After battling a giant salamander for a magical flower, exhausted little Gia thought the crew’s next step would be going straight to sleep. But she forgot she was traveling with pirates, and if there was one thing pirates did after a successful job, it was celebrate.
Barrels of rum were brought out; singing filled the night air. There was still work to do around the ship, but Lulu danced through two songs with Gia, spinning her in silly, dizzying circles before returning to the crow’s nest for her shift keeping watch.
A crowd had gathered around Pete while he wowed the ones who’d stayed on the Ruby with a vastly exaggerated version of their fight with the guardian. Luckily, Calder was right beside him to keep him honest.
The quietest place seemed to be the helm, where Amelia stood at the wheel, a soft smile on her face as she took in the stars and the ocean and the crew—Amelia’s family, Gia realized. The way they all cared for each other and laughed together and protected one another—the way they’d begun doing the same with Gia, too. It made her heart swell with so much weight that it sank in her chest just as quickly.
Amelia noticed Gia on the stairs and gestured to the wheel, a silent offer of steering lessons, but Gia shook her head, making her way to the back of the ship instead.
She leaned on the railing, resting her chin on her hands, and watched the waves crash against the Ruby’s hull and roll back into the sea.
The familiar thunk of boots striding across the deck reached Gia’s ears, but she didn’t bother turning.
“I’ll take over here,” Hailstorm said.
“Aye, Captain,” Amelia answered. “Don’t stay up too late,” she added, and Gia knew it was directed at her. Amelia’s light steps faded down the stairs. Then it was just the two of them: the captain and Gia—the waves and the thundering in between Gia’s ribs as she thought of Pete’s dreadful mermaid tale and wondered if it had happened here, in this very spot.
The wheel creaked as Hailstorm adjusted their heading. “Sometimes,” Hailstorm said, “hate is all we have to pick ourselves up with.”
Gia looked at her, brows scrunched.
“It can be a powerful tool,” Hailstorm continued without taking her gaze off the stars. Gia saw her shoulders rock with a grim chuckle. “Especially when the only alternative is grief. But if there ever comes a time when another option appears, something softer and lighter… it’s okay to choose joy.”
“You know who I am,” Gia said. Perhaps Hailstorm had always known.
“Then how could you say that to me? How could you tell me to stop hating you after what you did?” Gia strode for the stairs, but Hailstorm caught her arm.
“I wouldn’t ask you for that. I don’t have the right to ask you for that. All I ask is that you let yourself be happy. It’s okay for you to be happy, Gia. She would want that for you.”
“She would want your heart,” Gia snapped, her small frame shaking as tears streamed down her face. “I should rip out your heart.”
“She already took it,” Hailstorm whispered.
The hurt in Hailstorm’s eyes angered Gia more than anything. Hailstorm didn’t know hurt, but Gia would show her.
When Gia snatched her arm away and took the stairs into the throng of dancing and singing below, the captain didn’t stop her again.
The weather grew colder as the days passed. Gia tugged down the sides of a borrowed wooly hat so its flaps covered her ears as she stepped out from below deck.
Calder walked over to button it beneath her chin. “You warm enough?”
Gia nodded before he could take off one of his own layers for her. Between Pete’s hat, Amelia’s long-sleeved shirt, and Lulu’s thick polka-dotted socks, she was already wearing more of the crew’s clothes than she was hers.
Calder still slipped the scarf off from around his neck and wrapped her up in it.
“Calder,” Gia said as he adjusted the scarf so it wouldn’t drag.
“Yeah?” He was only half listening while he tucked the longer end of the scarf over her shoulder.
Calder smiled. “Sure thing, stowaway.” His chilled fingers pinched her cheeks the way they always did. “Hey, what do you have?” he asked when she didn’t swat his hands away.
Gia’s arms held something firmly in place under her coat.
He rolled his eyes. “Do I even want to know?”
“Land-ho!” Lulu called, and Gia dashed off while he was distracted.
The land turned out to be towers of ice. The ship floated past mountainous glaciers as it neared the snow-covered home of the Winter Folk.
Captain Hailstorm had said the buyer for the lily would be here. It wasn’t as though the crew could share one flower’s healing magic; selling it and splitting the gold made more sense.
Several figures stood on the frozen shore. They were still too far for Gia to make out their features, but she was sure there were long antlers sprouting from their foreheads. Judging by the number of treasure chests lined up on the ice, this buyer had promised the crew a fortune.
Soon, this would be another legend added to Hailstorm’s fame. The wealthiest pirate.
The most heartless.
Gia reached the bow of the ship and turned to face the crew. Her eyes locked on Hailstorm’s at the helm, and Gia watched horror spread over the captain’s face as she pulled the small wooden chest that held the Life Lily from her coat and dangled it over the edge.
“Gia!” Hailstorm yelled.
The crew froze. Calder spotted Gia and swore. “Stowaway,” he said as he approached her slowly, “that is not a toy.”
“I know what it is.” Her eyes flickered to his before returning to Hailstorm. “If anyone comes near me, I’ll drop it.”
“Stay where you are,” Hailstorm ordered the crew.
Gia swallowed, forced her voice to come out clearly. “It makes sense, you know? That you would trade a flower that could save someone’s life for money. That’s what this is all about isn’t it? That’s why you risked your crew’s life fighting that creature. That’s why you killed my mother.”
She tried not to think of Pete putting the pieces together—of him realizing she was a mermaid and fearing her too. Of the people she’d come to love hating her for what she was about to do. “You took her from me, so I want to take what you love from you too. All of that gold will never belong to you.”
“It’s already mine,” Hailstorm said. The crew cleared a path for her as she walked down the stairs to stand before Gia.
Gia waved the wooden chest over the water. “Are you sure about that?”
“I’m the buyer.”
“Even better,” Gia said, swiping at a tear with her sleeve. “Now you can lose someone too.”
“The lily is for your mother.”
For a moment, Gia couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe. “You’re lying.”
“I told Fang I wanted to join his crew to learn from the most notorious swordsman of all time. That was a lie. Fang had a medallion that absorbed magic. He was luring mermaids to steal their powers of enchantment. He wasn’t a master swordsman; he was a hypnotist.”
Gia’s own powers wouldn’t fully develop until she was older, but she knew of mermaids strong enough to leave someone’s mind with lifelong hallucinations.
“Your mother and I… made a deal. I would set a trap for Fang; when everything was over, she would get the medallion and I would get the Ruby.
“That night, I was prepared for Fang to show me all manner of fiction. All I needed to do was keep him distracted near the edge. With his medallion focused on me, your mother would be able to approach him without losing her powers. But I wasn’t prepared for Fang to let me see the truth—just five inches to the left—just altered enough that I would stab your mother instead.”
Hailstorm tilted her head toward the sky, blinking rapidly. “She yanked Fang’s heart out as she fell.” An airy laugh escaped Hailstorm’s lips. “You really are her daughter, aren’t you? You two and your heart threats.”
Gia didn’t bother wiping her tears again.
“I grew up here,” Hailstorm said, motioning to the glaciers around them. “The Winter Folk took me in. When I jumped in after your mother, I told the mermaids to bring her here. They can’t heal her, but they should have been able to use the ice to slow death.”
“I have no reason to believe you. If you’re trying to save her, then why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Because it might not work. We might be too late. She might not have survived the journey. I didn’t want to give you hope only for you to lose her twice.”
Gia’s hand trembled under the weight of the wooden chest, and she brought her other hand up to steady it, keeping it suspended above the sea.
“I know that you don’t trust me, Gia. You’re smart not to. But this might be your chance to choose joy. Don’t miss it for revenge. Not like this. Hurt me some other way, but don’t hurt yourself.”
Slowly, Gia drew the chest back inside the ship. “We’ll go to shore alone. Everyone else stays here. And if you’re lying, know that I can follow through on my threats just as well as my mother.”