The first time a prince left the castle to fight the dragon, he returned without his horse.
“Ate it like a tea cake,” he gruffed out, the scent of woodsmoke still lingering in his velvet trousers. “Best of luck.”
Althea watched him from behind satin curtains. From her hiding place she could just make out her father, a noble and leaden king, cast the prince from the foyer.
“Blasted boys these days,” the king grumbled. “How hard can it be to rescue a princess from a snotting beast like a dragon? Fought five off myself back in my prime.”
Althea didn’t know how to tell her father that Ruby, her older sister, probably didn’t want the high-fluting princes to rescue her.
For as long as Althea could remember, Ruby was a witch.
She didn’t mean witch as in a hog-wash swamp lady who rummages through the mud everyday. No, Ruby carried magic in her hands the way some men carry swords into battle. Her room had been littered with baubles and tinctures. Once, Ruby had even enlisted Althea to snag an empty cauldron from the kitchens, and Althea had watched Ruby pour vials of various potions into its interior well into the night.
As the prince tromped from the foyer, Althea darted out from the curtains and skipped into the corridor. She passed portraits of flaming warriors, men who vanquished dragons far down her family line.
She thought of all the boys who had come knocking on the castle doors to court Ruby. Ruby, with her utility belt and mud-hemmed skirts. I wish I’d been born first, Althea griped. Ruby didn’t deserve all those courting princes.
Courting princes! The idea filled Althea with envy.
She stopped beside the window, where its glass pane hung on gleaming hinges. A careful breeze wafted into the dimly-lit corridor. Her gaze caught on the endless blue sky, undisturbed by the gathering treeline.
For a moment, she could imagine the great snarling dragon, how it had burst through Ruby’s tower and shot flames into the clouds with all the vigor of a striking blade. The way the blue of the sky had melted into fire, strange, foreign, like a boat beating against dark water.
Strange as Ruby.
The second prince to accept the quest to find Ruby never returned.
Althea and her parents heard rumors of his arrival back in the southern kingdoms, his clothes singed and hair lost to the curl of flame.
“He took our provisions and disappeared at the first snarl of dragon breath,” Althea’s father moaned as he drank from his tankard.
“No matter,” the queen reminded him. “We wouldn’t want a coward to take Ruby’s hand, now would we?”
Marriage is a knife at my throat, Ruby had once told Althea in her tower room, her arms bursting with leather-bound books from the library. I wish I was born a boy, free to enter knighthood, the blade in my hand as poised as a dragon’s talon.
Knights aren’t free either, Althea had griped. All those rules, that heavy armor.
Ruby shot her a malevolent smile. Now you’re onto something, sister.
Althea picked at her food and sank lower in her seat. “I bet it wasn’t even the dragon that scared him,” she said. “I bet Ruby ate his horse. She’s got a mouth big enough for it.”
Her parents shushed her in unison.
The final prince to slay the dragon returned with the wrong girl.
“My clothes caught fire,” he said drearily. “I found her well enough, in the end.”
Althea glared up at the woman, her hair piled high on her head in careful clasped ringlets, nothing at all like her sister’s black strands, each as dark as brimstone.
“Are you from Trent?” she asked the woman.
Althea’s parents collapsed into their worn thrones, their faces rising with new irritation. “This woman bears no resemblance to the princess,” her father said.
The prince, his hat clutched in trembling hands, knelt before the king. “You didn’t see the beast, your highness! Scales bristling with embers, a smile curled over with brazen teeth. It guarded no tower. No net ensnared your daughter! Surely she is lost to the belly of the dragon.”
Althea sat with her hands clasped in her lap, her head down. Slowly, she unfurled her grasp to reveal the tattered, singed satin fabric in her fist. She’d retrieved the fabric from Ruby’s tower moments after the dragon had taken flight, coughing as smoke and fire threatened to envelope all the contents of her sister's collection.
The satin was a portion of Ruby’s dress hem—it must be, with its careful stitching and scarlet color. Across the fabric was a dainty embroidered scene, one that depicted the great dragon of the west, a symbol of protection, a symbol of peace.
Peace. Althea thought of her sister, with all her ornaments, her experiments. The way her room had once held parchment across its walls like wallpaper, each one cluttered with charcoal notes and fanged creatures of the forest.
Ruby belonged in a castle the way a knife belonged in its sheath—unusable, estranged, stagnant.
No, Althea was certain the prince wouldn’t find her sister in a carefully guarded tower. No net ensnared her. She rose on the horizon, swelling with the wings of her discovery, the rebirth of a blade in her hand, the glow of fire in her throat.
Free as a dragon.
Edward wasn’t sure there was a before.
Before the Healing Fleet.
Before Cervane. Before Clara.
Sure, there was his home in Artificer Harbor, with his silly parents and their silly idea that the Antaeus line was destined for the greatness of the Last Pillar, that Edward would be born a Night Artificer simply because his father was one, and his father before him. Scholars, they had said. We are born scholars of the stars. He’ll be a diplomat in the making.
Yes, that was his path. A quick trek into the upper Night Artificer housing. Years spent in the Vanished Isles learning his trade. A promotion into the ranks of the Scholar courts.
It was clean, orderly, and most of all, it was tangible.
But, like the sea, his future was not as orderly as he’d expected.
If he closed his eyes, he could almost pretend he was back on the Healing Fleet, his back to the wind as he charted them forward. The water, blue as the sky, so similar the colors bled together until they were a fissure, unsure where one began and one ended. The work, good and honest as they stopped at each port, healing the sick with his Artificer vial, Althea’s fingers in his hair as they lounged on the beach before sunrise, eating ripe lugar berries and sipping nectar until the fleet called the sailors back to the docks and they departed for the next.
But when he opened his eyes, it wasn’t the island before him, or the riot of sails and lines. Instead, it was the stonework of cell walls, a heavy iron door, padlocked from the outside, and a single flap at the base, meant for feeding time from the Wretched Hunt.
His meal came at dawn.
“Any space above you on that line?”
It was the voice, gentle, almost a whisper, that had made him pause in the crew’s quarters that day, long before the Wretched War, before the dank interior of a cell. He’d looked up from his flintlock—hands darkened with the soot of gunpowder as he worked to clean it through—and caught sight of a girl from Dagat, her hair dark, eyes darker, in the firelight of the oil lamps. Shifting on his hammock, he’d stood—a foot taller than her—and tapped the supports with one knuckle. “As long as you think they’ll hold you,” he’d said. “We can be bunkmates.”
She’d grown quiet then, unrolling her hammock and slinging it on the supports above his own bed with quick motions. Her shirt was cornflower blue and clean, cleaner than he’d expected from someone collected in the Brinelands. And there was something in her mannerisms that drew him in, the quick, repetitive motions of her hands as she tied the knots to her hammock. These were the hands of a girl used to labor. The hands of a girl who had fought for a position in the fleet, and won.
“New hire?” he’d asked.
She’d nodded once. “My sister and I were collected just yesterday in the Brinelands. Tell me, does the captain always snort when he laughs?”
Edward had wanted to recline back on the supports, to laugh and make a joke of it, but couldn’t. It wasn’t in him. “I’ve never heard him laugh,” he’d said. “Must favor you over me if you’ve heard him joke.”
“Maybe you just haven’t paid attention,” she’d replied as she finished tying off the hammock. She’d turned to him then, almost stern. “Are you a Healing Artificer?”
He’d nodded once, mirroring her previous action.
Smiling, the girl had crossed her arms. “Any good with a blade?”
Again, he’d nodded.
“And upright as a board,” she’d commented. “We’ll get along nicely.”
As they lapsed into silence, Edward had eagerly filled it, not wanting to lose the one semblance of warmth he’d found in the strange Healing fleet. “Your vial?” he’d asked with a gesture to the necklace around her neck. It didn’t look like a healing vial.
“Totem,” she’d corrected. “From Dagat.” Her fingers toyed with it, flashing the jade green symbol—circular, like the sun—at him. “My vial is with my things.”
“You don’t wear it?” he’d asked.
Clutching the totem in one hand, she’d said, “my father gave me this totem. It’s important to our family, and to me. Sometimes, family is more important than magic.”
“What’s it mean?” he’d asked, wishing he could sound half as articulate as she did. His voice came out wrong, with that Sceros accent that gave away his upbringing on the isles of the sea.
She’d smiled then, her face like the cresting horizon. “Home.”
The bedroll beneath him was itchy with the scurrying of insects. He tried to ignore it. To ignore the way his head throbbed each time his eyes darted back to the door, the way his wounds bled through their stitching, how his body was a broken vessel, burned and bruised and smashed like the bow of his ship. He hated the Wretched Hunters who came to spoon feed him like a child, as if he’d never been a captain for the Raider’s Oath. As if he were a mutilated thing, un-done by the reaping blade of the Red Terror, so disfigured that the very men who would have him killed were nursing him back to life.
I'm not like them, but I can pretend.
He’d tucked his Artificer vial beneath his bedroll the moment they’d dragged him inside, promising better arrangements after they could vouch that he was not some spoil of the Wretched War. But the scar, they’d seen the scar, known about the Artificer’s mark. And yet they stayed silent.
Was it possible the Hunters knew of his gifts, and chose to keep them hidden as they helped him? He would never be sure. Perhaps his scar had faded, the sacred mark bestowed upon the child of the Four Pillars at birth. Perhaps they thought it was a remnant of a distant battle, one he would have to tell them about when he could move without crumbling under his own fatigue.
“I’m not like them, but I can pretend.”
That was Althea talking, her back to the mast as she looked up at him. Her totem was clutched between her fingers again. “I don’t want a ship,” she’d reiterated.
“But this is our chance,” he’d lamented. “Our chance at captaincy.”
“Your chance, Ed,” she’d said. “I want to sail beneath you. Make me your first mate, your gunsman, anything.”
He’d plucked a stray bit of twine from her hair. “If you wish it,” he’d replied. “Perhaps you could sail alongside me as captain. Two heads of the same vessel.”
“Won’t that marry us?” she’d asked.
“I thought we already were,” he’d said, holding out his own Artificer vial. “Were they not forged in the same fire?”
She’d twisted her mouth in a smile. “Suppose that means we must prepare for children. It’s what they do in Dagat.”
He’d laughed, his voice hoarse. “And who would ever want to raise their children on the sea?”
“You might, one day.”
He held her totem now, his eyes to the ceiling, blood blooming red like poppies in the spring across his torso. The jade caught the passing torchlight, briefly flooding a brilliant green, before the light vanished and the cell was dark once more.
Clutching the stonework, he felt the gentle grooves of it. How thin the carving was, the arms and sloped circles that created the brilliant image of a setting sun. So fragile he could snap the outer carvings with one pump of his fist.
He could not remember a time before Althea. But there was a time after.
Days passed tedious in the dark. And Edward healed, slowly, painfully, until one day he could pull himself upright and feel his own body again, as if he were inhabiting the vessel. But it was a broken ship. It would always be a broken ship.
The Red Terror had felled more than his crew that day. She’d let Cervane run free, dispatched Althea with a single swipe of her sword. He hadn’t seen her die but he’d felt it, watched as the Dragon Fleet sank in an inferno of ash and red, red fire.
He’d promised to return to the Red Terror, to kill her in vengeance. It would be the only promise he would ever keep.
On the day that Klaus Irving came to collect the battered Raider from his cells and set him free, Edward was ready. His hair was long and knotted. His beard black like the soot of gunpowder. Grief, like a coat across his shoulders.
And the totem, with all its delicate intricacies, clutched in his palm, which he gave a small, unforgiving squeeze as his cell opened, shattering it.
When Klaus reached out his hand, Edward offered him his bloodied palm. In it was a promise. The promise of revenge. The promise of freedom, that he would never again sail for a guild that cared little for those beneath it.
After all, the healer has the bloodiest hands.