I promised you I was finished with the sea. I’m sorry. Apparently, she was not finished with me.

When I first climbed aboard the Pirate Queen’s ship, I didn’t know why she wanted to sail to the bottom of the world.

I knew three things. First, that you were a guest in the High Court’s most crowded, disease-ridden prison, in my stead. A fine place for a criminal, especially a failed pirate captain, to be sure. You are neither. I was. Am again, since they dragged you in and “convinced me” to work for “our” pardon.

Which leads me to the second and third: that Issheth was offering unheard of sums to seasoned pirates who would hunt for myth’s treasures at the end of the world, and that if I wanted to see you again, I would make sure Issheth never made it back.

Please, do not think less of me for striking the bargain. If I had not broken my oath to you, I wouldn’t be writing to you of miracles.

One month in, I woke up to Captain Issheth howling with sorrow. At first, I thought it was the wind shrieking through the sails. It did that sometimes, and this far south, the wind had the same keening wail as a grieving woman.

(Of course, she isn’t truly our queen. We have no queen. But if we did.)

I rolled out of my bunk and padded barefoot onto the deck. I gripped the wood with my toes. The night was cold and darker than it had any right to be. Behind us, stars stretched as far as I could see, but in front, the sky was thick and blacker than my own locked hair.

Someone else made the call before I did.

“Storm!”

We scurried like rats, the lot of us. Useful rats, with an eye to our purpose and the skill for it too, but we were no match for the roiling mess of clouds speeding toward us.

The man next to me smiled wide and wild. He kept the cannons in place with brute strength while I tied the knots. His name was Dolimé. He was a dark man, with locked hair longer than mine, pulled back with hemp. A gold tooth gleamed. “Aye, and they only get worse after this. The goddess welcomes you into her world with a storm.”

And then Issheth was there, giving orders as if she hadn’t been weeping moments ago.

“Oil bags out!” she barked.

“Done, captain.”

“Sea anchor!”

“Aye!”

“And get your damned boots on! Not a one of you gets frostbite or I’ll throw you whole entire to the goddess!”

I flexed my cold feet.

“Who’s pumping?”

Issheth’s quartermaster met her on the deck. “I sent Two-Men, Nrigo, and the twins.”

She looked at him once, then back at the edge of the rolling clouds. “We’ll need more.”

A storm like that would have us full of water in no time.

A storm like that would give me a chance to make good on my orders from the High Court. I couldn’t take her in an open fight, and I’m not a slight woman. I’d seen her practice with some of the crew. The fact that she practiced at all put her at an advantage. I’ve taken up the practice since—it’s a long trip to the bottom of the world—but she outclassed me like your perfume outclasses the stench of twenty filthy men. And a dagger in her back would be impossible to explain to a crew that adored her.

Issheth didn’t get to be the bane of the Court’s sea trade by incompetence. She stood as though a throne waited behind her. Her eyes were hollow, though, and her cheeks sunken. When I hired on, I thought she was just old. It’s a rough business, after all. Her braids were gray-black from the roots Like a wave, cresting at the top of her head.

Then the storm hit. She moved like water across the deck, comfortable with the pitching as she steered us, cutting above the waves. I had never seen anything like her.

I had never seen anything like this storm, either. The waves rose high above the deck of the ship. We rotated the pumpers over and over again. When the ocean battered us back and forth, Issheth held fast to the helm, muscles straining. Sometime in the middle of it, hail salted our hats, our faces, the deck.

The water sloshing in the bilges was so cold that we worked in short shifts to keep from losing our toes. Then, we understood why at the last port stop Issheth had ordered everyone to spend wages on good boots.

We found calm water at dawn. Calmer, rather. The wind hadn’t stopped, and thick clouds still blotted out most of the stars, but the waves and the snow had ceased.

Like old nags, our steps stuttered before we collapsed to the deck or against the rails or rigging. Issheth clung to the helm; crystals of ice clung to her eyelashes. We watched her, waiting for her assessment.

She smiled. The ship had come out clean. We gave a ragged cheer, even I, whose true task remained unfinished. Captain Issheth was still alive.

While the freshest men and women got the ship aright, the rest of us huddled in our bunks below decks, clutching blankets and beer, safe from the wind.

To my surprise, Issheth followed us and stopped beside my hammock. Her strength steadied my hammock against the rocking of the ship.

“Tell me, all, that this isn’t a sign from the goddess herself!” She raised her flagon in a toast. “She’ll give us a warm welcome.”

“If this is warm, I’d hate her to get frosty with us,” I said. My hand shook around my beer, sloshing it into foam.

The crew laughed, and Issheth raised her cup to me and grinned. An uncomfortable itch grew between my shoulder blades. The storm had been my best chance for a gust to flick her off the ship or a poorly tied cannon to crush her, or even for a desperate ex-pirate to knife her quickly, quietly, before she fell overboard. I told myself it was because I was in the bilges; I would do better next time.

After seeing her maneuver us through the storm, I wondered if killing her this far south was a threat to survival. She was a master. No wonder the empire had to resort to dregs like me to end her. No captain could match her on open water.

Issheth cracked her neck and shook her shoulders out, as if she were bracing for a fight. “Dolimé, let’s have a song. A good one, mind—none of that mournful shit you like so much.”

I stifled a chuckle. As a type, we seafarers sing some awful songs, so I thought it was a joke. No one else laughed.

Dolimé began to sing, his voice low. The cheer felt forced.

“In Haversham there was a maid, mark well what I do say...”

The shanty proceeded in its usual bawdy course, but instead of singing along with the chorus, I watched Captain Issheth. She mouthed the words, chorus and verse, but her eyes were distant. When the crew belted out the last line, she smiled, clapped Dolimé on the shoulder.

“This is the last easy night you’ll have, my loves,” Issheth said. “Half of you get to enjoy it.” Then she left for her cabin, and the rest of the night was lost in raucousness.

Her attitude that night was only strange as I think back on it. I didn’t truly take note until I was pulling halyards with Dolimé the next day. He hummed a tune I recognized, so I joined in. My voice hadn’t been the finest on my old ship, but it was clear and hit true, at least to my own ears.

“My love she came, dressed all in white, heave, haul, away. I dreamt my love came in my slee—”

Dolimé shook his head sharply at me, just as I heard Issheth’s boots clomp behind us.

“If you’ve breath to spare, Laema, I’ve work to fill it.” She glared at me as she passed, and the shanty died in my throat.

“She’s got to know it makes the work easier,” I grumbled when she’d gone. “And I know my voice isn’t that bad. Is her taste so high?”

Dolimé raised his eyebrows. After a moment, he nodded his head side to side. “S’pose yes, in a manner of speaking. Her wife was our shanty woman.”

I paused, mid-pull. “Was.”

“Aye. Taken by the goddess. Drowned in a storm, saving one of the younger lads. Then the bastard died trying to save her back, so it was all wasted, the lot of it. Captain was at the wheel.” Dolimé looked sideways at Issheth, who stared south. “Hasn’t been much for singing since. Yesterday’s was the first song in an age.”

I nodded. A dangerous rope of kinship wrapped around my ankle, but I swore I wouldn’t let our shared pain tangle me.

A while later, I asked, “Does she really believe there’s a goddess who shelters those lost at sea?” I always thought it a pretty idea, something to keep you from freezing with fear in a storm, but it melted under reason and daylight.

Dolimé shrugged. “She’s going to ask the goddess to give her back.”

That was a surprise. “When did she die?”

“About a month before we started this journey. Sounds mad, I know, but... agh. You should’ve seen her before.” He shook his head sadly. “She’s paying us, in any case. So maybe there’s no miracle and we’re rich, or maybe there is a miracle and we’re rich. Or... well. Wouldn’t question her, in any case.”

Or we’d be dead. In which case the money and the miracle wouldn’t matter.

But then, you would die alone because of me. So I couldn’t help but question it. The captain was a madwoman. A madwoman was going to sail us all the way to the end of the world.

I remembered her howling in pain before, then guiding the ship through churning ocean. Mad, but talented. Maybe even blessed.

I nodded again, and put my back to the rope. It didn’t change what I had to do. Every time I thought of her lost wife, I thought of you. I imagined my own cries, if I came back too late to save you. I told myself I would not become her.

For the next month, we sailed through wild seas, farther and farther from land. It felt like the world had gone as mad as Issheth and the ocean had turned devil, not the beautiful, if temperamental, creature I had fallen in love with. We had nights of blissful calm, only to be wracked by vicious storms all day—or the opposite. The further south we sailed, the longer the days became. One night lasted only a couple of hours. Frost coated everything—ropes, rails, coats, even beards for those of us that grew them.

Despite my exhaustion, the constant daylight made it hard to sleep. One bright midnight, I found myself bleary-eyed and half-frozen at the starboard rail. The wind made my eyes water, and the tears froze. I flicked the ice crusts off.

I heard Issheth’s heavy boots before she spoke.

“You don’t sleep well?” she asked. She clapped the back of a gloved hand across her mouth as she yawned. A low-born gesture, meant to keep a demon from snagging your spirit while you were too tired to fight back. For some reason, it surprised me. “Get some herbs.”

“I’m fine, Captain.” I saluted, tugging the front of my furred cap.

“I know it’s hard.” Issheth looked down into the water. Massive growlers of ice crawled through the ocean around us like strange ships. I could imagine what she was looking for down there.

“Pardon?”

She met my eyes full on. She had beautiful eyes, dark brown, fine wrinkles fanning from their corners, but they were bloodshot and shadowed. In all my time as a lesser captain, I never imagined that I would find the scourge of the seas beautiful. Terrifying, perhaps. Formidable. Overrated, even. But never beautiful.

(You saw her in the Court. You know what I mean.)

“Dolimé told me you lost your lover to the High Court’s cells. You hope to buy her out with your earnings?”

I cursed Dolimé in my head, then cursed myself for even telling him the half-lies I’d concocted about you. My mouth tightened. I couldn’t think of anything more clever than silence.

It was clever enough.

“I’m sorry to hear it, Laema. How much did they ask?”

My heart and head tumbled over themselves. My mind was certain she had found me out. It heard trickery in her voice, an attempt to draw out my own treachery.

She shook her head and turned back to the water. The sun sparked on it like silver coins. She picked at a thread on her coat. “Whatever they told you, they’ll ask you for more when you go back. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you have enough.”

A muscle in her jaw worked as she clenched it against memory. My heart ached with her. Had we just been two lonely sailors grieving, we might have clutched at each other in mutual understanding.

She put a hand on my back, comforting. The knife I kept up my sleeve called to me. So did the one on my belt, and the one in my furred boots. Her arm was warm there, and my heart won out, against all my mind’s protests. I let myself believe her. She was wrong about the reason, but my pain was real. I missed you so.

My hand strayed to my hip. I locked my thumb around the knife hilt. I envisioned the motion—unsheathe, plunge. A hard thing, with the thick gloves, but I’d had plenty of practice in the frigid weeks past. Just a matter of leverage to push the steel through the layers of fur and cloth.

The potential slumped out of my body, and I let my arms go slack. There would be another chance. And the longer we spent in the demon south, the more I wasn’t sure any of us would return without Issheth at the helm.

She let her hand fall, too.

I cleared the itch in my throat. “Dolimé says she had a lovely voice. What was her favorite song?”

She smirked sideways at me. “You know it. The Maid in White.”

I blushed. “I’m sorry—”

“No, I am. It’s hard when I see her in every plank, when I hear her in every snap of the sails. I’ve thought of giving it all up after this.”

“No!” My vehemence startled us both. “I— But—you’re a hero. To us. Or at least, a rival. Without you...” I slowly realized what I was saying as the words came. “Every pirate in the world would grieve.” I would grieve.

“It’s hard to be a legend, Laema. Especially when you feel so very humanly breakable.”

She leaned on the rail, arms and back straight as her head and shoulders sagged. I don’t think she would have noticed the knife if I’d pulled it, but I didn’t. I put my empty hand on her back, instead.

One day—or night—I woke from a drugged sleep to the ringing of the ship bell, and I staggered to the deck.

We’d come to land.

Months after we’d started the journey, I could finally see a mass of white, like the chunks of ice we’d been dodging, but it stretched into the distance to our starboard side. To port, the ocean stretched, placid and infinite. Its beauty caught my breath. Perhaps, even in daylight, you cannot do away with the goddess so easily.

I made my way to Issheth, my boots crunching on the deck frost. Her eyes shone wet in the sunlight. Maybe it was the glare. Maybe it was not.

She grabbed my bicep, held me at her side. “We made it,” she whispered. Not because she spoke for my ears alone, but because the moment was choking her. I could tell. We’d grown closer—succumbing to that loneliness after all. I don’t say this to spark jealousy; only to help you understand my hesitation, my unsteady grip on the knife. And yet, I told myself that my own ruse was stronger this way. That her trust in me would offer further opportunities to—finish what I came to do. It was something of a lie—at least, I had never planned to kill her in her bed. I had been waiting more for something like this.

They were preparing a boat for her. Dolimé looked askance at the little dinghy and the massive sheaf of ice masquerading as land. He eyed the smaller pillars of ice, floating obstacles in Issheth’s path to... the goddess’s home. Even I swallowed against dryness in my throat.

“You aren’t going it alone, captain?” he asked.

Issheth eyed her crew in return. “Am I?” She looked like it didn’t matter if we all tramped along behind her or if we drowned ourselves in our own frozen blood right then. She was a woman near her heart’s desire. A half-gray braid whipped across her face in the wind. While the others fell silent, I said the words I’d been planning for weeks.

“I’ll come with you.”

I, too, was a woman near my heart’s desire. Or at least, near enough.

I steeled my stomach against the gratitude in her eyes.

The rest of the crew, released from the choice and the shame of refusal, could function again. Supplies were loaded, the boat lowered, and orders given.

“The ice moves, captain,” Issheth’s first mate said. “If you don’t come back in the hour, maybe two, it may not open wide enough for the ship in... weeks.”

The way he hesitated told me that “weeks” was his most optimistic estimate.

“Then we have perfect timing. The goddess smiles on us.”

And if I don’t come back, I’m with her, goddess willing. I knew Issheth well enough now to finish her thought in my own mind. And yet, even knowing how she felt about her own death, my stomach had its first doubts, and I almost lost my last meal over the side of the dinghy.

A chorus of shouts came from the ship, and all the sailors turned after. Issheth and I craned around, too—and saw a pod of ice leviathans, crystal blue and spouting.

“A sign.” Issheth grinned. We heaved to, with the shouts of the crew speeding us forward.

I don’t know how long we walked before she found us.

I stopped counting my steps across the ice after three hundred. I couldn’t distract myself from the thought of that gap closing between me and the ship. Between me and you. Issheth, always steps ahead of me, tireless, trying in vain to close her own gap. Frenzied. I kept my eyes on her back. At my belt I had the long knife I used for cutting ballast.

“Issheth! Wait!” I picked up my pace, as much as the uncertain path would let me. My eyes honed in on the soft opening under her right arm. I kept my hand on the knife.

Issheth didn’t slow, but several minutes later, she stopped.

“Look.” She pointed just ahead. A ridge of snow that might have a rocky outcropping beneath. I looked for any of the strange animals we’d seen on our march, anything that might be striking in her the awe so plain on her face, in her voice.

“I don’t see anything, Sheth.”

As I pulled my knife, I thought I might actually be doing the madwoman a favor. But as I yanked my arm back for the blow, the sound of waves crashed on my eardrums. I buckled to my knees. It sounded like—my head pounded like—I had been smashed into a ship’s hull by a hundred tons of ocean.

As quickly as it came, the pain vanished. In its place, just ahead of Issheth, stood a woman in hues of the ocean—skin the sleek brown of a seal, eyes the turquoise of the warmest beaches, and dreadlocked hair the white of ocean foam.

Issheth stumbled toward the woman, one gloved hand outstretched.

I pushed back onto my feet, clumsy in my furs and boots. I picked up my knife. “Issheth?” I called. “Wait!”

“You both would do much for one you love.” The goddess’s voice was gentler than her entrance; the whisper-scuff of boots on ice.

Are you the goddess of love, too? I thought, bitter with cold and her mysterious air. Part of me thought I was imagining her, that I’d spent so much time listening to Issheth that I’d fallen prey to her delusions. The other part of me knew she was real, and that she would reveal my treacherous heart and smite me where I stood before her.

“Is it so hard to believe that I could be master of that, too?” She answered my unspoken question with slitted eyes. “When you all love so fiercely, for knowing—even when you do not admit it—that it all must end?”

Issheth dropped to her knees on the snowy ice, sobbing.

I stepped toward her, then stopped. This was not my pain. It wasn’t my place to step into Issheth’s hope and grief, to get between her and her wife.

I knelt beside her anyway and wrapped a thick, clumsy arm around her.

“Please,” I said. “She wants to speak to her wife one last time.”

Issheth’s tears froze. The goddess stepped closer and pricked one of the droplets off her face.

“Salt water. Ever my domain.”

She leaned over to whisper in Issheth’s ear, and the captain straightened. I rose and stepped back. My knees were stiff, and the air grew colder by the second. The ship’s passage out of this frozen wasteland narrowed each moment we lingered. We had to get back.

But Issheth’s face was full of light and peace. She murmured back to the goddess, tears falling anew, but this time she was smiling. Somehow, I knew it wasn’t the goddess she was speaking to. Tears crusted on my own face. If the goddess could let Issheth speak to her wife again, what could she do for me, if only I asked?

I scrubbed my tears away and looked back towards the ship to give them privacy. With such long days, it was hard to tell how much time had passed, especially in the presence of the goddess—was she manipulating time, too? For time was of death, the present moment dying for the sake of the future, every second bringing us closer to our own endless night in a quiet bed or a briny grave—but we needed to go.

Come, Issheth. I couldn’t bring myself to say it aloud. Instead, I argued with myself.

Let her have her last wish.

And if it costs you your life? Your own love’s life?

It won’t.

Abruptly we were alone. Issheth sagged to the ground, and I rushed to drag her up. A dazed smile played on her lips. A woman in rapture. I thought of you, back home, and how it felt to see you every time I returned after a long haul. I imagined you now, crusting over with prison scabs as you wait for me, like a ship’s keel barnacled.

I dropped Issheth and ran.

The cold air whipped against my face, ferocious. My wrapped legs trudged, heavy, as I fought the headwinds. Snow crunched behind me, but I made it to the rowboat first. She called out behind me, waved a hand. Even from a hundred paces I could see the grin on her face.

Row. No one would ever know.

Unless they were watching from the ship with a telescope. Likely.

I pushed off just as she sprinted up. She leapt, dove into the boat, and sent it wobbling. Icy water sloshed over the side, and I screamed from the shock of the water and fear of falling to a frozen death. She yelled too, boisterous and laughing. She clapped me on the back once, then pulled me into a tight hug.

They dragged us back onto the ship, too awestruck for words. I said nothing, either, but Issheth’s smile, this halo of joy and peace that followed her—that told them enough.

What did I get from the goddess? A screeching headache that pulsed with the waves, nothing more.

We turned north.

Issheth still sought me out, but she was no longer the same kind of lonely—not the same desperate I was. And I couldn’t face her, knowing that her presence meant I had failed at every opportunity to save you, my love. I even avoided Dolimé, who tried to ply me with the last dregs of alcohol on board.

I only told him, “I have a headache.” Which was true.

The headache throbbed for months as we sailed back north its intensity rising with the thrashing of waves against our hull. During the storms we fought through, I was almost blinded by pain. Issheth pitied me and let me pump below.

Tell me how I could see her tender look towards me, her concern, and think only, Is this my last chance?

Because I did think it.

The throbbing in my skull lessened the further north we went, spiking only during the storms. The night I died, my headache struck again, the echo of waves against the ship sounding between my ears. I covered them, my knees buckling. I barely caught myself against the rail. And Issheth, her fur coat open, helping me up. Her eyes asking, because she knew, she understood—what did she do to you?

The ship pitched. Bucked unnaturally. Issheth slammed against the railing and somehow, I heard her cry of pain over the batter of the wind.

If she were Dolimé, I would not have hesitated. When my hand shot out in reflex, I would not have checked the gesture. Would not have watched his face hover between surprise and fear and suspicion, like Issheth’s did. I would not have measured the twinned guilt upon my soul and reached out after all, a hair too late to yank her back and still keep my balance.

I would not have fallen in.

I traded her life for yours, that night, and even now I am ashamed for breaking my word.

I still could not kill her. I hit the water and went stiff with cold immediately, my blood ice.

I don’t want to tell you how it felt to die, but if I would tell you the story entire, you should hear it.

I would have frozen before I drowned, I think, so imagine a bucket of snow. Put your hand in it. Shock, at first, and shortly after, repulsion at the chill. Leave your hand in. The cold seeps. Layer by layer of skin, it creeps to the core of your bones. It leaves numb flesh behind, and finally even the bones begin to stiffen.

The cold took mere seconds to get to my heart, and in between the slowed beats, she appeared. White dreadlocks floated about her head. One touched me, like a curious sea serpent.

In the water, she had a powerful naked torso, but her lower body wasn’t static at all. I don’t know if it was my proximity to unconsciousness, but I’d swear it, yet—

Her lower body shifted from vertically finned tail, like a fish—a shark—to horizontal, like a scaled whale, to smooth furred seal, to webbed bird feet, to tentacles, over and over, all scaled to her size as she appeared before me.

I have the feeling she restrained herself for my sake.

Frost crept through my brain. Slowed my limbs. I let my eyes droop shut.

A fish or clump of seaweed brushed against my cheek. Or perhaps, the caress of a webbed hand.

Remember this when we meet next. You cannot have one part of me without the other.

Love without death? The ocean without grief?

Then clammy lips brushed mine.

With the kiss, the cold reversed; not quickly, no, but the death chill receded. She gripped me in strong, shadowy arms, and we sped to the surface as my thawing lungs spasmed for air. I crashed onto the deck of Issheth’s ship, vomiting sea water.

The cruelest of the waves ceased, though rain still lashed the deck. I struggled to my hands and knees and wiped back my sopping ropes of hair. Half the crew gaped at me in horror. Only Dolimé reached for me, and even that after hesitation. Then Issheth’s boots pounded over to me. She didn’t push him aside, not exactly, but she wedged herself between us, held my head between her hands, checked my eyes. Such heartbroken relief when she discovered I was all right. The fear that she would suffer twice what no one should have to. I hoped, for her sake, that I had not been gone long.

She kissed me there, in front of the whole crew. When our lips parted, she shivered and her breath misted with cold. Her eyes narrowed and she stepped back, though she held fast to my arms.

I was not all right, not quite.

My headache had gone, but within my chest, a shard of ice lay wedged between my lungs and heart.

“Issheth,” I said. “We need to talk.”

As I spoke, I felt the water at the corners of my lips crystalize.

It was—is—strange to be on land again. I cannot call it dry, because it seemed we brought a tempest with us, but the earth didn’t pitch beneath my feet, nor beneath Issheth’s beside me. Her chains rattled as I led her up the stone steps to the High Court. Somewhere beneath us, you waited. I hoped.

Above us, pigeons flew and shat and fought over scraps before ducking back under rafters. The people stared as they passed us, some of them even spat; you know the stories. There is a reason the Court struck so hard a bargain for her head.

“Are you ready?” I murmured, before we went inside. I kept my hand at her back to steady her. Her heart beat so quick under my fingers without the layers of fur between them. I never felt so cruel except when I left you behind to find her.

“I owe you a debt.”

I nodded. A chill coursed through my bones. She shivered, too.

A ship is small and usually crowded, and a sailor is stuck with their crew for weeks to months at a time—and yet I never felt so pinched, so panicked as I did when the Court doors slammed shut behind us.

And yet, there you were. Chained, like Issheth, sores weeping; your braids wild and undone, grown into knots. My knees shook, as if I wasn’t used to walking unmoving tiles. The hope in your eyes, though—and Issheth’s whisper, “Steady, Lae”—stiffened my back.

I led her forward by her chains until we stood before the judge who had offered me our bargain half a year before.

“I’ve brought the Pirate Queen Issheth. As agreed. In return for two full pardons.”

I had forgotten what he looked like, and even now, barely an hour later, I forget again. I remember his voice, though. The smugness, and how his condescension echoed through the wooden room. How other lords of the Court, men and women, laughed when I pushed Issheth forward and she stumbled, tripped, fell. I forced myself not to rush forward, not to apologize and help her up. I have not forgotten the heavy ache of iron against my own joints.

The chill in my breast spread, a strange numbness that also ached.

“Issheth, of the Sea Wife.” He spat the name of her ship. “You stand accused of piracy, murder, theft of government property. Years worth of each offense. How do you plead?”

She stood.

You have had to stand up in chains. You know how they try to drag you down, and standing straight isn’t worth the effort. Surely, you can imagine why it was that moment, as she stretched to her full height and shook her hair out of her face, that I knew I loved her, as surely as I love you.

The cold in my chest frosted my throat.

Issheth smiled at him. “Guilty.”

And then I let the ice building within me escape. The goddess’s breath curled in the air like a dense sea mist—then froze the heart of everyone in that room but you, Issheth, and me. The walls rimed with the frost like a winter morning. The lords’ eyeballs went glassy like icicles under a spring thaw, their limbs outstretched and immobile. I still cannot believe it, though the ice sits quietly in my chest once more. Waiting.

I unlocked your chains and held you for one bittersweet moment—you were so thin, and you winced at my touch.

I had hoped you would follow me and Issheth to the ship to collect our things, but I understand. You need time. I expected you might need convincing, so I leave you this letter. Don’t worry; the innkeeper is a friend of Issheth’s, and she will keep our secrets.

There is money enough here to buy you passage almost anywhere in the world

But... if you decide otherwise, find Dolimé at the inn. Look for the big man who smiles too much. He’ll have a horse for you. We’ll be in the woods east of the city; he’ll know how to find us. Word will spread, and they will make no more bargains for my life. But they will not expect the Pirate Queen to flee by land.

I hope that when you read this, you’ll understand why and how—for everything. I hope you will forgive me for making you wait.

Now, I wait for you—on solid ground.

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Cherae Clark graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. Her work has also appeared in FIYAH, PodCastle and Uncanny and she's currently a PodCastle co-editor. You can follow her on Twitter @c_l_clark.

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