“This is impossible,” Kienna decided.
The Starwatch creaked as it knocked against slick rock, jostling my footing. I planted a hand on the rail and craned my neck back, scanning up almost a hundred vertical feet of moonlit edges and pitch-black crevices. Mist fell on my face.
I shook my head. “It’s possible.”
“Arrokas,” Kienna warned. “Even if you manage this part, every other step in your plan is just as-”
“It’s possible,” I repeated, turning around. “Captain, do I have your permission to try?”
Gavin Morrissey pursed his lips, gaze piercing mine through the dark. Behind him, the rest of the crew shuffled nervously. The puzzle pieces I’d been learning for three months assembled in a mix of apprehension, incredulity, and—for the first time on a few faces—respect.
Most of them probably didn’t think I could do it—three months in this crew, working dawn to dusk, and they still couldn’t see past my pampered upbringing—but for once, they were impressed that I was willing to try.
Morrissey closed his eyes. “I’ve already lost one deckhand today,” he said. “I’m not keen on losing another.”
“Which is exactly why I have to go, Sir. I can get Sterling out of there.”
His eyes found mine again, and my shoulders tensed under their weight. He looked anxious. He looked conflicted. He thought I was insane. But beneath it all was one more piece—ambition. A hunger for one last chance to outmatch the legend on shore.
“Very well,” he said quietly. In a slightly louder voice, he announced, “We wait here until dawn.”
I nodded and scanned the faces around me once more. The past three months had been the best of my life, and it was thanks to the people here on this deck. But it was also thanks to the one stuck on land above. There wasn’t really a choice.
“I’ll have him back by then,” I promised, then turned and clambered onto the Starwatch’s rail. Saltwater sprayed on my boots from where it crashed between rock and wood below. The jagged face in front of me bobbed up and down.
“You’re batshit crazy, Arrokas,” someone said.
I waited until the Starwatch bobbed up, then jumped for a crack in the rock. My feet hit the wall, then my knees, and then my fingers scraped against stone, clawing as I slid down before I managed to grasp a hold and yank to a halt.
Frigid water soaked my back as I took a second to catch my breath. The tips of my fingers smarted, and I’d scraped one of my knees. I twisted my head around and saw Kienna and a few other crew members staring at me from the deck.
They looked like they were already mourning my death.
“Sterling and I will be back by dawn,” I repeated before facing the wall. I was a good climber—or I’d never have suggested this—and I was able to squeeze both my hands securely into the crack. I moved one foot up, then the other, then unlodged each hand. One move at a time. Easy.
It was a full minute before I reached the top of the crack. I took a second to breathe and search the rock above me. Outcroppings, cutouts, cracks. Puzzle pieces. I liked puzzles.
I chose my next series of moves and started up again. I was above the ship now, and the sea mist was thinning, giving me dryer holds. My breath steadied as I fell into a rhythm. Searching, planning, climbing. I could feel the crew holding its breath below.
This was possible.
The moon crept through the sky above. I refused to let it rush me; I could rush later if I didn’t die now. The sound of the waves faded further into the background as the edge above grew closer. Every five feet meant another scrape on one of my fingers, but I was a lot tougher than I’d been three months ago. Whenever my hands started to shake, I shoved my feet into a crevice and leaned into the wall, releasing my fingers and letting myself breathe.
Sound buzzed below as I neared the top; the moon said it had been a little over ten minutes, but I remembered hours. I didn’t have to look down to see my crewmates nudging each other in excitement, spurring me to cross the last five feet of cliff.
I reached over the edge and dug my fingers into dirt.
A cheer erupted below me. I dragged myself up onto solid ground and rolled away from the edge, staring at the stars overhead and massaging my sore fingers. “I told you it was possible,” I panted to the sky.
Someone shushed the cheers. I groaned, but got to my feet and inched back to the cliff’s edge, where the vast stretch of ocean and stars almost pulled me off balance. Below, on the Starwatch’s deck, I could just make out Morrissey staring up at me, separate from the rest of the crew.
I was far too high to see the look on his face. Maybe he actually thought I could do this. Maybe he’d finally realized I was worth something and regretted letting me go. Whichever it was, he didn’t tell me to stop.
I took a few steps away from the edge and turned around. The Starwatch had stopped half a mile north of Hashton Port, which was situated in a small bay on the west side of the peninsula. All I had to do was follow the cliff edge back to the town. Easy.
I took off running, boots crunching on dirt and rock. An open plain stretched to the east, dotted with little more than shadowy shrubs. It was startling how close the desert got to the sea here; the air was thick with moisture, but thanks to a cold ocean current that prevented it from condensing into rain, the Red Cliffs barely managed to sustain life.
After a few minutes, I found a scraggly semblance of a road coming down from the mountains to the east. I stayed away from it as long as possible, but when the ground started to slope downward between cliffs, I was forced onto the path. That was fine, though. I wasn’t likely to encounter anyone; it was treacherous to cross over the mountains from the larger towns on the peninsula’s eastern side. Most people traveling to Hashton would sail around instead.
I was left with my footsteps and silence.
The road dipped around toward the sea, and the cliffs opened to finally reveal a smudge of buildings ahead. From the tiny lights bobbing to each side of the road, I guessed there were guards watching even at this hour. I slowed to a walk a few hundred yards away, letting my breath steady as I took in the situation. There was one guard on each side of the road, and they both appeared awake and alert; Sheriff Carter’s officers seemed to live up to their reputation.
That was exactly why Sterling had gotten caught.
‘Stay the hell away from the Sheriff,’ I remembered Morrissey telling the crew the morning before. ‘Man has a spotless record. You could probably take his lackeys if it comes down to it, though. My guess is they’ve talked themselves up bigger than they are. Taking advantage of Carter’s reputation and all.’
According to the crew members who’d gone in with Sterling and barely made it out, the three officers could make their own reputation just fine. Sterling may have been able to kick my ass while training me, but in action, it hadn’t been enough.
I’d left my weapons aboard the Starwatch so they wouldn’t weigh me down; I had bad aim anyway, and was only starting to figure out knives. But I wasn’t planning to let this turn into a fight. After all, these guards wouldn’t recognize me as a pirate at first glance; I simply hadn’t been one long enough. Of course, I didn’t exactly look like a nobleman’s son anymore, either.
I took a deep breath, then stumbled forward, doing my best to fake a slight limp.
“Oy! Who’s there?” one guard called when I got within hearing range.
“I’m from Gradice,” I called back, naming a town on the peninsula’s eastern side. “Mayor has a message for Sheriff Carter, Sir!”
Both guards got to their feet, and as I drew closer, I saw them eyeing me warily. “And she sent you over the pass on foot, by yourself?” the same one demanded. He was a tall, spindly man with choppy sand-brown hair.
I shook my head, keeping my face serious as I continued forward. “No, Sir. Sent me on horseback, only I fell and hurt my ankle. I hope I’m not too late.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And what happened to the horse?”
I looked away from him and slowed down slightly. “Ran off, Sir,” I said, trying to sound sheepish. I hoped he wasn’t looking too closely at my face; acting wasn’t one of my strong suits. Turning back to him, I added, “Really, Sir, it’s an urgent message. The Mayor was looking for someone to leave right away, and I was right there, and I said I’d be quick…”
He pursed his lips. His hand twitched by his hip, and my eyes landed on the revolver holstered next to it. “Alright, then, out with it.”
I swallowed. “She says there are pirates headed your direction, Sir.”
The man paused, then barked out a laugh. “You’re a little late to the party, son. Those pirates came into port this morning. Broke into our iron stores and almost got away with some before we stopped them.”
“Oh no!” I tried to look shocked.
He narrowed his eyes. “You making fun of me?”
I really needed to practice my acting. Shaking my head vigorously, I said, “No, Sir.”
“I sure hope you’re not,” the other guard spoke up, glancing my way before settling her gaze on the road again. “Wyatt’s been looking for something to hit all day.”
Wyatt glared as if to confirm her threat. “Got any other news, kid?”
I bit my lip. Apparently, knowing about the pirates didn’t give me enough credibility. I scoured my memory for anything related to Gradice, and found myself replaying a moment two days before as the Starwatch had sailed around the peninsula’s southern tip, giving those towns and their anti-pirate sentiments a wide berth.
‘I hear they’re planning to build a railroad out here,’ our navigator Zacharia said, gripping the wooden railing of the ship as they leaned forward to squint at the land. ‘Now that there’re more people moving to other parts of the continent. It could make our lives a lot harder, if people start cutting straight through the mountains instead of sailing around.’
‘You’re kidding,’ Kienna said flatly. ‘Who’s going to pay for it? Can you imagine the kind of explosives they’d need to get through the mountains?’
At the time, I’d quietly noted that the best place to get gunpowder on this continent was in a coastal town just like the one we were staring at, where they received regular shipments from Crysanthes across the sea. From families like mine, in fact. But as I thought about it now, a rail also required iron, and the best place to get that was in Hashton.
“I heard some people in Gradice talk about buying more iron from you guys,” I began, watching Wyatt’s face carefully. Vague boredom—he’d already heard about this. That meant I was right. “They wanted to re-negotiate the price since they’ll be taking so much. But here’s the thing,” I added, lowering my voice in an attempt to be conspiratorial. “They ain’t even planning to use it. They’re just going to stockpile and sell it to someone else.”
Wyatt scowled. “Really? D’you hear anyone say why?”
I nodded. “Well, I heard that a couple towns near the tip of the peninsula are looking to buy a bunch of iron for some kind of project. But they aren’t as close to you as Gradice is, so Gradice might be trying to take advantage before you hear about it.” Just to make sure he was pissed off, I added, “Our Sheriff said something about making easy money since you all are so bad at economics.”
Wyatt thought for a moment, then to my surprise, he grinned. “You probably weren’t supposed to tell me that, son.”
I frowned. “You just asked me what I knew.”
He just shook his head. “Glad you were in hearing range at the right time,” he chuckled, half to himself. To the other guard he asked, “You good if I get him a room for the night?”
She nodded, eyes still trained on the road. “Unless you want him to walk all the way back to Gradice without his horse.”
Wyatt turned to me. “Alright, then, come on.” He spun on one heel and strode toward the buildings ahead.
I fake-limped after him. Even though this was working out for me so far, I felt my heart speeding up more than it had on my entire climb up the cliff face. I could think through plans all day. I could picture exactly what was going to happen where. But actually doing it—actually walking into town myself, feeling its road beneath my feet, letting its wooden buildings surround me—that was something I was still getting used to.
I loved every second of it.