the reminder—and how strange that is, coming from a man who is no stranger to arresting or executing pirates. And then his head cocks gently to one side. “Are your hands injured?”
Keith looks down at his open palms, raw and red from the saltwater and the rubbing of his gloves. “Blistered. Been a long time since they’ve done that,” he murmurs, more than a little peeved.
Captain Shirogane holds out his hand, two fingers gesturing for Keith’s. “Here, let’s have a look.”
For a moment, Keith just stares at him. This is the same man who put his crew to the sword and threw him in the brig. The same man who, bound by the Coalition’s maritime laws, is ferrying him to an execution in port.
And then, tentatively, he extends one hand, and then the other.
Shirogane peers down at the two palms laid there on the table, the skin worn and split and reddened from gripping splintered railing. His own fingertips brush featherlight against Keith’s, encouraging them to lay flat while he looks over the damage.
And then he rises and rummages through a nearby drawer, fishing out a bottle of rum and a thick pad of cotton bandaging.
“We have a good physician aboard—Dr. Holt, as you’ll doubtlessly meet him—but he’s currently up to his elbows in grievously wounded men. This ought to keep anything from spoiling in the meantime,” Captain Shirogane says as he lightly dabs at Keith’s hands with a rum-soaked cloth.
It stings, but it’s nothing that Keith can’t stand. And it’s a mild, negligible pain compared to the strange kindness of someone else tending his wounds, however small they might be.
“I like your soap,” Keith comments, wincing as Shirogane manages to pull free that one last splinter. “Smells like a forest.”
“I’m glad you enjoy the scent. It’s made with hinoki oil. My mother always sends me enough to last a year,” he says, smiling. “I, ah, notice that you took the liberty of picking up the mess around my quarters. Thank you.”
“I had nothing else to do while I waited. I didn’t read anything of yours, if you’re worried about it. Can’t read, so…” Keith trails off.
“No such worry crossed my mind,” is all Shirogane tells him, still gingerly dabbing at his hands.
He wraps each of Keith’s hands in clean cotton gauze, more careful with him than Keith has ever been with himself. The bindings are nice and snug, too—surprisingly so, for being done one-handed.
“Thanks.” Keith gives his hands a testing little flex as soon as the captain pulls away. He’ll heal in short order, and hopefully without any hint of infection.
“It’s a small repayment, Mr. Keith, considering your service to the Kerberos and her crew. And to myself.”
“Just Keith will do. No one has ever called me mister-anything.”
“If that’s your preference,” Captain Shirogane says, taking the correction in stride. “Keith.”
A silence ensues. Keith wouldn’t call it comfortable, but it isn’t… it isn’t unpleasant, either. As the minutes slowly crawl by, filled only by the bustle of the young officers down the hall and the calls of gulls trailing behind the ship, Keith sighs.
“When will your marines be back to haul me down to the brig?”
Captain Shirogane’s smile is soft. His wind-chapped lips part, drawing in a half-breath before he speaks. “That is entirely up to you, actually. The way I see it, Mr—ah, Keith,” he corrects, “we have two courses of action. There is the one you are familiar with, which entails a trial in the nearest Coalition court.”
“Followed by an afternoon hanging in the village square,” Keith tacks on, nodding. “Yeah, I’m familiar. What’s my other choice?”
Shirogane clears his throat. “You are a very capable fighter and a natural at the helm. If I were to have my say, you would join my crew.”
Keith laughs. His jaw aches worse for it, but he can’t hold back the biting, bitter sound. “I’m a pirate. I stabbed you a week ago, or maybe less. It hasn’t even healed yet, has it?”
“Not quite. That’s beside the point, though.” Captain Shirogane leans over to a side drawer and pulls out two squat glasses. They clink as they’re set on the table, right between them, and he wastes no time filling them both with rum.
Keith downs half his rum in one swig. “Is that why you were so damned set on getting me to yield to you? So you could recruit me into the Coalition?”
“Partially. I’d be a fool not to want someone as fierce as you fighting under our banner,” Shirogane says, his dark eyes narrowing. “It is a war, after all. You’ve seen firsthand how harrowing it can be. And I am not above doing the unorthodox if it helps keep my crew alive.”
Keith can’t fault him for that. It’s more honest—more real, more desperate—than he’d expected from someone of such social standing and rank.
“And… I admire the way you sail, Keith. Hated the way you put it to use, but it would be an egregious lie to say that I didn’t feel a spark of excitement watching you do it.”
“Watching me pillage your merchant ships?”
“I did not enjoy fishing drowning sailors and waterlogged corpses out of the flotsam you left behind, no,” Shirogane says, the pitch of his voice dropping to something low and laced with warning. “But the way you’d take flight and outmaneuver every other ship on the water? That was always a sight to see.”
“And here I thought you were chasing me because I was a scourge to you. One you were determined to vanquish.”
A muffled sound of amusement starts and stops behind the sealed lips of Shirogane’s slight smile. “I was determined to confront you before anyone else could, I suppose.”
Before another captain could catch the Songbird and see its every last pirate hanged—Keith included. Keith mulls on that as he drinks, glad for the warmth of the rum in his belly.
“Would the Navy Board even allow it?” he chances to ask, still not quite daring to believe the outlandish optimism of the offer.
“I have the connections to ensure they will.” Spoken with the plain confidence of a man who has bent the system to his favor before.
“Would the crew even accept me? Stomach me?” Keith stares into the dark liquor swirling at the bottom of his glass.
Captain Shirogane exhales through his nose, his sigh chest-deep. “I lost eight good soldiers and sailors taking the Songbird. Another twelve today, and Dr. Holt expects two or three more to pass overnight. The crew will learn to stomach you, Keith, and to respect you. Hell, possibly even to like you. Knowing Mr. McClain, tales of your masterful seamanship are probably being spread from bow to stern already.”
Keith snorts into his glass as he polishes off the last of the rum. He drags his finger around the rim, thoughtful. “And you? You’d trust me here on your ship,” Keith says, squinting as he tries to read every little shift of Shirogane’s expression, “wandering loose while you sleep?”
“Hm. How deeply do you begrudge me for the Songbird?” Shirogane asks, more curiosity than apprehension in the little tilt of his head.
It occurs to Keith that the man might be too inquisitive for his own good.
“She was mine,” Keith murmurs, still mournful for all that he’s lost—his home, his dagger, his ability to roam the seas as he pleased. “I came of age on that ship. I made it my own. It was all I had, after my father went and died. That and my mother’s dagger, and now even that’s gone, too.”
Keith blinks at the note of recognition and realization in that one little utterance. The rum’s slowed him a little. He stirs in his seat as Shirogane retreats to a locked drawer behind his beautifully carved desk, unlatching it with a click.
The captain returns with a bundle of ribbon-wrapped silk in hand, the fabric all grey and white and gold in a pattern like honeycomb. He gently lays it in the middle of the table, well within Keith’s reach.
“It seemed like a unique weapon. Meaningful, probably. I made sure to retrieve it before we departed,” Captain Shirogane says, carefully unfolding the silk scarf to reveal the familiar sight of Keith’s dagger snug in its sheath.
“I thought—I’d hoped to return it to you, at some point. Once I was reasonably assured that it wouldn’t immediately be turned against me,” he says, the words almost playful, but the glimmer of warning in his dark eyes reminds Keith of the sore jaw he’d endured for days. “Or anyone else aboard.”
And Keith only has eyes for his dagger, lying there on a bed of fine silk, well and safely kept. He reaches out, glancing up at Shirogane for any objection, and brushes his bandage-wrapped fingers over its hilt. It slips free of the sheath with the utmost ease, silent as a fog bank. “I thought it was lost forever.”
The weight of it feels just right in his hand. His fingers curl around the woven leather of the dagger’s grip, comforted to hold it again; he rolls his wrist and watches as the mellowing rays of dusk glint off of the blade.
“How deeply do you begrudge me for stabbing you?” Keith wonders.
Captain Shirogane smiles. “I’d be a bit more surly if you’d gone for my good arm,” he says, winning the smallest of laughs from Keith. “As it is, I hold no hard feelings for you. I can’t say with certainty that I’d have acted much differently, given your position.”
Not the admission Keith had expected. There is an evenness in the way the Kerberos’ captain speaks to him. With him. It doesn’t feel like a noble-blooded, high-ranking dog of the Coalition condescending to a criminal, the way Keith had expected. Strange, that he would find sympathy here, of all places, and in a man who by all rights could’ve strung him up in the rigging for the fight Keith had given him.
“You’re more forgiving than I would be,” Keith says, eyeing the bottle of fine rum where it sits between them. Even at his poorest, he’d had his reputation—quick to anger, quick to blows, quick to make men twice his size regret crossing him—and at times, it had made all the difference between life and death.
Shirogane hums. “I have the leeway to be forgiving.”
Keith runs his thumb along the worn, salt-softened leather of the sheath in his hand, eyes fixed on his lap. He can still hardly believe it’s here rather than at the bottom of the sea, alongside the broken Songbird.
“I think you belong on the sea,” Shirogane sighs, his gaze turning from Keith and out the stern windows, where dusk is already blooming along the distant horizon. “Not on a gallows. If you would stay—if you would swear an oath to serve—then I can ensure you remain here.”
“Not much of a choice, is it?” Keith asks. Imprisonment and death await him on land, while Shirogane offers him some degree of freedom at sea.
“No,” Captain Shirogane agrees, and not unkindly. “But I’ll still leave it to you.”
Keith would have to be a fool to turn down such an offer, and he didn’t survive this long without the wits to occasionally swallow his pride. He can keep his head low again, for a time. He can wait until this too-trusting man inevitably drops his guard—probably within the month. He can jump ship as soon as they’re anchored in some port bay, or steal a longboat in the night and glide away unseen.
“Alright, Captain,” Keith decides, giving Shirogane the barest nod. “Just do me the favor of stationing me well apart from that marine, McClain.”
“Not a big enough ship to avoid that, unfortunately, even if I wanted to,” Captain Shirogane says, cracking a smile. He reaches for the rum and pours again, just as generous as before. “I think the crew will grow on you. Eventually.”
Eventually. Keith doesn’t plan on being around long enough for eventually to take root, but he can stomach almost anything for the time being. The warm, smooth burn of Captain Shirogane’s rum doesn’t hurt, either.