The problem with sneaking aboard a pirate ship was that there weren’t very many places to hide. At least not very many good places. Even as tiny as she was, Gia hardly had any room to stretch her legs while she hid, curled up and quiet inside one of the rowboats that were stored on the ship’s deck.
Perhaps she could have gotten away with moving just a smidge, but her knee betrayed her. Right as she tried to turn, that treacherous knee knocked over one of the boat’s oars. It clattered to the deck so loudly she could practically feel the eyes of the crew fall in her direction. The bustling ship became eerily silent.
“What have we here?” someone said in a low voice.
Gia peeked up. A tall man with rich brown skin and short, coiled hair stood before her. His hand settled on the hilt of his blade, and Gia gulped.
The man, however, took in the sight of her and threw back his head to laugh. “It’s a kid,” he said, and the crew became boisterous once more.
He reached into the rowboat and lifted Gia out by her armpits.
Gia let out a nervous chuckle and raised a hand to wave. “Hello.”
“Hello,” he replied, mouth upturned. Then he projected his voice toward the helm. “Captain,” he called. “We’ve got a stowaway.”
“Plank.” Though Gia couldn’t see her, the captain’s cold tone left no room for questions.
“Ready the plank!” the man yelled, and as the other pirates rushed to obey Gia realized he must be the first mate. “Can you swim, stowaway?” he asked, setting her down on the long, wooden board.
Gia nodded, but there was a very obvious pout on her face that said she didn’t want to swim. “Can’t I stay and be a pirate too?” she asked.
The first mate shook his head. “Afraid not. Off you go,” he said gently and gave her a little push toward the sea.
Gia staggered forward a few steps before she caught herself. Then she plopped right down on the plank and clung to the board like her life depended on it.
Go on, the first mate mouthed, making a shooing motion with his hand and doing his best to signal to her that her life did not in fact depend on it.
The ship was well within swimming distance of the pirate haven they’d just set off from. It was so close that she could still hear the vendors boasting of rare goods and people grunting as they loaded heavy barrels of cargo.
Gia’s hiding spot had been so bad that she was found before they’d even gotten out to sea. She squeezed her eyes shut stubbornly and held onto the board even tighter. If she gave up now, her plans would be ruined—she had to stay aboard the Ruby Tempest. She had to.
Over the sound of the waves came the heavy thunk, thunk, thunk of boots striding toward her across the deck. The last thunk landed on the plank itself, shaking it so violently that it knocked Gia square in the chin. She let out an outraged squawk as her eyes flew open and she came glare to much icier glare with the notorious Captain Hailstorm.
That one look from the captain had Gia fixing her face.
“Why is she still here, Calder?” Hailstorm asked her first mate.
“She’s got a good grip, Captain,” Calder said, the laughter barely quelled in his voice.
Gia cast them a sheepish grin.
If Hailstorm was impressed by Gia’s determination, she hid it behind a sigh, lifting her hat to run her fingers through her long, black locs. “You’re on my last nerve,” she told Gia.
“Thank you, Captain.” Gia’s cheeks were baby fat and cuteness.
With a groan toward the sky, Hailstorm turned and started off in the direction of the helm. “Pull her in and put her to work. And if she isn’t useful,” the captain added over her shoulder, “throw her overboard. I don’t care how far out to sea we are.”
“Aye, Captain,” Calder said.
Despite managing to stay completely dry, Gia shivered.
Gia’s presence on the Ruby brought the crew a great deal of amusement. She would dash by on wobbly legs, unused to the ship’s sway, her curls a bouncing, lopsided cloud atop her head—as though she’d cut her hair without quite knowing how it would lay once she was done. In between swabbing the deck, tying knots, untying knots, memorizing stars, and helping to prepare the deliciously spiced meals they’d eat each day, Gia peppered the crew with lots and lots of questions.
Her current victim was the carpenter, a lean man with the habit of smoothing his beard when he was deep in thought. He’d been aboard the Ruby longest, brought on by the previous captain, and it showed in the grays along his hairline and the wrinkles in his beigey skin.
His care for the ship bordered on obsessive. Even now, he paced about below deck, checking the bilge level and fretting over every pillar and plank.
“Mister Pete,” Gia started as she trailed behind him, “you were here when Captain Hailstorm took the ship, weren’t you? What happened that night?”
Pete dragged his gaze from the ship long enough to smooth his beard. “Chaos,” he said. The deep timber of his voice drew Gia in. “The old captain was a menace, aye, but Captain Hailstorm is a force of nature herself. Perhaps that’s what summoned them.”
“Summoned who?” Gia asked.
“Mermaids,” he muttered, voice hushed as though the very mention of mermaids would bring them about. Gia smiled. Maybe it did.
“They rode the waves up to the rails of the ship and dragged our crew off the sides before you could blink. Every flash of lightning was another pirate gone. That’s when Hailstorm drew her sword on Fang. You could hardly tell whose blood was whose, the way they slashed at each other. Could hardly see in all that rain.
“Fang had his back to the sea—that was his biggest mistake. A mermaid sunk her claws into him from behind. After that, I’m not sure how it happened—was too busy looking out for my own neck—but when I turned back around, all three of them had plunged into the deep: the mermaid, Fang, and Hailstorm.”
Gia sucked in a breath.
“I’ve never seen anybody return from a mermaid’s clutches or best Fang with a blade. Nobody except Brooke Hailstorm. She killed them both.”
“This is hardly a tale for children, Pete.”
Gia jumped at the captain’s voice.
Hailstorm crossed her arms and leaned against the doorjamb. “It’s not one I like people telling either.” In the light of Pete’s lantern, Gia saw the shiny sliver of a scar along the captain’s golden complexion, from ear to chin. Like a sword had been aimed at her neck and was too slow.
“Sorry, Captain,” Pete said hastily.
The captain’s gaze slid to Gia. “Scram.”
Gia sprinted from the room like water from a blowhole.
Everyone on the crew found Gia amusing. Everyone except Captain Hailstorm.
Gia wasn’t allowed in on the meetings that took place in the captain’s quarters. Calder explained that it was because she still needed to prove herself as part of the crew, but that didn’t stop her from pressing her ear to the door while she pretended to swab the deck.
The captain’s words carried through the wood. “Amelia, how are we doing on time?”
Amelia, the navigator, was Gia’s second favorite crewmember after Calder. Each night, Amelia would sit in her hammock, the whole thing so full of books and paper it was a miracle she could find space to sleep. Then she’d pat an empty spot for Gia and spend the evening telling Gia legends about the most wonderous places.
Gia could picture Amelia in the meeting now, tucking her cheek-length brown strands behind her ears and pushing up round-framed glasses on her sun-freckled nose. “We’re making good time, Captain,” she said. “Weather permitting, we should arrive hours before the blooming.”
“Good,” Hailstorm said. “Pete, what’s the status on your contraption? Will it be ready?”
“Will it work?” Calder teased.
Pete sputtered indignantly. Calder had told Gia that Pete once did some sanding after a little too much rum. Calder found him the next morning, crying in a pile of sawdust over the ruined oak.
“I’m kidding, Pete,” Gia heard Calder say through the door. “I trust your work.”
Lulu’s tinkling laughter could be heard next. “And I trust you with my life,” she said lightly, her voice as high and cheerful as the tightropes she used to walk during her days in the circus.
“And I trust you all to be careful. Don’t forget what Amelia said about the creatures we can expect on this island.”
“We’ll be ready, Captain,” Calder replied. “All the supplies we need are accounted for in the hold. We picked up the last of them when we made port.”
“You know what to do then.”
Gia backed away from the door in a hurry, innocently running the mop along the floor just as the door opened and the crew filed out.
Lulu opened her umbrella and gave it twirl. The umbrella matched the rainbow of colors on her skirt. Her long black hair caught in the breeze as she passed Gia with a wink and headed for the crow’s nest.
Pete headed straight below deck, and Amelia walked toward the helm. Calder stopped to pinch Gia’s cheeks.
She swatted his hands away with a giggle and tried to get a peek into the captain’s cabin, but Hailstorm shut the door in her face. Still, Gia grinned.
She was about to go on her first treasure hunt.