Out of all the people bustling among the ships docked along Morchender’s waterfront, only one held Ramiel’s attention.
Captain Jambika stood at the bow of her ship, hair billowing out in a wild mass of black curls. Lace dripped from her cuffs and tumbled from her throat like foam cresting a wave.
So, the rumors were true. Jambika did like to sport her lace as well as transport it. Ramiel thought it must have been a tale, like those that always surrounded pirates. The last pirate she’d been under, Dead Eye, was said to have no eyes in his scull and use some mystical power to aim his pistol and strike his sword. In truth, he did have an empty eye socket—not even a fake eye in it or a patch over it—but it was his other eye that did the aiming, not some mystical power.
Ramiel stood at the bottom of the ship’s ramp and yelled up to one of the crew. “Permission to come aboard.”
He squinted at her. “If ye want to look at the lace, ye can wait ’til we bring it ashore.”
“Do I look like I’m interested in lace?” Ramiel didn’t try to keep the offence out of her voice. Jambika may parade around in the ship’s cargo, but Ramiel had more dignity than to go around looking as pompous and useless as a queen. She liked her clothing simple and useful. A cloak to keep rain off as well as cover her sword. Shirt long enough to cover the pistol at her side. And boots tall enough to conceal a dagger.
“What are ye interested in then?” asked the crew member.
He eyed Ramiel, probably trying to decide if she knew that she was asking to be part of a pirate crew, not a merchant ship.
“Let her aboard,” said a woman’s voice behind him. It was Jambika. Her voice wasn’t as soft as Rameil expected someone with that much lace to have, but it wasn’t as rough as Dead Eye’s. It wasn’t as rough as hers.
Ramiel strode up the ramp and onto the ship. She stopped before Jambika and stood straight and proud.
“I’m looking for honest work on the open sea. The longer we’re away from the shore, the better.” The words were code. They let Jambika know that Ramiel knew she was more than a merchant, and Ramiel most certainly did not care that the work wouldn’t be honest.
Jambika eyed her like she were a bit of expired fish. “You’re a bit shabby for honest work.”
Ramiel’s jaw tightened. “Honest work doesn’t require fancy dress.” She gave a pointed look at Jambika’s lace.
“Jealous?” One side of Jambika’s mouth curved upward.
Ramiel tightened her lips to keep from spitting. Jealous? Of this overdressed sod? She probably couldn’t use the sword hanging at her side.
“If you haven’t noticed,” Jambika said. “This ship requires a little more class than the normal,” she raised her brow, “honest workers.”
Ramiel felt she might explode. Was this frilly thing refusing to give her a chance because of her clothes? What kind of pirate cared how you were dressed?
“I don’t need a bunch of lace dripping off of me to look intimidating. I let my skills do the talking.” Ramiel put her hand over the sword beneath her cloak.
Jambika cocked her head. “Are you saying that I need to strike an imposing figure to make up for my lack of skill?”
“It’s not what I’m saying. It’s what all that lace is saying.”
“Perhaps I should let my sword do some ‘saying’ as well as my lace.” Jambika pulled a long, slender sword from the sheath at her side and Ramiel wasted no time in pulling out her own, less dazzling weapon.
“You first,” Ramiel said. Only a cowered would take advantage of one less skilled.
Jambika nodded her head at Ramiel. “Please, your move first.”
Ramiel only stood with her sword ready.
“I would not want the fight to be over too quickly,” Jambika said.
Heat spread through Ramiel. If Jambika wanted to be made a fool, so be it. Ramiel sprang forward, not bothering to be gentle with her first blow as she might have for someone less pompous.
Jambika didn’t stumble back in surprise as she imagined, but blocked her easily and stood waiting for Ramiel’s next strike.
Ramiel’s sword came at her again, and again Jambika blocked her. Ramiel swung over and over, but each time Jambika blocked her.
“Having trouble finding me under all my imposing lace?” Jambika asked, mouth quirked.
Ramiel’s only answer was a series of jabs and strikes that Jambika brushed aside smoothly.
Finally, Jambika made a jab back at Ramiel.
Ramiel had no problem blocking the blow and wondered if Jambika was only talented at defense. That would explain why she wanted her to make the first move. Perhaps her only skill was to keep attackers from wounding her while her crew did all the killing.
Ramiel switched tactics and stayed in a defensive position, waiting for Jambika to strike against her.
It was a mistake. Instead of finding a weak spot that would allow Ramiel to take advantage, she found herself so busy defending against the onslaught of blows raining down on her that she couldn’t make single offensive move.
She was being beaten by a lace-bedecked ninny!
Just as Ramiel thought it couldn’t get any worse, something hard press against the back of her calf. Her balance teetered and she fell backward over the object, smacking her head on the deck.
The world dimmed for a moment except the sparks of light that flitted over her vision.
A hand appeared among the little lights, a ring of lace surrounding it. Ramiel was not so dazed that she would stoop to taking Jambika’s hand. She ignored it and pushed herself up.
Jambika laughed and it annoyed Ramiel that she didn’t take offence at her offer of help being ignored. But then, it would be hard to take offence at someone you’d so soundly humiliated. Ramiel hardened her jaw and slid her sword into its sheath. She was about to leave the ship and the annoying grins of the watching crew, when Jambika said, “Not bad. I suppose I could use another honest worker aboard.”
Ramiel stood for a second. Was Jambika offering her a place on her ship?
“If you can stand to work under someone who strikes an imposing figure to compensate for their lack of skill,” Jambika continued.
The crew snickered.
Ramiel might have turned her down, just to save some of her injured pride, but if she had to spend another week on land in this smelly city, she’d join a merchant crew just to breathe in the sea again.
“I think I can put up with it,” Ramiel said.
“Good.” Jambika flicked her hand toward the crate at Ramiel’s feet, making the lace at her wrist swish. “Your first task is to take the cargo to shore.”
Ramiel scowled at the crate. It was the thing that had tripped her and left her sprawling like a ninny for the crew to see. There was a single word etched into the wooden lid, letting its content be known. Lace.