CHAPTER 1: Mali
Mali was addicted to the smell of salt air. Six years she had been living on the ocean, and every day she luxuriated in the sensation of wind across her skin. Especially when the Banshee thundered across the water at her fastest speed.
A desperate squawking drew her attention to the sky. A Rocky Gull soared leisurely above them with a gentle beat of its wings. A new chick was flapping rapidly behind its mother, trying desperately to keep up. Mali grinned. The sun was high in the sky, beating like a drum on her bronze skin. The gulls were evidence that they were getting close to Southern Isles, but for now, the waves held a clear path for them.
It wouldn’t stay that way for long, so Mali enjoyed her moment of pause at the bow of the ship. The world lay before her, ready for the taking. Anticipation was a strong taste on her tongue, as potent as the saltwater that sprayed her with every crash of the ship into the wake. Her lungs ached as she filled them to the brim. It felt as though her stomach lifted into her chest with every rise and dip of her vessel.
“Axel,” she acknowledged her quartermaster as he came to stand beside her.
The broad-shouldered man stared out onto the horizon with her, his face in a serious state like always. The only sense of liveliness came from his ponytail, tied at the base of his neck with some twine, which flickered in the wind. His tanned skin was almost as dark as her natural complexion.
His scowled deepened. “I don’t like this plan.”
She laughed heartedly. “This plan was your idea.”
“At your request.” Axel’s voice was soft for a man of his stature, but it was sturdy. His disapproval carried through the roaring wind without much effort.
“Which is why we make such a good team.” He caught the logistical holes in her creative ideas. Mali turned back to face the main deck. She patted her friend on the arm. “Come on Axel, live a little.”
Axel sighed. “It’s those three words that got me on this ship in the first place,” he muttered as he followed on her heels.
Mali laughed away the worry. Axel may complain like an old man but he took every task and challenge she gave him with his full might; even if it required some convincing to get through that stubborn head of his. He had been by her side for the past three years and never failed her. Even Mali could admit her overambitious plans sometimes needed tempering.
A safe captain would chase after the birds. Birds always followed dolphins, and where there were dolphins there would be fish. She could send Garret and Taj off in the dingy to catch them dinner. They would have a sure meal, probably enough to feed the full crew for two days. The Southern Ocean was ripe with sea life.
If they pulled off their next plunder, however, fish would be a poor substitute for the bounty that awaited them. Her mouth salivated at the thought.
“Look alive!” she called out to her crew. The rushing wind pulled her voice forward and spread it across the deck. She followed the river of air across the ship, her shoulders back and down as she kept her eyes straight ahead. When she reached their navigator Zimmer at the helm and turned back to face the bow, she could see the island of Cybea rising on the horizon.
It was a grand structure that stuck out of the water like a severed thumb. The rest of the Southern Isles had far more appealing layouts, but Cybea’s unique geological formation was why it was a sought-after prize for any pirate.
The cliffs were near straight up to the heavens, and un-scalable for even the greatest thief due to their severity. The area was also patrolled by the soldiers of the residing merchant lord, but intelligence Mali had gathered at their last port stop suggested Omiros didn’t have the funds to employ as many soldiers as usual.
Mali’s smile grew stronger. She was eager for the opportunity to conquer such a challenge, especially if she got to shake someone’s gilded cage in the process. Gold was still gold no matter who held it. Her way of attaining it was far more fun.
“Steady Zimmer?” she asked her navigator.
The white-haired man nodded. He was at least twice Axel’s age, and not always as sober, but the man was one of the best navigators on her side of the law and that was good enough for Mali. He had a hand in teaching her how to be a pirate and then proved his loyalty two years ago when she captured the Banshee for herself. Zimmer had yet to steer her wrong.
“Aye Cap’n Mali,” he assured her, although his voice dipped. “Though I er…. Can’t say I’ve tried some’n like this before.”
“Just get us close Zim, and I’ll take it from there,” she assured the old pirate.
Axel grumbled beside her. She turned to him with some annoyance. “It will work.”
“If the ropes break –”
“The momentum will carry us.”
“And drive us into the rocks.”
Mali squared off with her second in command, matching his unimpressed scowl with her own. “You worry too much Axel,” she tutted him.
Pressing his thumb into his breastbone, with his fingers pointed to the sky, Axel pushed his palm to one shoulder and then pulled it back to the other. Mali rolled her eyes at the religious gesture, made to ward off evil. “I swear I have never met a more superstitious man than you.”
“That’s because no other superstitious man would be crazy enough to sail with a girl like you,” Axel scoffed.
Mali flashed him a devilishly proud smile and winked before stepping away from the helm to stand at the edge of the stern deck. Across the Banshee the rest of the crew were hard at work. The ship was alive with a blend of chaos and focus that could easily be mistaken for either fearlessness or carelessness. They were preparing for a feat that should be impossible.
Mali would confess if prodded, that it was one of her more outlandish schemes. She wasn’t going to pretend that it hadn’t been designed to stoke her ego as well. The stop at Cybea was merely a stepping stone in the grand scheme of things, but that didn’t mean it had to be a subtle step. If they pulled off this entrance, she and the crew would be both set with the royalties and reputation to carry them into the next journey.
Her crew didn’t know about her greater plan yet. She wanted to wait until they were back at a port so they could have an honest choice of whether to follow her or not. They could either join her for the greatest adventure a pirate could ever dream of or find a new crew. Before that time came, however, they would need supplies.
“Five nautical miles to go,” Zim called out behind her.
The flag of the first guard ship could be seen approaching in the distance, coming towards them in a straight line from the island.
The crew’s attention turned to her. She looked at each one of them in the eye. Hard-working men and women, possibly as crazy as Mali was. The energy that covered the vessel crackled in the tense air that they shared.
Mali lifted her hat into the air, the red feather whipping in the wind just as their flag did. “If anyone deems this venture too dangerous, too foolish, and stupidly reckless…then you are in the right place!”
The boisterous roar of her crew was the catalyst for her adrenaline, lighting the fuse inside of her. Mali’s eyes fluttered to the horizon briefly. The bowsprit of the guard ship was visible now. Her cheeks creased in glee.
“For those of you who may have lost your nerve and wish to take safe gambles with your life, now is your time to jump ship.”
She gave everyone a fair chance to leave before they left the last port. She would not stop anyone from abandoning the crew now, but they would be left swimming to save their cowardly life.
Mali was pleased when no one even glanced at the side of the ship. The gleam in their eyes matched her own.
“Steel your nerves, and ready your swords!” she cried out, giving a wave of her hat.
Her crew responded with a resounding holler. Confidence abounds, she marched back to the helm and took her place beside Zimmer. “Get us past those guard ships,” she ordered.
A sideways grin peeled across the old man’s face. “Aye Cap’n.”