KEYFER scrabbled along the rigging. His long brown hair, faded blond at the tips, was pulled up into a ponytail, which flapped in the warm sea wind. Keyfer Lockswit had been serving on the Wayward Grace for close to ten years now under the command of Captain Silas Stillwater. On paper they were a merchant trading vessel and civilian transport, but off paper and presented with specific opportunities, the crew might be better described as pirates. Their numbers continued to dwindle worldwide, but there were those who would never give up that freedom. Keyfer had been eight and living on the streets of Allied Libertannia when he first saw the Grace in the harbor of New Halcyon. He liked to say that something in his brain had clicked, and he knew instinctively that a life at sea was the life for him, but truly it was something in his soul finally realizing his place in the world.
“Hard to port!” the captain called from below, and the crew echoed his cry as they scrambled to obey. Keyfer slipped toward the deck. The lithe muscles he had built from rigorous and constant work aboard the ship flexed beneath his golden skin under the noonday sun. The keys that dangled on a string around his neck tapped his chest as he climbed. “Keyfer, report!” Stillwater called just as the young man dropped to the deck in his bare feet, as he always removed his boots to climb. He cocked his thumb over his shoulder.
“Already smoke, Cap’m,” he answered as he scooped up his cuffed boots with their metal toe-guards and makeshift armor across the heels. “I could just make out two distinct masts over the edge of the island.” He paused as he stood. His boots stopped just below the knee where he tucked in the loose, purple pants with the ivy embroidered on the legs. The light pants made for ease of motion. “And the red flag,” he finished as he checked his belts and weaponry, convinced they were in for a fight.
“Piss!” the captain spat. “Nothin’ for it. Good work, boy.” Stillwater laid a hand on Keyfer’s shoulder. “Get those fancy gun-blades ready. It’s bound to be Caravelli.” Keyfer swiped a hand across his sweaty forehead and heaved a sigh while Captain Stillwater called down to the engine room to stoke the fire for added speed. If Cutthroat Caravelli, the Baby Killer, was attacking a ship around the bend, it was sure to be a bloodbath. Keyfer feared they may already be too late. Pirates had a bloodthirsty reputation, but despite earning the moniker Red Silas, Captain Stillwater didn’t kill without reason. He relied on his silver tongue to get him out of most situations, and he never started a fight, though he didn’t shy away from finishing one.
The ship lurched forward as the steam engine pushed the aft rotors, and Keyfer braced himself along with the rest of the crew. Keyfer noticed Yama, the giant Japponese man, standing in the bow of the ship with his massive arms crossed over his equally massive chest. Keyfer picked his way across the deck, marveling as he always did at the large man’s intricate dragon tattoo. From its tail on his trunk-like neck, the colorful beast snaked its way all around Yama’s broad shoulders and back. The dragon’s head resided just above the waistband of the large man’s silk hakama, and its wild eyes mystified Keyfer. Yama always wore those strange, chunky wooden Japponese sandals. Geta, Keyf remembered. He’d never seen Yama without his enormous katana sword. Keyf stood next to the man-mountain and looked out over the bow. Yama towered over Keyfer.
“Cap’m reckons it’s Caravelli,” the young man said, breaking the silence. Yama grunted noncommittally. The big man seldom spoke. Even after five years, Keyfer was unsure if Yama couldn’t speak Anglish or just chose not to. The two men watched as the Wayward Grace crested the tip of the island, and the Filthy Harlot came into full view. Keyfer looked at Yama, who said nothing, though the smaller man saw a worried flex of muscle in the larger man’s jaw.
Salton, the first mate, shouted, “All hands on deck!” repeatedly, despite the fact that everyone who wasn’t manning the boiler was already on deck, watching with silent anticipation for a fight or a spectacle.
“Bloody hell. What’s this, then?”
Keyfer turned to see the only passenger on the Grace. “Lizard, isn’t it?” Keyfer asked the young blond boy. Lizard nodded, and his top hat and goggles bobbed. “We may be in for it. That bloke who captains that ship is a real piece of work. You might want to make yourself scarce. You didn’t sign on for this, mate.”
“Bollocks t’that,” Lizard told the young sailor as he drew a dagger and a clockwork pistol from within his vest. “I’m no ponce. If there’s fightin’ to be done, I won’t be hiding in a cabin.” Keyfer slapped the other boy on the back.
“Well said, mate,” the captain announced from behind them. “And there may be fightin’ enough t’go around.” The entire crew watched with bated breath as they approached the small but extremely fast ship with its deceptively benign white sails. The second ship—or more appropriately, what was left of the second ship—finally came into view. It was a smoldering wreck thanks to the specialized weapons of the Filthy Harlot. Caravelli, displeased with the speed, weight, and inaccuracy of traditional cannons, had outfitted his ship with enormous crossbows. He took it one step further by forcing the famous weaponsmith Zilderwendt to design exploding bolts before he castrated the man and suffocated him with his own equipment. The weapons were precise and devastating, and the crew of the Grace had witnessed the results of their handiwork on more than one occasion. As they watched the Harlot pull up anchor, a few men returned from the ruined ship. Her crew restored, the foul vessel pulled hard to starboard and sailed toward open ocean. Keyfer couldn’t believe that the Grace had escaped Caravelli’s notice. The crews of the Grace and the Harlot were opposites of the pirate coin, at constant odds, and there was no way Caravelli would ignore a chance to renew their feud. The Harlot passed close enough for Keyfer to make out the masthead, carved backward to look like a whore with her legs spread, before it turned away.
“That’s odd,” Stillwater observed. Keyfer agreed, noting a bad feeling in his gut. Something about this situation wasn’t right. “S’pose we ought to see if anything survived.” Keyf knew the captain meant people and treasure alike as the Grace finished her approach.
STILLWATER’S black boot thumped on the remains of the ravaged ship’s deck. He chomped on his long pipe, and Keyfer recognized the signs of his captain’s agitation. Stillwater scratched at his black beard as he surveyed the damage. Keyfer regarded dark clouds gathering on the horizon, unwilling to fully witness Caravelli’s destruction, but unable to ignore the massacre.
“Sick son of a bitch,” the captain cursed. Keyfer agreed. Bodies lay charred and blasted from the explosions. Though not everyone died in the initial attack, no bodies were left unscathed. Those who hadn’t perished in the blast were sliced from ear to ear. Stillwater and Keyfer searched the bodies but found nothing valuable. The tanned young man gathered all the keys he could find. As they picked through the rubble, Keyfer noticed a key on a ribbon around a wrist that may or may not still be attached to an arm. He reached for it and the rubble groaned.
“Cap’m,” he called. Stillwater joined him, and they peeled back the boards and shrapnel, uncovering a barely alive, bespectacled young man with strawberry-blond hair. He was dirty but well dressed, and Keyfer felt an instant attraction to the unconscious young man.
“Salton,” the captain shouted. “Survivor!” Salton responded with a team to retrieve the unconscious man. “That’s it. Let’s go.” Keyfer nodded to the captain’s order before he heard a faint moan. He moved toward the sound and discovered a young woman in a corset, her bosom pressed up to her chin. She had the look of nobility about her, and Keyfer couldn’t help but roll his eyes at her finery.
“Another,” he called halfheartedly to Stillwater. The captain saw the girl and scooped her into his arms. Keyfer was struck by the irony of the vision of the typical pirate, with his peg leg and tricorn hat, rescuing a young woman. Although Stillwater is no typical pirate, Keyfer thought. No eye patch, no hook for a hand, and instead of a squawking parrot, Stillwater employed a raven to sit on his shoulder.
“Well done. We’re off.” The two men returned to the Grace. No one noticed the mast of another ship pulling up along the opposite shore.
“Hoist anchor!” Stillwater ordered as he passed the unconscious survivor off to Salton. The crew made ready to sail from the scene of violence. The Wayward Grace turned hard about and set out for open waters. “Let’s get these people home,” he called to his crew.
The Wayward Grace pulled out to sea. The crew dashed about the deck, adjusting sails and tugging at ropes to catch the wind. The ship sailed from the island’s bay, leaving the wreckage behind. Stillwater caught sight of the military vessel that sailed into view. “Furl the sails and stoke the flames!” Stillwater called. “Get us out of here.” The crew did as requested and the ship dashed against the waves. Keyfer watched as the pursuing ship came into view. It bore the markings of an Anglican Naval vessel, and Keyfer realized the decimated ship had the same markings. That’s why Caravelli took off, he thought. He knew this ship was on the way to meet the first.
“Damn it!” Keyfer spat. “He set us up.”
“That he did, boyo,” Stillwater agreed. “Full t’stern!” the Wayward Grace dashed from the lagoon as cannonballs crashed on either side. “Damn it all! They think we did this!”
“But we didn’t,” Keyfer pleaded.
“No matter,” the captain answered. “Move. Move. Move!” Bilcher and the boiler crew shoveled coal into the stove as fast as they could. The Grace shuddered forward on the waves, its propellers churning seawater.
“They’re not going to abandon the chase!” the captain’s daughter called. Her name was Wilhelmina, but she made everyone call her Billy. Her vast knowledge of venoms earned her the nickname Poison Billy. Keyfer respected the hell out of the girl who’d earned herself a place on this pirate crew. Stillwater often sent Billy and Keyfer on “special errands,” as he referred to them: mostly stealthy assassinations or discreet retrievals. The pair was adept at not being noticed and operating under cover of dark. “Ramshackle!” Billy called, and was answered by the grinding of gears and groaning of metal as the piecemeal clockwork emerged from below decks where the ship’s Tinkerer, Mr. Pilburn, kept his workshop.
“Aye, Miss,” the familiar tinny voice rang out.
“Heave to and grab some of those floating explosive thingies!” she ordered.
“The Concussion Buoys,” the brass man clarified.
“Whatever.” Billy’s voice filled with exasperation. “Just toss them into our wake.”
“Yes’m,” Ramshackle said, his vocal cylinder producing the words. Despite his shoddy appearance, Pilburn had made his clockwork man extremely sturdy, and Keyfer still watched in wonder as the creation lifted the heavy explosive devices and tossed them with ease overboard. Sun glinted off the glass lenses of its viso-sensors as gears and pistons ground and squealed. The young pirate started to wonder how the machine could think before a cannonball shattered a nearby railing, interrupting his thoughts and forcing him to duck against the splinters. He winced and pulled a shard of wood from his forearm just as one of Pilburn’s buoys exploded, sending a plume of saltwater into the air between the two ships. The naval ship pulled hard to port to avoid the floating buoys. Gunshots rang out as the Grace pulled ahead. The Anglish Naval officers were smart enough to fire on the floating death traps, triggering their explosions before they reached them, but delayed the pursuing ship, which Keyfer suspected was exactly what Billy hoped would occur.
“Well played, lass,” her father called as the Wayward Grace put even more distance between the two vessels. Billy laughed and gave her father a wink as Ramshackle made a screeching metallic sound and one arm dangled uselessly.
“Oh dear. Oh dear!” Mr. Pilburn dashed onto the deck, his face ruddy with sun and drink and his hair wild and disheveled. He wore a many-pocketed leather apron stuffed to bursting with all manner of tools. He stepped quickly and with more agility than his plump frame would suggest. “What have you done to your arm, my boy?” he asked his construct. The clockwork gave a one-armed shrug. Not for the first time Keyfer was struck with the image of the tinkerer and his toy—a modern day Geppetto and Pinocchio—as they disappeared below deck for needed repairs, completely oblivious to the impending danger of their situation.
The naval ship corrected its course and continued its pursuit, though the Grace commanded a considerable lead. Stillwater shaded his eyes with his hand, regarding the other ship. His raven, Pliny, alighted on the leather patch Stillwater had sewn onto his coat for the bird’s talons to find purchase. “What d’you make of it, old son?” Pliny asked his perch. The captain clicked his teeth in response. The ship had stopped its volley of cannon fire, the crew realizing that they were painfully out of range, though they refused to abandon the chase.
“I don’t want to jinx us, Salton,” the captain suggested to his first mate. “But it looks like we’ve outrun ’em.”
“Aye, Cap’m,” the portly sailor agreed. “I think we can lay off the engine with this favorable wind.”
“I’m inclined to agree.” Stillwater dropped his hand and turned toward the bow. “Inform the boiler team.”
“Aye, Cap’m.” Salton turned on his heel to comply. Keyfer didn’t realized he’d been holding his breath until he released it. He crossed the deck to the stern where Billy leaned on the aft rail, regarding the shrinking ship and looking strikingly like her father, though she didn’t share his dark hair. Her shoulder-cropped mane shone a deep red that Keyfer assumed favored her mother. Billy’s eyes were her father’s, though: a deep blue that evoked the ocean herself. She wore a tricorn hat that wasn’t quite the twin of Stillwater’s, and as long as Keyfer had known her, she hadn’t been caught dead in a skirt, favoring the trousers and garb of a typical male sailor. She was an attractive young woman with full lips, long lashes, an ample bosom, and a lean, muscular build that any man would covet. He recognized it, and he knew the crew recognized her attributes as well but never spoke of the fact because they feared her father. He thought of her as a sister and was sure that she considered him a brother. He leaned on the rail next to her.
“That was quick thinking,” he said. Billy had a year on Keyfer, but they had more or less grown up together on the decks of the Grace.
“Isn’t that what they pay me for?” she asked sarcastically. Billy got the same cut as the rest of the general crew. Her father played no favorites, and the crew respected him for it. Keyfer chuckled.
“How long before they give up?” he asked.
Billy stood silent as she considered. “They won’t,” she said, confirming his suspicion.
“Because they saw the destruction,” Keyfer began.
“And they think we’re Caravelli,” she finished his thought.
“Rat bastard,” Keyfer cursed.
“That’s an understatement.” The two pirates were silent for a time before they heard the familiar alternating footsteps of their captain’s boot and peg.
“I know,” Stillwater interjected, continuing their previous conversation though he hadn’t actually heard their words. “As long as they think we’re Caravelli, they won’t slack off.” Neither of the younger pirates wanted to question their captain, and both knew him well enough that if he wanted them to know his thoughts, he would tell them. The silence stretched between them as Pliny preened himself on the captain’s shoulder. “We’ll think of something,” Stillwater finally said. “For now I’d like you to check on the pair we rescued.” Keyfer and Billy turned to regard the one-legged man. “You’re about the same age, and I think the two of you’ll be able to set their minds at ease.” It wasn’t exactly an order, but his reasoning left no room for debate.
“Aye, sir,” they said in unison.
“I had them taken to my cabin for now. See to ’em.” Billy nodded and started for the ladder to her father’s quarters. Keyfer fell into step beside her.