Julia smashed her tankard of ale onto the table like the adorable, destructive kitten she was.
“And then —” she said, continuing her story in a voice pitched low for drama, leaning over the table with her hands splayed across stains and scars, “the sea itself held her breath.” She gasped, bringing her hands up to her throat, jostling the mismatched cords and tarnished chains layered there.
Quentin looked to Eliot with an amused smile, but he was totally hanging on every word. No one on Margo’s crew could carry a story like her Julia.
As she went on to describe how the Floaters had boarded their ship, nearly two years ago now when the crew of the Muntjac was much smaller and they’d actually had a snowball’s chance of succeeding, the rest of Margo’s inner circle joined them in her cabin one by one. She was pleased to see each of the bowls they carried were full to the brim, and no mold on the hunks of bread and cheese. The rations held well this season.
“And Prince Fomar fell with a cry! But the Queen was not so easily vanquished,” Julia was saying, as Penny sat down in between Eliot and Alice.
“This the Fall of the Floaters story again?” he asked in the pause. Julia shushed him. But he leaned around Eliot’s back anyway, and Margo could guess he was whispering to Quentin that she told this one to all the new recruits. Which was true. It was a good story.
“We were outnumbered,” Julia explained, eyes wide under her favored smoky golden powder. “I could see Lady Agate advancing on the deck of the Mountain, but the Floaters were pushing us back onto the Muntjac, and there was nothing we could do.”
Her call rang out like a shot over the tumult of battle. Margo took an instant she didn’t have to spare, sparing it regardless to look for her second in command. She did not plan on losing her life today, but if she did, it would be after seeing the face of her beloved one more time. She returned the call —
— and searched for her tangled braid of hair, her vivid green corset she favored for battle, her cherished sword with Margo’s colors flying proud on the hilt. Julia was standing up on the Muntjac’s central bench, sweeping blood from grey-clad bodies with sharp downward strikes.
“I jumped to the very top of the bench, holding onto the sail with my free hand and kicking out at anyone who got too close,” Julia narrated, jumping suddenly with both feet to land with a reverberating thud on the edge of Margo’s table.
Quentin startled, coughing as he choked on a bite of his stew. He was cute. Margo could see what had drawn Eliot to him, and luckily he had a remarkable sword arm in addition to that pretty mouth.
No one else was surprised by Julia’s performance, of course. Her fiery personality was a fixture on Margo’s ship, as explosive and cherished as one of the cannons. There were a few calls and whistles from around the table, Eliot clapping Quentin on the back, and Kady rescued Julia’s bowl and ale from their perilous position under her boots.
“I knew the only thing I could offer was my support and the swift death of any Floater who dared come within range,” Julia continued from a half-crouch above everyone’s heads. “When I caught the Captain’s gaze, I lifted my sword high, sending a salute that encompassed the scorching sun above, the vast depths of the sea below, and the wind that even then, even now, carries fate to our sails with every gust.”
She crouched on one knee, looking around at every crew member. When she turned her head to meet Margo’s smirking gaze over her shoulder, she winked. “But what I didn’t know…”
...was that her sword in the air caught the angle of the sun for one blinding second. If Margo had been in battle, the sight could have cost her her life — but the sea smiled on her that day, and instead, it gave her an idea.
She scrabbled backwards on the deck, aged wood slick with blood, blinking the spots from her vision. Agate was advancing slowly, toying with her weapon. She always had been a no-nonsense, stone-faced fighter, but now with her son fallen and Margo struggling to stand, it seemed some hidden vein of malice was coming to light.
A vicious grin lit her face as Margo’s shoulders rammed into solid wood. There was nowhere else to go, and still not enough room to stand.
By the favor of fortune, she didn’t need to.
“The Stone Queen was standing over her, shortsword poised to drive straight through her chest. The fighting on the Muntjac was still, every eye turned towards the struggle. I felt icy tendrils of dread starting to grip my heart. If her breath stopped, I would take up the mantle of captain — but I would feel her death as if it were my own. My blood hardly dared beat as I watched, and waited.”
Julia paused. Margo grinned. For all that it had been a terrifying moment to live, this was always Julia’s favorite part of the story to tell, which made it Margo’s favorite part to listen to.
The crew, Quentin aside, had heard it countless times, but they were enraptured. Even the others who had lived through that battle had stopped eating to focus on the performance.
“Margo lunged for her sword hilt, and held it up over her face in defense. The whole crew could hear Agate’s ruthless laugh — what good would it do her? Her position had no leverage, no room to maneuver. She could bat it aside in an instant. But me?” She lowered her boots and hopped her slight frame down from the table, leaning far over it to rest on her arms with a conspiratorial glint in her eye. “All of my worry suddenly dropped away.”
She was laughing at her. Good. Margo had never argued with being underestimated if it was going to win her a fight.
She kept tilting her blade, fractions at a time, willing the sun to follow her lead before Agate could strike her down.
She was three steps away, then two, then only one, when Margo’s blade finally caught the light. It angled up into the smug, triumphant face above, flashing with a vengeance into her cold eyes.
She cried out and staggered to the side, hands pressed to her face, and the instant of opening was all Margo needed.
She lunged up from where she was pressed against the wall, swinging in a wide, sure arc.
Blood dripped from her blade and the Stone Queen’s head rolled on the deck of the Mountain.
Pounding applause rattled Margo’s table as Julia gave a jaunty bow and took her seat. As Margo moved from her corner perch to sit next to her, Quentin leaned forward and asked, “Could you teach me some? I’ve been told I’m a decent storyteller, but I haven’t exactly had material like that to work with.”
“No,” Margo answered, before Julia could say otherwise. “On this ship we tell our own stories. What did you do before this again?”
He grimaced, looking more embarrassed than put out. “Repair work in a smithy.”
Well, that did explain the lack of material. “Don’t give it another worry. You’re on the Muntjac now, and soon enough you’ll have your own stories to tell.”
“Yeah, and maybe you can give us a break from the same old rubbish Julia tells,” Kady butted in, grinning wickedly into her ale. A cough a moment later suggested Julia had kicked her under the table.
“What else are you good at? Eliot tells us you’re like a siren with a blade,” Julia asked with a playful tilt, ignoring Kady’s spluttering.
At the mention of sirens, Alice perked up, leaning past Penny and Eliot to peer at Quentin. “What about singing? We haven’t had a good shanty leader in ages.”
“Oh, um. I can try? The tailor in my hometown used to sing all the time, I guess I have picked up a few tunes.”
Margo watched as her inner crew passed the conversation around like a near-spoiled fruit, everyone trying to get a bite in before the next while it remained sweet. It was good-natured, if relentless — Quentin was looking a little overwhelmed. But he’d acclimate. It looked like her crew was building him a place regardless of whether or not he was ready for it.
Kady was delighted to find she had another partner for cards, and Penny seemed pleased enough by the barbed responses to his ribbing. Julia would enjoy sparring with another skilled sword, and Eliot was soaking up the attention to Quentin like it was his own, so they had clearly hit it off already.
And Margo drank deeply from her tankard, tossing the empty container onto the table and slinging an arm around Julia’s waist. The Muntjac was welcoming a new member, she had her beloved at her side and friends with full bellies around her table. The sea was calm and the wind true, promising them another day to sail. She could ask for nothing more.