Gia stood in the crow’s nest—the highest she had ever been above sea level. She and Lulu were playing I Spy beneath the shade of Lulu’s umbrella.
There wasn’t exactly much to spy in the middle of the ocean, but the two were making do since there wasn’t enough space for Lulu to finish teaching Gia how to play Go-Stop.
Lulu held the spyglass to her eye. “I spy with my little eye,” she began as she searched about. A grin stretched across her lips. “Something sandy.”
Gia bounced in place as Lulu passed her the telescope. In the distance, Gia spotted the sandy beaches of an island.
“Go ahead,” Lulu trilled.
Gia leaned over the walls of the crow’s nest, inhaled a deep breath, and yelled, “Land, ho!”
“Drop anchor!” Calder called out as Gia and Lulu descended. “Get changed and load the longboats!”
“Can I—” Gia started as she reached the deck.
“No.” Captain Hailstorm pulled on a pair of gloves and tugged the hood of a long black cloak over her locs. Her cloak fluttered in the wind as she turned away, the discussion over.
Calder donned his own water-resistant cloak. “I don’t think these will fit you, stowaway,” he said, pulling up his hood. “How about you help Amelia boss the rest of the crew around while we’re gone?”
Amelia crouched down to her level. “Yeah, you can be my first mate. It’ll be fun.”
A loud metallic clang rang out as two men dropped part of Pete’s contraption. Pete did not take this well.
“Load it carefully!” he yelled, dashing over. “Before you break it! What if you scratched the ship?”
“I should go mediate,” Calder said. “But I’ll see you when I get back,” he told Gia.
Gia looked around as the crew prepared to leave without her. She sucked her teeth.
“You two, quit lagging behind.”
“Sorry, Captain,” a nearby voice said. “The weight in this box keeps shifting.”
“That shouldn’t be.” Gia heard Pete say. “I secured everything myself. Open it up.”
Gia felt the crate hit the ground. Light spilled across her face as the lid was lifted, and she poked her head out. “Hello.” Gia waved.
Calder took one look at her and facepalmed. “I’ll take her back, Captain.”
“And leave her on the beach?” The way that Hailstorm glowered almost made Gia wish she’d stayed on the ship. “We don’t know what’s out here, and we don’t have time to row her back to the Ruby. The lily has to be picked right as it blossoms. Just…” Hailstorm groaned. Watch her.”
Calder nodded and held out his hand to Gia.
“I can walk by myself,” Gia said, voice full of salt. She might have a bad case of sea legs, but she’d get used to walking on land soon enough.
Calder’s hand remained outstretched, and Gia sighed as she slipped hers into it.
“Don’t look at nothing. Don’t ask for nothing. Don’t touch nothing,” Calder said as they started out again. “Everything on this island is either poisonous or venomous.”
“Or both,” Lulu added cheerfully.
Gia frowned, turning her eyes toward the dense jungle.
It was chilly. She’d expected it to be hot, especially this far from the sea breeze, but the plants and trees blocked out most of the sun’s warmth.
As they trekked on, Gia’s cloak dragged the ground. She’d belted the cloak around her waist with rope to keep it up, glad that learning all those knots had finally come in handy, but it was still far too big. She gathered it under her arm and kept walking.
Nightfall swallowed up the last dregs of sunlight. The stars blinked like cat eyes in the sky. Without needing to be told, the crew grew quieter the farther they got into the dark jungle.
An animal Gia had never seen before stood on its hindlegs. Its long ears twitched as it watched them pass. Gia barred her teeth at it, and it darted off.
The jungle opened up to a small, murky green lake. Growing from the water was a plant that stretched high into the air, and at the top of the plant, a flower bud with red veins along its white petals was beginning to unfurl.
Captain Hailstorm motioned with her hand.
At her command, Pete and a team of about fifteen started toward the other side of the lake, quick and soundless.
As they went, the captain gestured to the crew that stayed. They opened the boxes they’d carried, revealing slabs of wood and metal poles.
“Don’t touch the water,” Calder warned Gia when she got too close.
Gia looked on as the parts came together to form a structure like a high wooden fence. Support beams were used to brace the fence against the ground. The fencing surrounded an even taller, three-legged metal tower.
Calder surveyed the area as the other team completed a similar build across the lake. “It’s quiet,” he said. “Weren’t we expecting more creatures?”
“Maybe they’re hiding from something more dangerous,” the captain said. Hailstorm eyed the jungle, but her icy gaze settled on Gia.
Gia looked away quickly.
Calder hefted a large bow almost taller than he was. He pulled an arrow from the pack on his back and passed the arrow to Gia along with one end of a rope. “Tie this for me,” he said, keeping his voice low as the crew untangled the rest of the rope and secured its other end to the top of the tower.
Gia jumped at the chance to help.
When she passed the arrow back to Calder, he tugged the knot twice and smiled. “Nicely done,” he whispered. Gia caught the captain looking and grinned proudly.
Calder drew the arrow, aiming across the lake where Pete and three crewmates held a wooden target. Pete pointed to himself, then made an X with his arms: Don’t hit me.
Calder smirked and let the arrow fly. It landed right in the center of the target—loudly. The force of it sent Pete and the others tumbling backward before they caught themselves. Pete raised his fist, middle finger up.
As the crew on Pete’s side secured the line to the metal tower on their end, Gia noticed a pair of eyes floating in the water.
The noise from the arrow had caught something’s attention.
Pete lit a torch, the bright light drawing the creature’s notice. “This way, fella!” he yelled. “Over here!”
The creature slithered through the water.
Hailstorm jerked her head toward the tower beside her. Calder folded his fingers together and gave Lulu a boost to the top, where the rope connected it to the tower on the other side.
The rope had felt sturdy in Gia’s hands, but in the air it looked horrifically thin, barely visible in the moonlight.
“You sure about this?” Hailstorm asked quietly.
“Captain, don’t insult me,” Lulu snipped.
The creature crawled out of the water on four webbed feet. Fins frilled on either side of its head as it threw its neck back and hissed.
“Go,” Hailstorm said.
The monster was distracted; it slammed against the gate on the other side, clawing at the crew while they used the wooden braces to hold it back—a fence and a shield all at once.
Lulu stepped out onto the tightrope. Gia could barely walk on land, but Lulu moved effortlessly, even fifteen feet in the air and a single misstep away from death.
The flower had fully bloomed, a delicate beauty blossoming in a poisonous lake.
Pete’s gate began to crack. The sound of wood groaning and splintering reached Gia’s ears, followed by screams.
“Shouldn’t we—” Gia started.
The captain silenced her with a hand. There was a pistol on the captain’s hip, and she removed it from the holster, pointing it toward the stars, waiting.
Pete’s torch went out.
Hailstorm fired her gun.
Someone behind Gia lit a torch.
“Come on then,” Hailstorm called, firing a second shot into the sky.
The monster rushed into the water.
“Splash incoming!” Hailstorm yelled.
Calder and a few others bent down to brace the fence for impact, their heads ducked so the hoods of their cloaks would block the waves. “Get behind me, stowaway,” Calder said.
Gia hurried to obey, but her foot caught in the bunched fabric of her cloak. She tripped hard, her elbows knocking against the ground. The rapid ripples in the water told her it was too late to move. She squeezed her eyes shut.
Warmth enveloped her. Not the cold sting of lethal waves.
Captain Hailstorm cradled Gia in her arms, the back of her cloak drenched. “Did it get you?” There was a layer of panic in the captain’s stern voice. “Gia, are you hurt?” the captain asked again when Gia was too stunned to speak.
Gia swallowed the lump in her throat. “I’m okay,” she said hoarsely. Everything about this confused her. Was this the same captain that said to throw Gia overboard if she was useless?
The captain was up before Gia could question things further. The monster chomped at the wooden planks, venom dripping from its sharp teeth. Claws scratched through the openings.
“Hold the line!” Hailstorm bellowed, using one of the braces to help shove the creature back.
The ground was muddy from the splash. A man to Gia’s left slipped, bumping into the tower.
The tightrope swayed, and Lulu swayed with it. Gia dashed over to steady the tower’s legs.
Captain Hailstorm caught her eye and nodded.
Gia nodded back.
When Gia glanced up again, the line had stilled. Lulu hopped down daintily on Pete’s side of the lake and waved. The crew there dismantled their fences and tower as soon as Lulu was on the ground. Then they disappeared into the jungle behind them without a trace.
The moment they were clear, Hailstorm raised her voice. “Pull back! Steady!” she added.
Slowly, Calder and the rest of the crew backed toward the jungle, lifting the fencing and moving it with them. The light of the torch went out. Bit by bit, crew members took parts of the fence and tower and slipped into the trees.
The monster swiped between the remaining planks, attempting to catch the escaping crew. Finally, Gia felt the jungle at her back, the trees too close together for the creature to follow.
“On three,” Hailstorm commanded the pirates still there, holding the monster at bay with the last few panels of fencing. “One!”
Calder tossed Gia over his shoulder.
The creature rammed into them angrily. The wood creaked.
The crew drew back completely, running as fast as they could through the jungle. Gia bounced on Calder’s shoulder as he sprinted. Around the fencing Calder carried in his other arm, Gia could see the monster hiss a final warning through the foliage.
No one stopped running until they reached the beach.
Gia smiled brightly when she spotted Lulu and Pete with the rest of the crew on the shoreline.
“It’s dangerous to stay here,” the captain said to Calder as he set Gia down in the sand. “We’ll treat the wounded in the longboats.”
“Aye, Captain,” Calder answered. He went off to round up the crew.
Lulu approached the captain next, her usual skipping replaced with smooth, delicate steps. In her hands, she carried a small wooden chest.
Emotions flittered across the captain’s face, too quick for Gia to recognize but more than Gia had ever seen Hailstorm show. The captain unlatched the lid and peered inside.
On her tippy toes, Gia could see it—the Life Lily—floating in a bowl of icy water inside the chest. The legendary healing flower.
Hailstorm bowed her head like a prayer. She stayed that way for a moment, as the waves rolled against the shore and the crew loaded themselves into the longboats. Then she lowered the lid.
Ever so gently, Lulu passed Hailstorm the chest.
“Let’s move out,” the captain said.
As they boarded the Ruby, Gia wished for nothing more than to curl up in her hammock and sleep for at least a century. Maybe two.
“There you are,” Amelia said to Gia crossly, although she didn’t sound the least bit surprised. She stood beside a row of canons, several of them still smoking.
Lulu pulled out her spyglass. “Amelia,” she said, looking off in the distance, “is that a ship on fire?”
Amelia shrugged. “We just had a little conversation.”
“Yes, of course,” Lulu said with a smile.
Pete ran a hand along the Ruby’s railing as he joined them. “Not a scratch on her,” he said blissfully.
“You’re welcome, Pete.” Amelia turned to take them all in. “You’re all unharmed?”
“Only minor injuries,” Calder said as he and the captain walked over.
“And the guardian?”
“The creature is fine. We’re lucky it was just the one.”
“Multiple in one place would be unlikely,” Amelia said, pushing up her glasses. “Species of that kind tend to be rather territorial.”
“You don’t say,” Pete muttered, holding up a broken wooden plank—the remnants of his shield-gates.
“Your plan was flawless,” Calder said, turning to the captain as he patted Pete on the back. “Even with a certain troublemaker following us.” He ruffled Gia’s hair, and she swatted his hands away.
“The plan succeeded because everyone pulled their weight.” Hailstorm took the time to look at each member of her crew. Gia’s stomach dropped when the captain’s gaze stopped on her. “Good work.”