The wicked heroine, p.55
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.55

           Jasmine Giacomo
 

  ~~~

  The next morning, Harbinger pulled alongside the brigantine Destiny’s Logbook, and the day began with trading swag, crew members, and meals. Marela saw that Rhona spent much of her time accepting congratulatory gifts to replace the jewelry she’d lost on her quest, yet she didn’t wear nearly half of what she got from the crew of the Logbook.

  A suspicion began to grow in Marela’s mind; yet, ever patient, she waited for her prey to come to her.

  And come she did, yet subtly so. Behaving childishly and carelessly, Rhona shunned the responsibilities of the adults and played small tricks as she had before her quest. Marela eventually had enough and confronted her on deck.

  “Rhona, did you slip from the rigging and crack your skull? Quit messing about and get to work!”

  “Prime, does a child do a woman’s work?” the girl countered.

  Marela smelled a rat. “If she lives that long. Speak your mind, wench.”

  Rhona explained how the dirtwalkers she and Ruel had found upon landing ashore had planned to travel across the sea to the far-off land of Shanal, yet in a moment of weakness, the boy in charge of the expedition had told them to leave, lest they get hurt by the masses of dusty people around them.

  The eavesdropping crew laughed at the dirtwalkers’ expense; no Clansmen ever feared the mudbound.

  “You think your quest remains incomplete, then,” Marela summed, crossing her arms as the wind bit at her back, splaying her thick braids across her shoulders. “That you’re still that smidge of a girl who used to be afraid to brush the Ladies’ locks.” She nodded to the skulls clunking together aloft her masts.

  Rhona frowned. “Half grown, perhaps,” she allowed.

  Marela pursed her lips, the lean planes of her face tanned and weathered. Meeting her daughter’s eyes for a very long moment, she jerked her chin and said, “My cabin.”

  Rhona followed her across the deck and through the double doors. Within the spacious cabin, Marela stalked to the silverwood counter that ran beneath the windows across the stern. She turned and leaned her hips against it, bracing her palms on its lip.

  “So this is how you plan to do it? Force me to choose between sending you away, or accepting that you passed the quest over your own objections? Clever, Rhona.”

  Rhona blinked. “I’m not—”

  “Either way I choose, it looks weak. Either I’m desperate to keep you around, a weak leader who needs a strong heir, or I’m paranoid, intimidated by you, and must force you away from me.” Marela clenched her jaw for a moment, and then nodded to her daughter. “You’ve learned well.”

  Rhona was silent so long, Marela realized she might be giving the girl a bit too much credit. But that was fine; it was never what was said that mattered, but what was done. Knowing the difference was the mark of a true leader.

  “I’d prefer you send me to finish the quest,” Rhona finally said, her voice casual.

  “I’m sure you would,” Marela said. “It would give you time to gather whomever you like and bring them and their crews to the challenge.”

  “I wouldn’t bring others to my fight!” Rhona said.

  Her mother shrugged a shoulder. “It’s been done before,” she said. “Tell me, if you really wish to finish your quest, where’s the shiny?” she asked, rubbing two fingers against her thumb as if polishing a coin.

  Rhona smirked, easing a buttock onto the edge of the Prime’s table and relaxing. “Where’s the shiny? It’s in Shanal, of course!” She pointed off to the northwest. “Who travels halfway across the world and doesn’t expect to be made richer than a king for it? I only had a week, so I didn’t learn much, but they had over a hundred wagons with them. And,” she grinned, still meeting her mother’s eyes, “they’re traveling in a Sea God.”

  Despite her cynicism, Marela’s eyes widened. “You’ll not catch them,” she warned. “Sea Gods, for all their size, are equal to any Clan vessel for speed, and they carry a fleet’s worth of cannon.”

  “They’ll stop along the way. They left Yaren Fel in a bit of a hurry.”

  “And if you miss them entirely?” Marela raised her eyebrows.

  A troubled look crossed Rhona’s face. “Then I’ll have done all I could,” she answered, her voice husky.

  Marela ran a finger along a short scar on her weathered cheek as she considered. “Very well; challenge whom you like in single combat,” she said, referring to the captains of her Clan ships. “You have until the end of Spring Trading. Those you defeat will accompany you. I do have a caravel just for you, for completing your Age Quest, though…” she gave her daughter a half-smile, “I’m not sure you should receive it, since you’re out to finish that selfsame quest.”

  “I don’t need it,” Rhona said quickly. Her mother grinned widely, exposing two gold teeth.

  “Of course you don’t. But a captain needs to learn how to properly provision a ship. Take her with you, Rhona.”

  “Him.”

  “Your ship is a him?” Marela asked, eyes scything through Rhona’s soul, baring it in that instant, exposing its secret.

  Rhona flushed, then let out a chuckle. “Of course. I have to get everyone to work for me, don’t I? Especially the men!”

  Rhona issued her first challenge three days later. Marela watched her carefully, second-guessing her decision to let her go, and what it would mean for them both if she demanded Rhona remain with the Clan. When Rhona won the challenge, and gained the allegiance of the captain of the Green Pearl, Marela came to a decision. She’d let Rhona go after her prince, after all.

  It was the only way the stubborn wench would learn.

 

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