Genre: YA fantasy
Title: RAISE THE BLACK
To Drei, merchant ships and laws are meant to be broken. Working with Mal, their friendship borne out of blood and tragic loss, they specialize in raiding and smuggling goods across the Skettion Sea and into the most heavily guarded countries. Then Mal is captured and given a proposition by Klein, the head of the Maritus, the ruling naval force of the sea. The job: smuggle themselves into a rival nation’s prison hulk ship and retrieve an individual known as the Firebird.
But after their crew assembles and infiltrates the prison hulk, dangerous complications come to light. An enemy raider from the past gives Mal information about the brutal death of his mother, and the Maritus’s involvement in it. The Firebird isn’t who they think. And the Maritus cadet smuggled in with them may be a traitorous mole. Time is running out, and Drei and the crew face an impossible task. Escaping with the Firebird will either get them the payday of a lifetime, or a bullet if the Maritus crosses them. If they can’t get off the ship, their futures will be in chains and a noose.
First five pages:
Drei kept her eyes downcast as thick fingers bit into the flesh of her chin. The sour combination sweat and spices overpowered her nose as the captain leaned in close, turning her face to each side and back. She focused on the damp floors of the hull beneath his weathered boots.
A rough thumb brushed the painful spot on her cheek. “Who bruised her up?”
“Like that when we brought everyone on board,” the skin runner said.
The captain grunted and jerked her face up. Damp fingers pried open her lips and he glanced at her teeth.
She kept her jaw clenched, deftly kept the lock pick under the back of her tongue. She fought the temptation to kick out, but let him inspect her teeth. The satisfaction wouldn’t be worth the guaranteed gag and bag on her head. She remembered that lesson from the last job.
The captain spat a wad of chew at her bare feet, his gaze calculating. He seemed disappointed when she didn’t flinch or cry when the glob slid down her leg. Drei knew what he saw – her cut feet, torn pants and stained shirt showing a bony shoulder.
“You tell your men to keep your hands off the merchandise, you hear me?” said the captain. “Sloppy records and damaged goods when we pull into Ceissames will reduce my cut.”
The skin runner scowled, the log book and ink point in his hands. “We didn’t touch her none—”
He cowered when the captain raised a fist in his direction.
“I’m not taking disrespect from the likes of you.” His yell caused a ripple of fresh tears and cowers amongst the row of chained bodies. “This is my ship. You filth should be grateful I let you hide your merchandise in my hold.”
The ship swayed on the water, causing boards to creak as they rubbed against each other. The sound mingled amidst the soft crying. A single lamp swayed from the low-hung ceiling, but the scant light was better than the pit where the rest of the human cargo was stashed.
Drei dared to glance out one of the small port holes. Anticipation churned in her stomach. How much time did she have? Two days had passed since she’d stashed herself on the merchant’s ship, lying in wait until the rest of her own crew caught up. It should have only been a day at most, but a nasty squall had hit the area after they’d crossed Faulto Passage.
Her stomach twisted, but not from anticipation this time. She remembered being stuck in the smuggler hold, crammed against bodies stinking of urine and fear while the storm raged outside. But if that was what it took to make money on the job, she’d gone through worse.
“Girl, young. Mark her as sixteen, it’s the best number. Five and a half feet.”
Drei blinked, refocusing her attention on the captain. He’d moved closer, assessing slowly.
He continued, “Skinny as a birch rod. But pretty.”
“Earmark her for the brothels?” the runner asked.
“Maybe. Lotus likes the darker-skinned ones on her roster. But that bruise better fade by the time we pull into shore,” the captain said. “Who chopped her hair off? Nobody wants a girl with hair like a boy.”
If he only knew the real reason. The length made it easier to clean out the blood and mess at the end of the day. At the same time, no strands concealed her eyes or hid the contempt she felt. Slaves bartered and shuffled across the Skettion Sea didn’t resemble anything but beaten baggage. She forced herself still as stone, not fighting when rough hands roamed over her hips and chest. It was inside, down in her soul that she raged in the cold places.
“Well, if any of them don’t want her, she’ll do housework—eh!” The captain hauled her hands to eye level and glared. “Damaged goods. Her little finger is clean chopped off.”
The finger and a small portion of flesh from her right hand were missing, a fierce webbing of scars marring her skin. Lighter than her burnt sand coloring, they stood out and drew the eye. She missed her glove at these moments, but let him look at the old wound. It let her survey her real targets.
The runner leaned closer and scrunched his nose. “No good for the brothels, then. No customer wants to pay for that touch.”
“You’d be surprised,” the captain said, squeezing the bones of her hand, hard.
He wanted a reaction? She met his leering eyes with a deadened face.
The captain pushed her down with a harsh shove. The iron shackles jerked against her wrists and ankles as she hit the bench. He threaded the chain through the shackles, his stained shirt gaping near the waist. The handle of a knife peeked out for a moment.
Drei’s fingers twitched in response at the sight of the polished wood. Nice piece. She made a mental note of it, of all the weapons hidden on bodies in the small space.
Squeezed between two other slaves, there wasn’t enough room to breathe. Her eyes remained fixed on the slimy floor beneath her toes.
The next captive, a young boy, was yanked to his feet. The process continued, each soul catalogued, priced, and guarded closely. Just like they were the same as the lifeless items crowded between the low ceiling and walls. Then they would be forced back down to the dark pit of the bilge and the other human cargo brought up.
Merchant vessels needed to be fast, but with enough space for storing wares of legitimate jobs while hiding illegal ones below. If the attack went off before she had to go back down there, it’d be a blessing. But the people below weren’t her concern. Her focus was centered on the real reason she’d inserted herself on the ship. The spices, barrels of ignition powder and wine, silks and furs on order from faraway lands. They equaled coin in a raider’s pockets. Well, if she had pockets.
She tried her best to avoid inhaling through her nose. The metal screen of the cargo hatch was bolted tight. Drei glanced at it longingly. The air was stifling in the hull, breezes from the islands unable to weave their way through wood and resin. The lack of circulation made the sweet scent of vomit almost unbearable.
An elbow nudged her side.
She locked gazes with the man on her left. Though disheveled and bruised, his eyes weren’t like the others, glazed over with resignation. A small glimmer of life held firm.
“What happened with hand?” He spoke in staggered Sedan, the common language in most of the ports and cities.
She glanced at the runners. They hated slaves talking and she could do without fresh lashes, but they weren’t paying attention. Out a meager porthole, she recognized Ezcaba’s rocky island peninsula.
“Wait,” he gasped. Heavy footfalls slapped on the deck above.
Her head raised as the doors to the cargo hold swung open and a bald head came into view. “We’ve got trouble! Ship approaching, running a black flag.”
She needed these cuffs off. Now.