“‘If any one of you ladies stole my gods-damn peppermints, I’m going to give your spellbooks to the gods-damn witch hunters!’ The tired voice of Tallulah Hemmings — the strangest young witch in all of everywhere, as her biased mentor put it — rang out across the deck of what looked to be an oddly shaped pirate ship, tumbling its way across the waves with an eccentric grace.”
“If any one of you ladies stole my gods-damn peppermints, I’m going to give your spellbooks to the gods-damn witch hunters!” The tired voice of Tallulah Hemmings — the strangest young witch in all of everywhere, as her biased mentor put it — rang out across the deck of what looked to be an oddly shaped pirate ship, tumbling its way across the waves with an eccentric grace.
Her cutlass swung through the air, a nightmare of ruin and sturdy metal, as a witch of tides sheathed her sword post-practice.
Waves crashed over the ship’s sun-bright hull as it cut its course through the sea, the daydream light washing across the invisible sizzle of magic that spread its warm, salt spray across the deck of the ship.
Tallulah leaned back against the rail, her form a plain sketch of pencil and ink, and awaited her crewmates. Around Tallulah, magic rippled, invisible to all but the few who understood the crackling feeling of harnessed something that swirled around this entire ship in waves almost as thick as the water that carried it.
Another ship neared, one Tallulah had been watching for the past couple of hours as it had approached to scope out the witches’ own craft. A black sail adorned with a carefully woven skull-and-crossbones snapped in the wind high above the arriving ship’s deck, which gleamed with seawater against the sun of the clear day. Tallulah cocked her head to the side, the golden beads strung into her dark braids catching in the breeze as it passed a hand through her hair.
Pirates. There would be trouble soon, then.
Finally, Tallulah thought. She’d been listening to the first mate’s off-key rendition of an old war ditty for the past four days and could use a little bit of battle.
In her hand, a daisy bloomed idly under the care of its furious bearer, its petals stretching out too quickly through the air. Tallulah grimaced down at it, her face contorting around unremarkable features made for lying, and tossed the daisy as far across the deck as she could manage. Her eyes, the lines around them smile-worn from her years adrift, turned toward the sound of heavy boots on the deck as the ship’s botanist appeared from below.
Duchess Duchess Walters, the ship’s widowed gardener, had been named by her unfortunately status-obsessed mother before going out and finding herself a Duke, which had landed her in this predicament. Now, the woman herself — twenty-three and a childless widow after the War of Four, a disaster that had ended several years ago after sweeping across many realms of the larger universe, the Estate — clomped onto the deck with an easy smile.
“Sorry,” she said, though she didn’t sound as if she meant it. “You know how Katie gets about sweets.”
Duchess leaned against the rail and took the packet of seeds Tallulah had been holding, pouring them into her palm and watching as the petals spread out against her fingers in a reaction to her murmured spell.
“If you could get some water up here, that would be much appreciated,” she said, though it sounded more like an order to the lower-ranked Tallulah. “Once the pirates come at us, all their cargo’s gonna be in the sea and getting that out of it won’t be worth the effort.”
“Right,” Tallulah replied, snapping out her hands over the rail and letting them rest high above the waves. Tallulah concentrated, let magic flow through the little mark that had been etched on her shoulder many years back, and watched as many, many, many gallons of water floated up, up, up, over her head as the salt washed out of them and the ebullient water turned clear as glass. The weight didn’t crush her, but Tallulah let air hiss between her teeth as she distributed the water into ten empty barrels near the hatch to the cabin.
“They’re headed over,” she said, and a wisp appeared at her side. Tallulah turned to watch Nerina, the ship’s guardian spirit. The girl had appeared as the manifestation of the Soleil, the witches’ ship, as such spirits sometimes did when a ship had a surplus of magical residue. Tallulah had eventually grown accustomed to the disconcerting feeling of being able to see the girl only out of the corner of her eye.
Nerina, a freckled spirit, had a face that was quiet, too old, and shimmering with all the unpredictable beauty of the ocean itself. Her hair — pure white, though she never looked older than fourteen years of age — tangled in the wind behind her as Tallulah turned to face the spirit (or at least turned to face her as much as it was possible to face something that wasn’t technically corporeal).
“Neri,” Tallulah greeted her. “They’re going to attack?”
“They only see three people on board,” Nerina replied, her voice stuck in the space between sound and feeling. “Of course they are.”
Nerina dropped out of reality for a second before reappearing, her form buzzing as quickly as a hummingbird’s wings. “A couple dozen. No magic — at least, none that can’t be solved with seawater.”
Duchess tossed a daisy overboard, and the trio watched as it plummeted into the grey-green waves, the white foam swirling around it as the pale flower disappeared beneath the surface.
“Let’s smoke some pirate bastards,” she declared, tucking the empty packet of daisy seeds away. “Up for a competition?”
“If I take the ship down, I get my peppermints back,” Tallulah announced. “If you win, I’ll take over kitchen duty for the next three nights.”
“Deal.” They shook on it, magic zinging from palm to palm to seal the terms, and the trio stood shoulder-to-shoulder as they watched the pirate ship rumble over the waves to meet them.
Tallulah let them get close enough to almost bump into the starboard side of the finely-polished witch ship. But she knew the captain would be angry when she awoke from her midday nap if even a scratch had appeared on the hull of the Soleil, so Tallulah held out a hand at shoulder height and let a wall of water strike up, smashing timbers before the pirates could slam into the boat.
Witches… the pirates should have paid closer attention, because even though the Sol’s witches didn’t advertise, there were warning signs. Perhaps the ghostlike girl who flickered on the deck, or the garden that inexplicably grew across the wooden planks, or maybe even the pointy hat Duchess had donned for the sake of propriety.
Tallulah had never put on a pointy hat, propriety be damned.
“Neri,” Duchess warned as the ship broke unsteadily through the wall of water.
The spirit shrugged and spun in a tight circle, her pale hair fanning out around her like a dancer’s gown as she turned and turned and turned, a barefoot ballerina on the polished wooden planks of the Sol’s deck. Around the pirate ship, a whirlpool opened up, swirling into existence as sailors clutched the rails and a hoarse captain shouted orders.
Finally, finally, he noticed the pointy hat.
Ah, uniforms. They got one into and out of situations, blending in and standing out. People saw the uniform, not the face.
For witches, that wasn’t always an advantage.
The pirate ship, huge and hulking compared to the smaller but flashier Sol, collapsed onto its side as Neri fluttered out of existence, her daily minor miracle spent and her energy as drained as she would let it be. A wave, giant and white-tipped, crashed across the deck, washing pirates overboard as Tallulah’s gaze settled upon the thing she most hated to see: prisoners.
“Duchess,” she warned, hand drifting toward her cutlass as the pirate ship began to sink beneath the waves, wood melting into the perpetual ebb and flow of the ocean’s power.
Her friend winced and closed her eyes, muttering one of her chants under her breath as something began to glow in the heart of the sinking ship. The mainmast of the pirate ship lit aflame, a bit of it already under water, hellfire burning across it regardless of the ocean waves that tried to douse the flames.
“Damn,” Duchess cursed.
“You owe me my gods-damn peppermints,” Tallulah replied, double-knotting the laces on her thick, leather boots and hopping nimbly onto the railing. “But since Neri’s technically the one who sank it…”
Her friend grinned and tapped four fingers to her forehead, a mockery of the military salute the witches’ employers used. “Go be a hero.”
Tallulah replied with a variety of increasingly colourful words about exactly what she thought of heroism, but the ocean wind whipped her voice from her mouth as she plummeted to the ocean and the hellfire that burned underneath the water. The sea neared her, hard as asphalt from such a height, and Tallulah let the marks across her body roar with the magic in her veins.
She dropped to a mast, though not the one that Duchess had accidently lit with eternally burning fire, and felt her boots slide across the slick wood. A struggling pirate, toothy and desperate, latched a hand missing a thumb around her ankle. A skull and crossed red roses — the mark of a witch hunter — burned on the back of his hand; many pirates had such people on board because one could never be too prepared when it came to avoiding witches.
“Please,” he said.
“I hate that word,” she replied.
She couldn’t tell whether the water on his face was the ocean or his tears, but he whispered, “Please.”
“You’re really not helping your case,” she replied and glanced over to a raft that huddled against the hull of the pirate ship. He’d live, even if he didn’t really deserve to.
So Tallulah shook her leg free from his grasp and jumped, higher than a human could have, as a mark on the side of her neck tingled and sent the breeze to carry her over to the prisoners tied to the rail. As she flew — though it couldn’t really be called flying by any means, even if that was the best term for it — Tallulah produced the cutlass from her belt, a sword she polished too much that she now swung back as the ocean slicked her face with its spray, and the prisoners began to dip beneath the surface.
They had been tied with the sturdy rope Tallulah knew firsthand was used by pirates, the group of bedraggled people uncomfortable and panicking as wave after wave of unforgiving ocean washed across their faces.
Tallulah landed on the rail above them, slicing her blade through the rope with minimal effort, and then waited for the prisoners to disband. Beneath her feet, the metal rail slipped against the soles of her boots and suddenly Tallulah felt herself falling down, down, down as her stomach dropped with her to the surf.
And then a wave pulled the prisoners up, up, up, buoying the men and women she had saved to the deck of the Sol as Duchess exerted control over the ocean and pulled the sodden group to the sun-warmed wood of the deck.
The witch floated after them, doused with seawater from the wave, and landed on the railing.
Tallulah coughed, her well of magic barely depleted, and leaned an arm on the mainmast of the Sol as the pirate ship disappeared beneath the waves, several overcrowded rafts floating across the sea aimlessly as their angry occupants cursed the Sol and its witches.
“Get them belowdecks,” Duchess declared, though the request hadn’t been addressed to the sopping Tallulah. Nerina appeared, worn as old cotton, and she smiled as she took a man by the elbow and pulled him away, followed by the dazed crowd of sea-soaked prisoners.
“Ugh,” Tallulah announced.
“You’re getting clumsy,” Duchess replied, her voice singsong but almost stern underneath.
Tallulah just glared. “I’m tired, not clumsy.” At her side, an orchid bloomed, pink and white spreading through the flower as the scent reached her nose and blocked out the ocean breeze with its heady sweetness.
“Perhaps, perhaps. You still have a weakness for prisoners, though. And you were practically merciless with that pirate.” Tallulah detected an ounce of pride in Duchess’s tone, the small lift of the chin and settling on one hip that hinted at her satisfaction at a job well done.
“I’ve got my own reasons for hating people who take prisoners,” Tallulah reminded her, voice lighter than her meaning was meant to be. “And is saving lives all that wrong?”
“We’re witches,” Duchess declared, her warm tone booming across the deck. “By the laws of nature, much of what we do is wrong. Those prisoners should have died today, along with the pirates, and our boat should have been at least badly wounded. But the prisoners lived and most of the pirates did, too, and we’re fine.”
“Tempting nature to kill us before we can even find the witch hunters,” Tallulah bit out through a light chuckle. “I’m liking this already.”
“You always loved beating the odds.”
The magic that swirled around the boat brightened a bit, shimmering into almost-existence like a ghost reluctant to be seen. From high above dropped a bird, some brand of loud ocean thing, but it shifted and landed on human legs as it hurtled to the deck. A woman, blonde and dark-eyed, stood from her crouch, leaning back against the rail next to Tallulah and Duchess. She had a face hardened by bitterness and time, but she smiled a greeting to her protégé, Tallulah, before leaning her head back to glare at the sun as if it had done something to personally offend her.
“Hey, Katie,” Tallulah greeted her. “What’s up?”
“Good job with the pirates,” her mentor replied. “Those Evergrove idiots couldn’t even do that, but you’ve got the control.”
“They’re not idiots,” Tallulah retorted, but her voice had weakened over the years she’d spent pushing her point with Katie. Evergrove Academy, a school that favoured the magically gifted, was loosely considered the ship’s employers and even more loosely considered their friends.
The school trained people with magic, most of whom were unlike this boat’s witches in everything except species. Those with magic had been split into two categories long ago: those with calibers and those without them.
Calibers, or special, specific abilities (like water manipulation, telekinesis, or controlling life itself), allowed people to make the magic a part of them — one that was like an extra limb — without training, without spells and with minimal effort to bring it out.
The disadvantage, of course, was that their magic concentrated so strongly on their calibers that all other magic they learned was weaker, therefore, Evergrove students trained their calibers instead of the whole other well of magic they could have been drawing from.
The witches of the Sol fit into the second category of magic users. Like the others, they had magic passed down to them by their ancestors, but they lacked the concentrated calibers others had and therefore required years of practice and training to even begin working with the magic in their blood. The greater variety of spells they could use, however, often felt as if it made up for that natural disadvantage.
Often, but not always.
Tallulah leaned her elbows on the rail again, her gaze hardening on the horizon, where a city had begun to bloom as quick as the daisies Duchess has been nursing for the past few minutes.
“Where to next? You never tell us, Katie.”
“I think it’s supposed to be a surprise,” Duchess replied for the silent, apathetic navigator Katie, seating herself precariously on the bow. “Rips in the sea make it more convenient, I guess, to switch between the realms. Thank gods we didn’t land in a desert realm or something again — it’s lucky the oceans tend to blur together. But I’m not sure where we are yet.”
The rips, small sections of space that had been warped to accommodate realm-to-realm travel, were most common out on the open sea, which was why Katie preferred sailing between the group’s various locations.
“I’m betting on Saltstone City,” Duchess said. “I know the captain wants to go home.”
“Evallia,” replied a conspicuously soft voice from the doorway. The sound of the highest heels that could be gotten away with among practical witches on a ship echoed across the wood, the pale blue hair of Jax, the ship’s medic emerging from the shadows of inside. “I’ll put five on it.”
“Five on Saltstone,” Duchess replied, twining the daisy’s stem between her fingers as it grew larger than she had intended, a mammoth of verdant green, swollen white, and yellow pollen.
“Five on Sora,” Tallulah interjected carelessly. “Have you ladies been noticing the slightly strange colour of the waves and the direction they’re flowing? Sora’s distinctive that way.”
Katie whapped her on the back, the frowning curve of her face proud as a lioness. “That’s it.”
“So they spotted witch hunters in Sora?”
“Our sources rarely lie,” Jax reminded her. “And I’d like to think that Katie knows what she’s doing, Tallie.”
“Don’t call her that,” Katie chastised. “It doesn’t sound witchy enough.”
“Would you prefer for me to call her Lulu?”
Katie snorted, trailing a hand across a vine that curled around the ship’s wheel and watching as tiny purple flowers budded and then bloomed along the stem, condensation beading across a chilly glass of water.
“She’s just jealous because she’s called Katie,” said Duchess, swatting Katie’s hand away from the vine. “I don’t think any number of occult charms or pointy hats would make her feel like a real witch.”
“We’re on what’s basically a pirate ship that we’ve turned into a floating garden, and we sail from realm to realm, keeping wars from breaking out,” Katie replied. “I don’t have to have a cool name.”
“We’re not pirates,” Jax said, her soft voice slightly sharper. Her eyes didn’t exactly rest on Tallulah as she said it, but they flicked close enough for her friend to know the words were meant to be a reassurance for Tallulah and a warning for Katie.
“Of course not,” Katie bit back, slinging her legs over the rail as she balanced high above the water. “We just take the loot from bad guys, right? Because selling flowers and petty tricks can’t sustain seven ladies and their…covert endeavours. So we’re heroes now?”
Tallulah winced and leaned back over the rail, far away enough from her companions to warrant worry that she’d fall overboard. A wind — her favourite element of all four, even though she was technically a sailor — buoyed her up, up, up, and away from the crew of the Sol.
“I’ll be back soon,” she announced, but the wind whipped away her words as it whisked her high above the mainmast and through the sea-stained winds.