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Stormcaster (Shattered Realms #3)
Author:Cinda Williams Chima

Stormcaster (Shattered Realms #3)

Cinda Williams Chima



DEDICATION

For Jess—thank you for wading into this family, hand in hand,

eyes wide open. We love you.





1


A MEETING AT SEA



Evan of Tarvos stood at the stern rail, his eyes fixed on the ship that had been following them for the better part of a day. The sleek three-master stayed just at the horizon, neither approaching nor losing ground. Strange. Most ships fled in a hurry when they spotted Captain Latham Strangward’s stormlord standard.

People said that all of the Strangwards were true stormcasters—weather mages—though Evan had never seen his captain conjure up so much as a shower. People said a lot of things, so maybe it was just a tale. Or, maybe, as he got older, Strangward’s magery was fading.

Evan should have felt lucky to be crewing for a pirate whose reputation kept trouble away. But trouble looked a lot like a chance to make his name, since he’d never had one of his own. Cloud Spirit’s hold was already overflowing with stolen goods, but he was still salivating for a fight.

Evan had been sailing before the mast for three years, since he was a ten-year, by his best guess. This year, for the first time, he’d been given a share of the takings. Captain Strangward had watched with a faint smile as Evan pawed through the long strands of Sand Harbor pearls and Tamric gold glitterbits, holding them up so they caught the light, sliding rings onto his narrow fingers, slipping the gold cuffs onto his wrists. Evan favored wearables and coin—portable wealth. He had no use for silver goblets or candlesticks.

When he’d made his choices, he tucked them under his roughspun shirt and jammed them into his breeches pockets. He tried not to think of all the books he could buy with his portion.

You can’t spend it all, he thought. You’ve got to save enough to buy a piece of a venture. And go on from there. Ships were the key to a future in which he could buy all the books he wanted.

“You might want me to hold your share for you,” the captain said, frowning, as if now reluctant to let it go. “There’s plenty in this crew would be happy to win that lot from you at cards or nicks and bones before we get to port. Or club you over the head and take it outright.”

Evan pressed one hand against his shirt, protecting his stake. “Tully says that a shiplord always wears his wealth. That way, anyone who means to take it has to fight you for it.”

“Tully is a man who’s always looking for a fight,” Strangward said. “A man who’s looking for a fight will usually find one.”

Strangward was a peace-loving sort. For a pirate.

“Ev. Look alive.”

Startled out of his reverie, Evan turned, and Brody Baines slapped the spyglass into his hand. “Captain says to lay aloft again and have another look at the ship that’s been eating our wake.”

“They’ve kept their distance so far,” Evan said, rolling his eyes. “Besides, we’re almost home.” He nodded shoreward, where the high cliffs of Tarvos smudged the horizon.

Brody was two years older than Evan and more than a foot taller, with broad shoulders, muscled arms, and a growing collection of tattoos. Evan envied Brody’s shoulders, his muscles, and his burnished skin, the color of coppers that had passed through many hands. Evan felt pale as mare’s milk by comparison.

Maybe it wasn’t exactly envy. More and more, Brody stirred feelings in Evan that were hard to ignore on a small ship during long days at sea. Captain Strangward frowned on shipboard romances because they stirred up trouble. That was not to say that they didn’t happen—but if the captain got wise to it, the least valuable party would be put ashore. No doubt that would be Evan, the skinny-shanked harbor front foundling.

Which would be a waste, since Brody had made it clear that Evan’s feelings were not reciprocated. Reciprocated. Evan had come across that word in a book, and now worked it into every conversation. That and proclivities.

“Ev!” Brody said, poking him. “You ain’t paid to daydream. Captain thinks it’s the Siren, by the way she’s rigged. Either that or the wetland navy’s got itself a better shipbuilder.”

“The Siren?” Evan’s heartbeat accelerated. He had heard stories about the flagship of the empress of the isles. It was a legend along the Desert Coast, though nobody had seen it for years. But. “What would the empress be doing this far south?”

“That’s what the captain wants to know,” Brody said, winking at him. Brody knew Evan itched for action. “Now step lively.”

Captain Strangward had an agreement with Iona, the Nazari empress of the isles. She sailed out of the Northern Islands and raided wetland traffic from Middlesea and northward, while the stormlord sailed from Tarvos and hunted from Baston Bay and southward. Deepwater Court was a free port, open to all.

Agreements between pirates never lasted very long, and, truth be told, Strangward hadn’t always followed theirs to the letter. Especially since Iona was rarely seen these days anywhere along the Desert Coast.

Stuffing the glass into the waist of his breeches, Evan trotted forward to the mizzen and began to climb, his bare feet finding the ratlines as they had a hundred times before. Below, on the quarterdeck, he saw Captain Strangward conferring with Abhayi, the helmsman.

Evan climbed past the topgallant to the royal, straddled the empty yard, put the glass to his eye, and looked astern.

The other ship was a pretty thing, her lines clean and fine as those of their own Cloud Spirit. As he watched, he could see her crew scrambling over the decking, working the halyards, shaking out more sail. The mains’ls luffed at first, then swallowed the wind, and she surged forward, splitting the swells like a sword through silk. It could be the Siren, Evan thought. There weren’t many other ships on the Indio that could match their speed. If she kept to her course, she’d be coming up on them before long.

“Still no colors, Captain,” Evan called down. “But whoever she is, we’ll know soon enough. She’s making her move now.”

Strangward planted his hands on his hips and scowled. It was not a good day for a hostile meet-up. They’d taken a fat merchant schooner off Baston Bay. Because of that, and their other takings in the wetlands, the Spirit sat low in the water—so low that in heavy seas her gunwales were all but awash. Too tight a turn might cause them to founder.

They were thinly crewed as well. The quarrelsome quartermaster, Tully Samara, had chosen out some of their best sailors to take their prize around the Claw to Hidden Bay. There he’d find a willing buyer, no questions asked, and add hard money to the split for the crew. Evan fingered the movables around his neck, wishing he had the coin to get in on the bidding.

One day, he thought, I’ll have my own ship, and I’ll be giving the orders. He kept his lofty perch, high above the deck, the wind whipping his hair around his face. As he watched the other ship come on, he debated what his orders would be.

“Come about,” the captain called to Abhayi. He looked up, searching until he found Evan still clinging to the rigging. “Boy, go down and help Samuel ready the twenty-four-pounders so we can give them a proper welcome if they go foolish on us.”

Strangward always called him “boy,” and this was beginning to get under Evan’s skin. I’m not a boy, Evan thought. I’m nearly grown.

Besides, the gunnery deck wasn’t his favorite. He preferred to be above decks. Though Evan was agile and quick, and fair with a curved Carthian blade, Strangward never allowed him to join the boarding parties that followed their grappling hooks onto the enemy decks and fought hand to hand if the crew declined new management.