After the cut: Read Chapter One in its entirety! (Spoilers ahoy for Skyblade’s Gambit!)
It had been another typical evening at the Blackrock Castle Tavern, the most notorious drinking establishment in all of the sky realm of Cerindel. “Typical” did not mean “quiet” where Blackrock Castle was concerned, though, as there had already been several arm-wrestling matches, one short fistfight, and one man who had left the bar hunched over and clutching his family jewels after groping a barmaid without her consent. All was business as usual, until a slender blond woman with a quiet demeanor had struck up a conversation with two men from Ristadt.
Not five minutes later, one of the Ristadtans was being half-led and half-pushed out through the tavern’s swinging doors by the woman, Victorie Brassfeld, who was holding the man’s right arm twisted behind his back at a very painful angle. Her plain greatcoat had fallen open, revealing her Cerindel Navy officer’s uniform. “Unhand me!” the man shouted. “Wilhelm and I are just here to visit family!”
“Those bruises you got from fighting that antiquities dealer tell a different story,” Victorie said calmly. “Now, are you and your friend ready to talk?”
The man slumped slightly. “All right,” he said after a moment. “Just let go of my arm. It hurts.”
With a sigh, Victorie pushed the Ristadtan away from her. “What were you doing in–” she started to say as, with seeming casualness, she lowered her right hand to her side.
Before Victorie could finish, the man had spun around and pulled a dagger from his belt. She drew her rapier and barely parried his thrust. “Obvious trick,” she said half to herself.
“Back off!” the Ristadtan said as he drew a second dagger. “You shouldn’t have stuck your nose into our business!”
“If you’re discussing peddling stolen goods,” Victorie said as she swung at her opponent, “it’s very much my business.”
He raised his daggers, blades crossed at the hilts, and caught Victorie’s sword. “Time to teach you a lesson,” he hissed as he pushed down.
Victorie pulled her sword back and turned to one side. The Ristadtan stumbled, and Victorie stuck a foot between his legs, twisting it slightly. The man pitched forward, landing on his face; Victorie dropped to one knee and struck the back of his head with her sword hilt. “A lesson in how to lose a fight, perhaps,” she murmured as her foe blacked out.
“Major Brassfeld?” Victorie saw another woman in a Cerindel Navy uniform dragging a second man out of Blackrock Castle. “He’s not being very cooperative.”
“No surprise, Gastrell,” Victorie said. “Keep watch.” She began to dig through the unconscious man’s pockets. “Ah,” she said as she pulled out two diamond-studded gold bracelets. “That explains why he was buying the house a round…”
Victorie frowned as she reached into the Ristadtan’s inner coat pocket. “Calm down!” Gastrell snapped as the man she held started to struggle. “Major?”
“Don’t let him get away, Gastrell.” Victorie took a coin-sized steel disc from the pocket. She held it up to show the wolf’s head engraved on the disc, and the scratches along the edge. “Svendaran,” she said. “Those markings indicate they’re undercover agents.”
“So why are they robbing merchants?”
“They might have owed someone money. Or…” Victorie pulled another item from the coat pocket of the Svendaran. It was a folded piece of parchment, weathered with age. “What the devil–”
“What’s going on here?” the guardsman said as he hurried around the corner. As the crowd that had gathered quickly melted away, he glanced at Gastrell. “Caught another one, Maddy?” he said.
“Another two,” Victorie said as she tucked the parchment piece away. “Could you get us some help to make sure these two are locked up?”
“A good night’s rest for these fine gentlemen?” the guardsman said with a chortle.
Victorie stifled a yawn. “Not just them,” she said.
It was well after midnight when Victorie finally returned to the room she rented in a flat on the outskirts of Cerindel City. Her body was tired, but her mind was active, trying to piece together what had happened. Why would Svendaran agents be robbing an antiques seller? she thought. And that parchment I found…is there a connection?
She tried to still her thoughts as she climbed the stairs. There’ll be time to think about this tomorrow. Things may make more sense with some sleep–
Victorie froze as she reached the door to her room. In the bright glow of the crystal she held to light her way, she could see the letter propped against the door; she guessed that it had been delivered while she was away and left there by the landlady. She picked up the letter and smiled when she saw the neat handwriting on the envelope and the Ristadt postage stamp; even though there was no return address, Victorie knew who it was from.
Annabel Skyblade, captain of the airship called the Peregrine, was the most notorious pirate in all the sky realms of the world of Aldarre. Victorie had met her two months before when she had tried to steal a priceless amulet. When a Svendaran agent beat them to it, the pirate and the Navy agent set aside their rivalry to get it back. Victorie soon realized she was attracted to Annabel, and was overjoyed to learn Annabel had felt the same way, but before they could act on their feelings, they were separated.
This was the third letter Annabel had sent. Victorie had read the others, hidden them in her desk, and pulled them out often to re-read them, to remind her of the pirate whose greatest act of thievery had been stealing the heart of a Navy officer.
Once she was inside, Victorie changed into her nightclothes and retired to her bedroom, piling up her pillows and setting the crystal on the end table. She slipped into bed, sat back and opened the letter with trembling hands.
I hope this letter finds you well. I was lucky to find the time to write this, and I hope to send this when we reach Ristadt.
We’ve decided to head north again. Pickings around the southern sky realms have been slim. I’ll be aiming to loot Svendaran ships and stay away from those of Cerindel, though the crew may not be happy about it.
I am trying not to be nervous about not receiving any letters from you. I know your position takes up almost all of your time, and you’re concerned about the matter you discovered when we were together.
Yet I still worry, and that’s because I miss you more the longer we’re apart, more than words can truly convey. I still remember the time we had together, the way you laughed and smiled, the warmth of your body, the taste of your lips against mine. I long to be with you again, my primrose, and I hope, I pray, you still feel the same way.
I still feel the winds of fate will bring us together again someday. Until then, I will think of you often, and miss you with all my heart. Take care.
Victorie felt the faint traces of tears in her eyes. She carefully folded the letter up, put it back in its envelope, and set it on the end table. She tapped the crystal twice, and the light faded.
She pulled the comforter over her and closed her eyes. I wonder how she’ll react when she receives my letter, Victorie thought with a smile, resting a hand on her inner thigh. I wish I could be there to see her face. I wish…I could have her in my arms again, and show her how much I miss her. Her need overtook her, and as she gave in to her desires, she thought, I wonder if she is thinking of me now.
“Die, pirate scum!” the guardsman shouted as he swung his sword. Annabel Skyblade gritted her teeth as she parried the blow and spun to one side.
The crew of the Svendaran cruiser-class airship Gylfard’s Honor (recently renamed from the Western Hawk) were putting up a fiercer fight than Captain Skyblade and her fellow pirates had expected. They had managed to lure the Svendaran airship close enough to theirs, the Peregrine, to launch a raid, designed to relieve them of their valuables and perhaps a few bottles.
They had expected little trouble when they had boarded Gylfard’s Honor, but that was before the five armed and armored guardsmen had emerged from below decks. The pirates had greater numbers, but the Svendarans were well-trained in shipboard combat. Annabel saw two of her glashtyn crew, Livermilk and Wormmalt, sprawled on the deck, bleeding from where arrows had pierced their wings.
Annabel risked a glance away from her foe when she heard the roar. Tomasund, the troll who was her first mate and best friend, had just sent one of his opponents down with a swing of his mace, but as the Svendaran fell, another had shot an arrow that grazed Big Tom’s leg. The troll had cried out in pain, but he was now laughing. Annabel knew that meant it was time for the archer to pray to his gods.
Her opponent was lifting his sword again. As Annabel raised her rapier to parry his attack, she saw his eyes shift ever so slightly to the left. She dropped her sword, grabbed the Svendaran’s arms, and swung him to the side as his blade cut through her blouse and nicked her bicep.
The crack of a pistolere rang out. The pellet tore into the Svendaran’s thigh; he screamed and dropped to the deck. Annabel brought her foot down on his wrist; his hand opened, and his sword rolled away.
Annabel drew her own pistolere from her belt as she looked towards the bow of the airship. The Svendaran captain was lying there, bleeding from a gash in his arm, trying to aim his pistolere at Annabel. She calmly leveled her weapon and fired, shooting the pistolere from his hand.
As the Svendaran captain shouted incoherently, Annabel holstered her pistolere and picked up her sword. “Lickfoot! Sourtongue!” she yelled. “With me!” She ran towards the door to the captain’s cabin, the two glashtyn hurrying after her.
Lickfoot had pulled the small chest from under the captain’s bed. “There’s more under there,” he said to Annabel. “A big one!”
“No time,” Annabel said. “We need to cut and run before…”
She fell quiet as she glanced at the mess of papers that covered the captain’s table. She felt the short hairs on the back of her neck start to stand, the prickling along her spine. Something odd about this, she thought. Magic at work?
Annabel had some slight talent with magic, but nowhere near the level of a court wizard or even a hedge mage. She could sometimes sense sorcery in a person or a thing, though, and that sense was acting up. She dug into the papers.
Her fingers touched one piece of parchment, and a shock coursed up her hand, like she’d been poked by a hundred needles. She picked up the parchment. It was a small rectangle with ragged edges along two sides, and it was completely blank.
The tingling vanished as quickly as it had struck. Annabel stuffed the parchment in her coat pocket. “Time to go!” she shouted as she headed for the door, pausing as Lickfoot flew out ahead of her with the chest. She ran back on deck, followed by Sourtongue, who was holding all the whisky bottles he could carry.
Annabel had quickly run down the net that had been strung between the Peregrine and the Svendaran airship. Big Tom, carrying one of the wounded glashtyn, was on her heels. The troll’s eyes narrowed when he saw the blood on Annabel’s sleeve. “You need to have that looked at,” he grumbled.
“The others first, and that’s an order,” Annabel said. “How is she?”
Tom looked down at Wormmalt. “She should be all right once she gets treated.”
“A bit of good news.” Annabel glanced around the Peregrine as she jumped on the deck. “All hands accounted for, Mattner?” she asked the dwarf who stood by the net with an axe.
“Aye, Cap’n,” Mattner said.
“Cut us loose, then.”
The dwarf swung his axe, and the net fell away from the airship. “We’re still close enough for their archers to–” Tom said as he set Wormmalt down gently.
“Hardwicke!” Annabel shouted up to the helm. “Set course for Cerindel! Full speed!”
“Aye, cap’n.” The ship’s pilot worked the controls, and the propellers roared to life, spinning at top speed. The Peregrine turned west and soared towards the first glow of sunset.
“West?” Tom said as he watched the Svendaran airship recede. “For that matter, Cerindel?”
“A code I set up with Hardwicke,” Annabel said. “We’re Ristadt bound.”
“Good trick.” Tom grinned. “Shall we open our hard-earned reward?”
Annabel glanced down at her bloody arm. She looked around the deck at her wounded crew. “Leave the chest in my cabin,” she said softly. “It can wait.”
It was well after sunset, and only after the others had been seen to, when Annabel allowed Mattner to treat her wounds. She sat at the table in her cabin as he worked, with Big Tom and Pilfor, the ship’s wizard, across from her. “If you would?” Annabel said. Lickfoot, perched on the cabin door, nodded eagerly.
Pilfor wordlessly gestured. The lid on the small chest popped open. Tom reached out and tipped the chest over, spilling its contents onto the table. “Those rings and necklaces look nice enough,” the troll said.
“And the gold!” Lickfoot chirped. “So shiny!”
Annabel frowned. “It’s not a bad haul,” she said, “but why did the crew put up such a fight?”
“One of those baubles might be enchanted, perhaps?” Tom said.
Pilfor shook his head. “They’re all clean.”
“What about this?” Annabel pulled the parchment she had taken from the Svendaran ship from her pocket. “It may have some sort of enchantment.”
“Hmmm.” Pilfor took the parchment scrap and studied it. “I can’t detect anything unusual about this.”
“Not a thing?” Annabel raised an eyebrow. “It did seem like there was something there when I picked it up.”
“It could have been in your head,” the wizard said. “You’re still untrained in the sorcerous arts.”
“Perhaps.” Annabel kept her expression calm, her doubts hidden.
“In that case…” Pilfor pulled his hand back. “You wouldn’t object if I–”
“I would.” Annabel reached across the table and snatched the parchment from a surprised Pilfor. “Besides, I might need to leave a note for someone somewhere sometime.” She forced a grin.
Pilfor inclined his head slightly. “Your ship, captain,” he said, his face devoid of emotion.
The Peregrine reached Ristadt the next morning. By then, Pilfor had activated one of the masque spells that camouflaged the airship; to the eyes of everyone except the crew, the Peregrine appeared to be a small merchant ship that had seen better days.
The largest of the sky realms, Ristadt was ruled by Emperor Wilhite, whose main imperial duties were unsuccessful fox hunting and keeping Ristadt’s barons from each other’s throats. As a result, the populace shared Wilhite’s favorite hobby, which was drinking heavily. The barons had divided Ristadt into six baronies shortly after it was settled, and the Peregrine had docked in Kirtorf, the capital of the barony of the same name and Ristadt’s largest port. Big Tom, Mattner and several glashtyn, all with masques of their own, set off to purchase supplies, and Annabel had taken the jewelry from the raid the day before to a local fence.
Albertine Valois’ office was in the back room of the Peglegged Pussycat, Kirtorf’s most infamous and popular bawdy house. What went on there was technically illegal in Ristadt, but a few well-placed bribes kept the local officials away and allowed the girls there, and the fence, to do their work in peace. “Lovely goods you have this time, Captain,” Valois said as she eyed one of the rings through a jeweler’s loupe.
“I hope that means a lovely sum for them,” Annabel said.
“You’re mad,” Annabel said calmly. “These are 600 easily.”
“I’ll have trouble moving them. 475.”
“You always say that. 575.”
“I need to be careful with the increased police presence during the holiday. 490.”
“You’ll be selling most of these to the girls here. 530.”
Valois shook her head and smiled. “You drive a hard bargain as always, Captain Skyblade. 530.”
Annabel smiled in turn as she sat back in her chair, taking a sip of tea. “And you’re stubborn as ever.”
“Perhaps.” The fence scooped the jewelry into a small cloth bag, which she secreted away in her large bodice. “I’ll write you a voucher to bring to the front desk. By the way–”
Annabel held up a hand. “Before you go on, I do have a favor to ask.”
“You should talk to the front desk for that as well.” Valois winked.
“Not that.” Annabel handed her the old parchment she had taken from the Svendaran ship. “What can you tell me about this?”
The fence studied the parchment through her loupe. “It’s quite old,” she said. “There seem to be very faint impressions of some kind, but they’ve faded with age.”
“Any sign of an enchantment?”
“I’m not trained enough in sorcery to tell…but this does remind me.” Valois passed the parchment back to Annabel. “One of the girls told me that she saw something like this once, on Mezara.”
“Where?” Annabel asked.
“Duke Gaviscol’s summer palace. It was in the library. Martine was resting there between…engagements that day.” Valois winked again.
“Must have been quite a party.” Annabel stretched. “I should be getting back.”
“Before you do…” The fence reached under the table. “There’s a little something here for you.”
“What?” Annabel’s heart stopped.
“You had asked me to keep an eye out for this.” Valois handed a letter to Annabel. “It created quite a stir. All the girls wanted to know who this ‘Quinn Gallagher’ was.”
The next few minutes went by in a daze for Annabel. She managed to stay calm as she thanked Valois, collected her payment, and left the bawdy house, remembering to put on her masque spell just in time. Once she had, she could finally let the blush spread to her cheeks, her breath growing shallow, her knees weak.
I should wait to get back to the Peregrine before I read this, she thought. I shouldn’t read this in public. There could be something I don’t want to see. Maybe if I stopped in a tavern or a tea shop…
Annabel turned and hurried down an alley, out of sight of her fellow pedestrians. Standing in a gap between buildings just wide enough to let in a sliver of light, her hands trembling, she carefully opened the letter and started to read it.
A moment later, she was laughing.
My Dear Annabel,
You little scamp. Someday, I will find out how you got my address. I must admit, though, that my curiosity about this is nowhere near as strong as my joy in hearing from you.
I apologize for not writing sooner. I have been busy at work, and I think you can understand if I don’t share any of the details. (Though when we see one another again, I have quite a few stories to tell!)
I am also trying to look into that matter we discussed when we last spoke. It is such a tricky thing, to figure out who can and can’t be trusted, and I’m making very little headway.
Those are the moments I miss you the most, my dear one. I know why we need to be apart, but I wish you were here at my side. As odd as it might be for someone in my position to say to a pirate, there’s no one I trust more than you.
I wish I could hear your laugh again, see you smile, hold you in my arms. I wish I could feel your lips on mine, the warmth and the softness of your body. (I also wish we could pick up where we had to leave off on that airship when your crew found us!)
Someday, gods willing, we’ll be together again. Even if it’s only for a short time, a brief vacation together, even just one night, I long to be with you.
I hope this letter finds you well. I try not to think about all the danger you could be facing, the chance that you may never read what I’m writing. Maybe that’s the true reason why I want you with me, so I can protect you, keep you safe. Please, my dearest Annabel, do be careful.
I will write again soon, and I eagerly await your next letter. Until then, I remain,
Annabel took a deep breath as she finished reading Victorie’s letter. She wanted to laugh again, to cry, to jump for joy, but she knew that acting like a lovestruck schoolgirl would attract too much attention. She folded up the letter, slipped it back into its envelope, and tucked it gently into her coat pocket.
As Annabel left the alley, she could hear Victorie’s words in her ears. Her heart still raced; her limbs were filled with adrenaline. She kept a steady pace, but anyone who glanced at her, masque or no masque, could see her smiling.
Annabel had met up with Big Tom, and the two had taken an early dinner at a tavern, wursts and sauerkraut and several of Ristadt’s finest beers. The pirate had kept quiet about the letter she had received, but didn’t hide her cheerful mood, as she swapped old stories with Tom and mocked the troll when he tried to exaggerate his part in them.
They returned to the Peregrine well before sunset. The rest of the crew were back, and the ship was well-supplied, so Annabel had given them a free evening. She retreated to her cabin, where she re-read Victorie’s letter, a bottle of wine at the ready.
As she finished a glass and contemplated reading the letter again, she heard a faint rhythmic thump. She knew what it was right away. She got up from the table, tucked the letter under her bedcovers, and moved to the cabin window.
Annabel grinned as she peeked out on deck. Mattner had set up his drum set and was beating out a simple pattern. Her grin widened as Big Tom stepped on deck, holding a violin case.
Most of the crew had gathered, including all the glashtyn. They chattered excitedly as Big Tom opened the case and rosined the bow. “Settle down, ye scallywags!” he said with a grin as he tuned the violin.
The glashtyn fell silent for a moment. Big Tom set his violin under his hairy chin and nodded. The dwarf slowed his tempo on the drums ever so slightly, and Tom started to play. Annabel smiled as she heard the first notes of “The Fiddler’s Niece”. She saw the glashtyn jumping to the deck from their perches, asking each other to dance, which they did with an enthusiastic awkwardness.
“Look at that lot,” Annabel said to herself. She corked the wine bottle, checked the lacing on her boots, and headed out of her cabin, forcing the smile off her face.
Tom was finishing the song as Annabel strode around the corner, towards the stern and the party that had started there. The glashtyn had paused their dancing and were applauding, but it quickly faded as they saw their captain approaching. “Cap’n–” the troll started to say.
“Ye call that dancing?” Annabel said. Her voice held annoyance, but she winked, and the glashtyn giggled. They moved aside as she shooed them out of the way, walking up to the musicians. “I need to remind these knock-kneed blaggards what real dancing is!”
“And the captain’s pleasure would be?” Big Tom asked, trying to maintain a stern expression.
“‘Green Hills And Dales’, Tom,” Annabel said as she stood straight and stiff, her arms at her sides. “And don’t dawdle.” The troll nodded as he touched his bow to the violin’s strings. As he played the ballad’s opening notes, the dwarf drummed a steady beat at a medium tempo.
Keeping her arms at her sides, Annabel began to dance, holding in place, moving on one foot, then the other. Her boot heels struck the deck, nearly drowning out the drums. The glashtyn began to clap in time.
Annabel folded her arms as she glanced back at the musicians. “That’s the best ye got, lads?” she said. “‘The Brewster’s Bawdy Tale’, and pick up the pace!”
Tom grinned as he smoothly segued into the raunchy jig. Annabel’s heels clicked faster and faster. She began to move her hands, swooping them through the air as the crew clapped along.
The song finished with a drumroll from Mattner. Annabel stopped, resting her hands on her hips, sweat drying in the evening wind. The glashtyn cheered. Someone tossed Annabel a canteen of water, and she happily drunk deep from it.
A fine night, she thought with a smile. If only Torie could be here to share it…
Annabel stayed on the deck, chatting with her crew as the bottles were passed around, watching Tom and the dwarf play and the glashtyn dance. It wasn’t until the eleventh bell that she broke up the party and shooed everyone, except for the night crew, into their cabins.
She retired to her small bedchamber and changed into her night clothes. By candlelight, she read Victorie’s letter again, smiling the whole time. I suppose I’ll have to write back soon, she thought. And in this letter, it’ll be time to tell her what we’ll do when we see each other again.
Annabel carefully put the letter back in its envelope and tucked it under her pillow. She blew out the candle and lay on her stomach, pressing her face against the pillow; though the bedchamber had been enchanted to give her some privacy, she wasn’t going to take a chance.
She closed her eyes and slipped her hand between her legs. In her mind, she could see Victorie giving in to her desires, and she joyfully did the same, fantasizing of the day they would be together again.