Air and Ash
Tides Book 1
Danger Bearing Press
Also by Alex Lidell
1. Chapter 1
2. Chapter 2
3. Chapter 3
4. Chapter 4
5. Chapter 5
6. Chapter 6
7. Chapter 7
8. Chapter 8
9. Chapter 9
10. Chapter 10
11. Chapter 11
12. Chapter 12
13. Chapter 13
14. Chapter 14
15. Chapter 15
16. Chapter 16
17. Chapter 17
18. Chapter 18
19. Chapter 19
20. Chapter 20
21. Chapter 21
22. Chapter 22
23. Chapter 23
24. Chapter 24
25. Chapter 25
27. Chapter 27
28. Chapter 28
29. Chapter 29
30. Chapter 30
31. Chapter 31
32. Chapter 32
33. Chapter 33
34. Chapter 34
About the Author
Also by Alex Lidell
AIR AND ASH
Copyright © 2017 by Alex Lidell.
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Edition: May 2017
Also by Alex Lidell
FIRST COMMAND (Prequel Novella)
AIR AND ASH (TIDES Book I)
WAR AND WIND (TIDES Book II)
THE CADET OF TILDOR
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I fall to my knees as His Ashing Majesty’s Ship Faithful’s mainmast breaks in two and crashes to the deck. The fallen sails drag through the waves, and smoke from the great guns fills the air with a blinding fog. I cough and wave the thick metallic air away from my face.
Captain Fey gives me a tight smile. Of average height and a solid, slightly pudgy build, the captain stands tall on the quarterdeck, his hands on his hips. His dark, intelligent eyes, speckled with a bit of silver like his hair, take in the carnage around us with preternatural calm. “I believe we have one last broadside for the Tirik Republic in us. Don’t you agree, Ms. Greysik?”
One last broadside. The words hit me in the gut as surely as enemy shot. In the nine years I’ve served under Fey, from the eight-year-old girl in a midshipman’s uniform who’d walked wide-eyed onto his deck to the lieutenant I am today, I’ve never heard him utter such a thing. An admission of the coming end.
“Ms. Greysik.” The stern note in the captain’s voice jerks me free of my thoughts. The officers, those of us trained from childhood to command, must always keep a straight back and high head. I cling to Captain Fey’s confidence like a lifeline and climb to my feet. Ashing, my kingdom, is a land of seamen. Of fighters.
“Reload and run out your guns!” I call to my starboard battery. Crews fall to their tasks with a will, from middle-aged, experienced seamen to small powder monkey girls scampering over the dead to carry gunpowder. On the far side of the deck, twelve-year-old midshipman Jax echoes my commands to the outlying crews. The curious synergy between the officers trained to know which orders to give and the common seamen trained to execute those tasks is a naval machine of greatest power. One that roars throughout each inch of the Faithful’s deck. If I must die, I would be honored to lie beside the Faithful’s crew.
But we can’t die. The Faithful carries a code book stolen from our enemy, the People’s Republic of Tirik. A code book that will turn the course of this decade-long war.
My gun captains raise their fists into the air, signaling that their great beasts are aimed and ready.
I watch the sea, waiting for the ship to roll up with a wave. Midshipman Jax, one of the young officers in training, watches me intently.
“Fire!” I call as we crest a wave. Jax echoes my order, and the satisfying report of two dozen guns booms over the sea.
Then it’s the Republic’s turn and their ship carries twice the weight of our broadside. The barrels of fifty guns spark with flame, and deadly shot explodes from their iron throats. Half the heavy balls land harmlessly in the sea, spraying great salt fountains around the Faithful’s hull. Another handful hit the rigging, leaving round holes in battered sails. The shot that finds hull and flesh is the deadly one.
Three sailors beside me fall at once, bleeding and motionless from a single iron ball flying over the deck. Had I been standing just one step farther right, I’d be dead too. More shot strikes the Faithful’s planks, and the ship bucks in agony, the deck dropping from beneath me. I hear the dull thud of my own head hitting a spar. The pain comes with the next heartbeat, but by now, I’m already grabbing a line and forcing myself to my feet. I want my people to see me standing.
As I do, another Tirik ball rushes just above Captain Fey’s shoulder, so close that he must feel the rush of air in the ball’s wake. He spares it but a calm, passing glance as he reaches a hand to help a fallen middie back to his feet. “Stand tall, Mr. Jax,” Fey tells the boy. “A ball either—”
I see it happen before I can scream. A stray shot strikes the mast behind Captain Fey’s shoulder. The wood explodes in a bouquet of splinters that rises into the air and rains down across the ship. Captain Fey sees it too, the deadly jagged spears heading his way. He meets my eyes, a small smile on his calm face, and nods just as a piece of his own ship nails him to the planks.
“Captain Fey!” I don’t remember moving to his body, but the sight of his lifeless eyes freezes the world around me. Wayward strands of red hair that escaped my braid obscure my vision. As the youngest child of the Ashing king, my place in the Ashing navy was always a certainty. But it was Captain Fey who taught me to love the sea, who showed me that what I do, even as a youngster, matters. With Captain Fey—
“Lieutenant Greysik!” Jax shakes my shoulder. The middie’s voice is steady despite his pallor and the sprays of blood that speckle his uniform. “The lifeboats are ready, ma’am.”
“Very good.” My mouth is dry. Tucking my hair back behind my ears, I glance over the rail and survey the lowered boats. All in order, trim and neat despite the carnage. Another young middie, a fourteen-year-old girl named Vast, is overseeing the final inspection and shouting orders, most of which I suspect originate from the quiet suggestions of the experienced sailor hovering beside her. As an officer, it’s her job to know what the sailors should do, theirs to know how to do it. But she is smart enough to listen to experience, and the seamen are smart enough to subtly shore up the girl’s authority lest the crew falls to chaos. Someone retrieves Vast’s fallen hat. This is no game. This is the discipline that earns the crew’s trust in its officers and keeps panic at bay. And it will keep us alive.
I force my voice to be calm and clear as I speak. “Very good. Inform Captain Fey we are ready to take the hands off, if you p
lease.” I realize what I said a moment too late and fight against choking breath. “My apologies, Mr. Jax. I meant the commander.”
Jax’s face falters. “I… He… The commander is dead too, ma’am. You’re the most senior now.”
Storms and hail. I focus on my breath. In and out. I am an officer of the Ashing navy. I’ve trained for this my whole life. I can do this. “The midshipmen?” We’d started the day with five officers in training.
“It is just me and Ms. Vast now,” says Jax.
My hand tightens on the rope, long fingers scraping coarse hemp. “Very well.” I make myself speak slowly, feigning the steel confidence of my late captain. “You and Ms. Vast will take charge of the lifeboats. Get every living soul out. The Destiny is close. She will pick up our boats within the hour, I am certain.” If the Tirik Republic lets Ashing lifeboats live that long. The Republic’s Committee for Patriotism has a habit of killing the families of “lax” Tirik officers, so we can expect few courtesies from their ships.
I scrub my sleeve across my forehead, wiping away sweat. I’m tall for a girl, but slender—nothing like the captain. Captain Fey’s words echo in my mind. “Keep the crew unified. Support your officers. Be worthy of their trust.” I raise my voice above the din of wind and crashing rigging. “The boats will shove off once every soul is accounted for, not a moment earlier. We are an Ashing ship. We are the best damn crew in all the kingdoms. We stay together, and we survive.”
Jax runs off, shouting orders to petty officers. I pray he will see adulthood and push him from my mind. The captain’s duty is mine now, and that means protecting the Tirik code book as well as the ship. The book lies below the deck, in the theoretical safety of what was once Fey’s cabin. Captain Fey had warned against us carrying the prize alone, but the king—my damned arrogant father—had insisted. Ashing is the smallest of the Lyron League’s six kingdoms, and the king wants us to prove ourselves to the League, show that our ships can do what others cannot.
And we held out longer than anyone could have.
But a seventy-two-gun frigate cannot survive against one with a hundred and ten.
Neither the Faithful nor my captain would now return, but the book has to. Its delivery to the Lyron League will save thousands of lives. Its destruction on an Ashing ship would submerge our kingdom in shame. The book must survive. I fix that thought in my mind as I fight my way across the slippery deck and dodge the raining debris. My sights are on the hatch leading below.
The Tirik Republic’s great guns quiet, but the muskets continue to fire at the crew. The Faithful’s hull protects the lifeboats, but my uniform and sword draw the sharpshooters’ attention. As if summoned by thought, a streak of raw agony sears across my left temple. I drop to a knee just as another musket ball streaks overhead. The deck rolls. My hand touches the wound and comes away bright red. My breath catches.
I crawl the rest of the way. Darkness stares at me from the hatch. The stench of copper filters through the opening. There is blood down there too. And the book. I swallow, steady my hand on the rail, and swing my legs down onto the ladder.
“You mustn’t go below, ma’am!” A sailor’s meaty arm blocks me. “The ship’s taking on water.”
I blink, calling up his name. Thomas. A gun captain. “I know.” My words slur. “I must retrieve our package. It will take but a moment.”
“I will get it.”
A good man. I shake my head. The odds of surviving the trip are one in two at best. I am the Faithful’s captain now. The duty to fulfill the mission or go down with the ship is mine. “Get to the boat, Thomas. If I do not join you within five minutes, tell the middies to cast off.” I shake off a spell of nausea and begin my descent. “That is an order.”
“I can’t do that, ma’am,” Thomas says quietly.
My gaze flickers up in time to see him kneel, reaching for me. His hands grip the back of my coat and jerk me off the ladder. My feet dangle above the darkness, the coat digging into my armpits. My heart races. “What are you doing?” I claw at his sleeves.
Thomas heaves, lifting me higher into the air.
My boot strikes something soft.
The sailor grunts and pulls me closer. His hand clamps over my face. “I’m sorry, Princess,” Thomas whispers into my ear. His breath is warm on my neck. “I have my orders too.”
The hand covering my face shifts, and a noxious smell fills my nose before darkness comes.
I rise onto my elbows, my head throbbing. I’m in a bed. The sheets are clean and smell of lavender. Paintings of naval glories fill the walls, the wide brush strokes of blue and green hues matching the drapery. And, just in front of me, my favorite portrait shows my twin brother reaching up to pet a mare’s dipped nose. He’s still a toddler in the painting, his gaze not yet vacant.
Home. I’m home in the Ashing palace, with its paintings and high ceiling and flowing drapes. There is even a bouquet of fresh-cut tulips on the wooden table. Everything that is not the sea.
A figure sitting beside the bed stirs. “Nile. Thank the winds.”
My mother’s voice. I turn to her slowly, my long limbs sluggish to obey. My mother’s eyes, the queen’s eyes, are puffy and red. Even still, my mother is beautiful, with lush red locks framing her face and graceful curves that have just started developing on me. She brushes my cheek with soft fingers, her warm touch at once loving and possessive. I try not to wince. Officers shouldn’t be coddled by their mothers. And they certainly should not enjoy the sensation if their mothers insist on doing it.
I sit up, blinking away the haze. I was on the Faithful, Captain Fey dead, smoke stinging my lungs. I needed to get the code book, but someone…Thomas…stopped me. “The code book.”
“You took a wound, then two weeks of fever. You are fortunate t’ave lived.” My mother’s accent has a songlike grace I love, even though it’s from the Felielle Kingdom, which likes to push us around. “All’s well now.”
All’s well by my mother’s standards means only that her children are safe.
I squeeze my fists. “We lost the book, didn’t we?” Her silence tells me all I need to know. Captain Fey, the sunk ship, the dead sailors. All for nothing. My head is heavy and I want to return to sleep, waking to a changed reality. I push away my blanket, forcing my spindly limbs through unaccustomed motions. My usually trimmed fingernails have grown while I slept and, oh waves and hail, my mother painted them with a soft pink glaze. I ball up my hand, hiding it in my sleeve. “I need to see Father. There was a sailor aboard, Thomas, who may be in another’s employ.”
“You need nothing of the sort.” Mother’s back straightens at once. “I wish to hear nothing more of this wretched endeavor. None of the other five kingdoms put their daughters on floating buckets and paddle them off to war!”
“Mother, not now. I beg you, not now.” My head pounds. In Felielle, daughters rejoice in raising families. In Ashing, all youngsters contribute to the kingdom’s survival. Every Ashing adolescent serves the throne for two years, and at least part of the “throners” duty is spent at arms. Our whole tiny kingdom is an army, which the royal children are raised to command. After over twenty years of marriage to the Ashing king, you’d think mother would understand.
But she refuses.
She was young when she met my father, a dashing commander passing through Felielle. So she got it into her head that she wished to fix him, to make him see the absurdity in Ashing’s notions. A handsome project. I think Felielle was more than happy to have Mother and her impossible project ideas shipped off to a different kingdom. As for Father… He wasn’t yet the crown prince—my uncle had still been alive and Ashing’s heir presumptive—and thus father had little political capital for refusal. My mother was the Felielle king’s distant cousin, and when Felielle asks something of Ashing, it is difficult to say no. We can’t survive without Felielle’s subsidy.
Unlike the Ashing peninsula, Felielle is landlocked. S
afe from the Tirik Republic warships. And, being central on the Lyron continent, they prosper from trade like no other nation. With large incomes and little resources demanded for naval protection, the Felielle excel at the arts and knowledge. And they know what their gold can buy.
And so do we. I swallow the bitterness.
Mother sighs. Her eyes are tearing again, which is embarrassing.
I love my mother. She is the only person left who loves me to my soul, who touches me, who paints my damn nails while I sleep because she wants to be close. I love her, but I pity her too. And I fear ever becoming what she is. Weak. Emotional. Irrelevant to Ashing. I need to get out of the sickroom, discover what happened, and get back on a ship. I swing my legs to the floor.
“Thomas is dead.” My mother puts a hand out to stop me. Even now, each of her motions is graceful and light. “Jumped from the ship and drowned. There is no threat. And you shall mention it no further.”
I stare at her. Mother seldom recalls names of ships’ captains. That she should speak of a common sailor with such certainty… Storms and hail. Thomas had claimed to have orders of his own. Orders from whom? A Republic agent would have killed me. Thomas saved my life.
And then took his own.
A growl rumbles in my chest. “You put a bodyguard on my ship?”
Mother’s chin rises.
“Mother!” I catch myself and lower my voice. “Mother, how could you? If the Ashing people believe their leaders so cowardly as to hide behind bodyguards, they will give neither respect nor obedience to the throne. We lead from the front, Mother. If the king learns you broke the throne’s promise—”
“Neither need learn of anything, dolphin. Thomas is dead. Who can say why in the Goddess’s name he attacked you. Crazed from battle, no doubt.” She crosses her long legs. Mother’s dress of rose chiffon ripples with her graceful movements, as much an extension of her as a warrior’s weapon. Her eyes glitter to match a teardrop gem hanging high on her neckline. “I do not regret my actions in the least. When you’ve children of your own, you will understand.”