Read an Extract
‘What you looking for, boy?’ a voice asked from behind her.
‘The Raven Princess,’ she stammered, her voice husky with shock and disbelief.
‘Sailed this evening, damn them, they finished loading early. What do you want with it?’
Clemence turned, keeping her head down so the roughly chopped hair hid her face. ‘Cabin boy,’ she muttered. ‘Cap’n Moorcroft promised me a berth.’ There were five men, hard to see against the flare of light from a big tavern, its doors wide open onto the street.
‘Is that so? We could do with a cabin boy, couldn’t we lads?’ the slightly built figure in the centre of the group said, his voice soft. The hairs on Clemence’s nape rose. The others sniggered. ‘You come along with us, lad. We’ll find you a berth all right.’
‘No. No, thank you.’ She began to edge away.
‘That’s No, thank you, Cap’n, ‘ a tall man with a tricorne hat on his head said, stepping round to block her retreat.
‘Cap’n,’ she repeated obediently. ‘I’ll just –‘
‘Come with us.’ The tall man gave her a shove, right up to the rest of the group. The man he called Cap’n put out a hand and laid it on her shoulder. She was close enough to see him now, narrow-faced, his bony jaw obscured by a few days’ stubble, his head bare. His clothes were flamboyant, antique almost; coat tails wide, the magnificent lace at his throat, soiled. The eyes that met Clemence’s were brown, flat, cold. If a lizard could speak…
‘What’s your name, boy?’
‘Clem. Cap’n.’ She tried to hold the reptilian stare, but her eyes dropped, down to where the wrist of the hand that held her was bared, the lace fallen back. There was a tattoo on the back of his hand, the tail and sting of a scorpion, its head and body vanishing into his wide-cuffed sleeve. Her vision blurred.
‘Come along then, Clem.’
There was nowhere to run to and the long fingers were biting into her collarbone. Clemence let herself be pushed towards the tavern. It was crowded, she told herself, inside she’d be able to give them the slip.
She knew what they were, and knew too that she would be safer by far with Uncle Joshua and Lewis than with these men. They were pirates, and the man who held her, unless scorpion tattoos were the latest fashion, was Red Matthew McTiernan.
They bundled her up the steps, across the porch and into the heat and light and noise of the tavern. She let herself be pushed along, her eyes darting about the room for an escape route as the crowd shifted uneasily to let McTiernan and his men through. This was a rough place but the customers were reacting like foxes when the wolf arrives at the kill.
A man came forward, wiping his hands on a stained apron. ‘He’s over there.’ He jerked his head towards a table in the far corner.
The man who sat there was alone, despite the pressure for tables. He was playing hazard, left hand against right, his attention focused on the white cubes that bounced and rolled. He was tall, rangy, carrying no surplus weight. Built for speed, like a frigate, Clemence thought, staring at him when she should be watching for her chance. His hair was over-long, brown with sun-bleached tips, his skin very tanned, his clothes had the look of much-worn quality.
He looked up, his eyes a startling blue against his dark skin. ‘Yes?’
‘They tell me you want a navigator’s berth.’ The man called Stanier nodded. ‘Are you any good?’
‘I’m the best in these seas,’ he said, his lips curving into what might, charitably, be called a smile. ‘But you knew that, McTiernan, or you wouldn’t be here.’
The bony fingers gripping her shoulder fell away, down to rest on the hilt of the sword that hung by the captain’s side. As a ripple of tension ran round the small group Clemence eased back, poised to slide into the crowd behind.
‘That’s Captain McTiernan, to you.’
‘It is if I serve with you,’ Stanier said, his tone equable. ‘And I will, if it is worth my while.’
‘You know what I’m offering,’ McTiernan snapped.
‘And I want my own cabin. And a servant.’
‘What do you think you are? One of His Majesty’s bleeding naval officers still? They threw you out – so don’t go putting on airs and graces with me.’
Stanier smiled, his eyes cold. ‘More fool them. I’m just the best navigator you’ll ever see, navy or no navy.’
Now. Clemence slid one foot back, then the other, half turned and –
‘Oh no you don’t, my lad.’ The big man with the tricorne spun her round, fetching her a back-handed cuff that hit her bruised face. Blinded with the sudden pain, Clemence staggered, fell and crashed into a chair in a tangle of limbs.
She put out her right hand, grasping for something to hold on to, and found she was gripping a muscular thigh. Warm, strong - somehow, she couldn’t let go.
‘What have we here?’ She looked up, managing to focus on the interested blue eyes that were studying her hand. She looked down as the navigator lifted it from his leg, prizing the fingers open. An ink stain ran across them. ‘You can write, boy?’
‘Yessir.’ She nodded vehemently, wanting, in that moment, only to be with him, her hand in his. Safe. Lord, how desperate was she, that this hard man represented safety?
‘Can you do your figures?’ He put out one long finger and just touched the bruise on her face.
‘Yessir.’ She forced herself not to flinch away.
‘Excellent. I’ll take you as my servant then.’ Stanier got to his feet, hauling Clemence up by the collar to stand at his side. ‘Any objections, gentlemen?’