If you’re a sucker for pirate stories — which we are — you’re going to want to check out Crossbones, an upcoming fantasy from Kimberly Vale that follows an array of seafaring characters as they battle for the island throne. Today, Gizmodo has a peek at the cover, as well as a nail-biter of a first chapter. Yo ho ho!
Here’s a brief overview of the plot and characters to give you some context.
The Blood Bell tolls, marking the death of the pirate king and the start of the Trials — a heart-stopping competition where the reward is the Bone Crown. Only one contender can claim the coveted island throne; each will gamble life and limb to win.
Captain. Sister. Maiden.
Csilla Abado yearns to prove her strength to the seasoned pirates who balk at her youth and to her elder sister who has always craved Csilla’s captainship. She will risk everything to become the first pirate queen, no matter the cost.
Dealer. Son. Legacy.
Kane Blackwater wants to leave behind the dirty gold and shady trades he’s made to keep his father’s ship, the Iron Jewel, alive. The Trials represent a new beginning — yet rumours of a secret heir are swirling, threatening his hopes of becoming the pirate king.
Stowaway. Daughter. Storm.
Lorelei Penny longs for nothing more than to avenge her mother’s death. Stowing away on the Iron Jewel was supposed to get her closer to the killer, but instead she finds herself caught up in the deadly battle where loyalty and desire collide.
Csilla. Kane. Lorelei. Each on a mission. The sea, however, has other plans. Dark tides are rising, and if they aren’t careful, they’ll surely drown.
“I’m so excited to share Crossbones with the world,” author Vale said in a statement provided to Gizmodo. “My epic fantasy follows three very different characters in their quests to fulfil their wildest desires, but crooked pirates, lava creatures, and ultimately, they themselves, stand in each other’s way. With action, romance, twists and turns, I hope this story has a little something for everyone.”
Check out the full cover below, then read on to meet Csilla Abado in the first chapter of Crossbones.
I will not die today.
Csilla’s unspoken words crowded her mind. She never dwelled on death — there was no reason to in the life she lived. Death came, it took, and it did not give back. She hadn’t given much thought to how she would die, but she assumed it would be bloody and brilliant. Not like this.
As she walked through the crowd with her wrists tied tightly behind her, her fingers ached for the leather hilt of her sword. If she could, she’d fight until every Incendian soldier lay dead or until her last breath wheezed through her bloodied lips.
Around her, the weathered courtyard overflowed with unruly harbour-folk who’d normally be selling wares or watching the soldiers’ demonstrations. On this day, however, they’d be witnessing her execution.
The soldiers marched before her, parting the path like a sword through the sea. To onlookers, she was a stain on their garments they couldn’t scrub out, a plague they couldn’t be rid of. Every time their eyes ran over the scars along her skin, the piercings that lined her ears, and her one blind eye, their anger flickered with fear and their shouted insults grew louder.
Csilla ignored them. The distant crash of waves and the briny scent of the sea was enough to calm the frenzied beating of her heart — for now. It was impossible to truly be calm when a storm was on the horizon.
Time was running out. The noose loomed across the courtyard.
If the Incendian Navy thought to humiliate her in her last moments, they would fail. She held her chin high and stepped with grace. No one would see her falter. No one would see her break. She’d show them only a girl who was proud of her pirate heritage, who preferred to die and be seen than to waste away, hidden in a cell.
“Filthy pirate!” a woman’s voice yelled, her words slicing above the crowd’s jeers like a sharpened blade.
Csilla glanced to her right, her good eye coming to rest on a woman whose worn face snarled at her. The woman wove through the crowd, following as the soldiers pushed Csilla forward. Then the woman stopped, slipped off her shoe, and hurled it, the shoe smacking hard against Csilla’s cheek. She ignored the searing pain as well as the taunts and laughter that rose from the crowd.
Rage burned through Csilla like wildfire. They could rot in Limbo for all she cared. She stopped walking, pulled against the rope binding her to the soldier, and cut her sight to the woman. When their eyes met, the woman shriveled back, averting her gaze to the ground. It wasn’t the first time Csilla had received this reaction, which was why she usually wore a scarf to cover her white eye, but today she embraced her difference. Today, she was glad the soldiers wouldn’t let her wear it.
“Sobel liitena shobenasku,” Csilla said, repeating the same words that had cursed her half blind. “Sobel miitesa jaharren eto.”
The woman’s face went as white as merchant sails, her eyes growing wide and frantic as she realised Csilla’s incantation was a curse. There was no magic in Csilla’s veins to fulfil the venomous words, but the woman didn’t know that. A glimmer of satisfying warmth spread through Csilla even as the soldiers dragged her forward, their fingers digging into the muscle of her arms and adding more bruises to her body.
“Witch!” the woman screamed. “Pirate witch! You’ll waste away in Limbo!” The Harbour of Souls. Once a lost soul docked there in the afterlife, it never left again. It could very well be where Csilla’s soul was heading today.
“See you there.” Csilla locked gazes with the woman, her lip twisting into a smirk.
The sky was a blanket of clouds but the heat of the sunspur season still hung in the air. Sweat from the dense humid air gathered at the nape of Csilla’s neck and traced down her spine like a river snake gliding over water. She wore only the filthy rags that the fort had graciously provided after they’d ripped her from the bed of her betrayer and stolen all her gear and armour. Though she hated the way the fabric scratched her skin, there was a twisted satisfaction in knowing that the soldiers, clad in their military trousers and multiple frilly layers, had to withstand the humidity. Sweat dripped down their temples, soaked their collars, stained their underarms.
One soldier shoved her forward into step again. The crowd parted and Csilla’s face went cold when the gallows came into view. She swallowed, her insides on the edge of heaving the small piece of bread she’d eaten yesterday. The noose swayed back and forth, a pendulum ticking down her last moments, and all previous confidence drained from her like blood from a fresh wound. The raised wooden scaffold with the dangling noose was a vision that reignited her darkest nightmares, her deepest unspoken fears. She shivered as she imagined her flailing body, her fingers clawing at her neck . . . her eyes, which would remain open long after her soul departed.
A soldier nudged her forward again until she was at the foot of the wooden stairs.
The world tilted — she blinked, but even in her good eye her vision didn’t clear. A scream suffocated in her throat, her stomach turned to rock. She tried her best to remember her grandmother’s training on the deck of the Scarlet Maiden: Live fearlessly. Face every threat with a wicked smile and a sharp blade. Yet as her gaze trailed up the scaffold, she struggled to lift her foot. Fear was an anchor that held her firm against the tide.
A drop of warm rain fell, splattering onto her cheek as she took the first step up and toward her death. By the time the soldiers corralled her directly in front of the noose, the clouds had opened up and showers poured down, cool against her skin.
Observers below pulled their hoods over their heads but Csilla embraced the rain. As the executioner looped the noose around her neck, she tilted her face back, letting the rain wash away the dirt and grime that had collected on her skin during her days in the cell.
The rope binding her wrists cut into her skin, but it didn’t stop her from testing the strength of the soldier’s knot. She wriggled her arms, attempting to free herself until a sharp blade pointed into her back, making her freeze.
“As issued by the king of Incendia,” a soldier announced. His eyes trailed over the scroll as if he was reading the words, but the ink dripped in dark droplets from the edge of the rain soaked parchment. He must’ve hanged so many pirates he knew the words by heart. His voice boomed across the open courtyard. “Any persons associated with piracy will be charged without trial.”
Csilla scanned the upper level of the fort, searching for Rhoda or other Scarlet Maidens. She’d hoped her sister and her crew would come for her, like Csilla would do for them, but their absence proved that not everyone supported the youngest captain on the Sister Seas. Her crew had given up; and worse, they’d left her to die in this for saken kingdom. Her gaze darted left and right, down by the stairs, by the doors, around the stage, anywhere, everywhere. Hoping she was wrong. Wishing she’d catch a glimpse of her sister’s tightly woven braids or her friends’ devious smiles.
But they truly hadn’t come. It was a stab to the chest that left her knees trembling and filled her with a deep and cruel loneliness. Then, her eyes fell upon someone in the crowd below, unhooded, rain dripping from his light hair with a smile that she knew too well split across his lips. The sight of him set her stomach on fire — an anger nearly strong enough to cover the ache in her chest.
In another time, in a place she’d buried deep within her memories, she would’ve been relieved to find his familiar sea-green eyes in this crowd, and perhaps, she would’ve allowed herself to get lost in them as he saved her from this unjust death.
But in this moment, in this turn of events, he wasn’t there to rescue her. In fact, he was the reason she was facing death.
Flynn Gunnison — her betrayer.
It may as well have been him tying the noose around her neck. And after how he’d betrayed her trust, their friendship, and the possibility of what could’ve been between them, he had the gall to look her straight in the eyes. She lifted her chin. She would never let him see how much he’d shattered her.
She partly blamed herself for being so foolish, for letting the warm flame of his touch pull her into bed with him a week before. Maybe it was his charm. Maybe it was the rum. Whatever it was, the cost was her life.
Csilla’s stomach twisted. She tore her gaze away from her betrayer as the soldier spoke once again.
“Csilla Abado of Macaya,” he announced. “Captain of the Scarlet Maiden, conspirer against the Crown, pirate by choice, and pirate by blood, has been sentenced to hang by the neck until death.”
The soldier rolled his drenched scroll back up even though it tore at the edges, then retreated down the stairs. No one cheered. No one clapped. The pattering of rain continued, seeping through Csilla’s clothes, dripping off the tip of her nose. The fall through the gallows would break her neck, and if by some chance that didn’t kill her, she’d choke to death soon after. This didn’t stop her fingers from digging desperately at her neck for a grip around the rope.
Csilla closed her eyes once more, sending her last prayer to the Sea Sisters. She asked Anaphine to guide her soul with grace through Limbo and into the After. She prayed to Talona for strength for herself in her last moments, and even though they’d abandoned her, she prayed for her crew and for Rhoda, who had to go on without her. Finally, she pleaded for Iodeia to avenge her and smite Port Barlow with vicious waves taller than any tower they could build, taller than the Obsidian Palace in their capital city.
Maybe Csilla’s dying wish would stop Incendia from encroaching any farther on the island kingdom of Cerulia. If the Incendian king had his way, the pirate fleet of Cerulia would be buried at the bottom of the sea, along with everything they stood for. Except for the gold. The greedy king would keep every coin for himself.
The footsteps of the executioner echoed behind her, thick heavy slaps against the creaking platform. Her chest fell in heavy pants and she counted every last breath. Her hands clenched into fists, her fingernails cutting crescents in her palms as she held on to every last second.
Then the lever clicked, and the wood below her dropped.
Everything stilled for a moment, a breath taken before the leap.
Csilla’s heart fell first, then her legs followed. The blur of the crowd and their angry screams made her wish that the force would break her neck. A quick death. This hungry mob didn’t deserve to watch her struggle for air.
It was just a blink of time, but in that moment, memories wisped through her mind, blowing past her like leaves in the wind. The flowered jungle treetops of Macaya. Her grandmother’s sharp and commanding bark on the deck of the Scarlet Maiden, still able to be heard over the sea’s crashing waves. The sparkle in her mother’s deep-brown eyes even as she lay in her bed, frail and dying. And Rhoda’s softness with her, which she never gave to anyone else.
All of it there, a beautiful painting, then a faint whir cut through the air above her and instead of jolting to a violent stop, she kept falling, the rope never tightening around her neck. She hit the ground hard, her legs crumbling beneath her weight, her head knocking into stone.
A thick tang clouded the air around her, making her throat itch. Maybe she’d died and the fall had broken her neck. Was this what death smelled like?
She opened her eyes but the cloud wouldn’t clear from her vision. She blinked several more times before realising it wasn’t her eyesight — it was smoke. That was what she was choking on. Somehow, by some miracle, she’d escaped death this time.
Her left ankle throbbed unmercifully as she tried and failed to sit up with her hands still bound. Biting her lips shut to keep from groaning, she rolled onto her knees, careful of her ankle as she gazed out from under the gallows.
The crowd before her was a frenzied mob. Women screamed, tripping over their muddy skirts, clawing at each other to escape the possible danger first. Most of the men attempted to run for the fort gates, too, their eyes wide as they searched the area for threats. Soldiers swarmed in from their positions throughout the inside of the fort, their swords at the ready. They tried to reach Csilla but the panicked crowd’s momentum pushed them back.
Csilla glanced at the end of the noose that still hung around her neck. The rope laid limp on the stone, severed and frayed. The smoke around her thinned, and her gaze trailed up the wall to see a small dagger wedged between two stones. There was only one person who could throw a dagger with enough accuracy to cut a rope. The same person who used to practice throwing her daggers at Csilla’s dolls when they were children.
The weight that’d been suffocating Csilla was gone and she could breathe easy again. She should’ve known Rhoda would be too dramatic to take out the guards as they escorted Csilla to the fort, or to break her out of her cell the night she got arrested. It was just like her sister to wait and make a scene out of saving her so that she could be applauded for the show later. Rhoda might’ve been brash and selfish at times, but they were family and all each other had left. Csilla should’ve never doubted her, but Rhoda could have at least saved her before she was dropped through the gallows.
“Csilla,” a harsh whisper sounded from behind her as a blade cut her wrists free. “Get your lazy arse up. We’ve got a grand escape to make.”
Csilla pulled the noose from her neck then whipped around to glare at her elder sister, wincing as she forced her body to stand, her ankle buckling beneath her. “We won’t be going anywhere fast. My ankle’s shot to hell.”
“Don’t be such a baby.” Rhoda trudged toward her, eyes widening as she glanced to the side. Then she reached behind her back, withdrew a dagger from her leather belt, and threw it in Csilla’s direction. The blade whizzed by her ear, followed by a thud and gurgle from over her shoulder. Rhoda had taken out a soldier, but Csilla still wasn’t happy with her.
“You couldn’t warn me?” Csilla asked as her sister yanked her dagger out of the guard’s chest, wiping his blood off it with the crimson scarf that dangled from her belt. Csilla finally managed to stand alone without her sister’s help and placed most of her weight on her right foot, allowing only the tip of her left boot to touch the ground.
“Are you finished griping, little cub?” Rhoda asked back, adjusting her daggers, then reaching for her cloak’s tie and unravelling the knot. She pulled the scarlet cloak from her shoulders and draped the fabric around Csilla, lifting the hood over her soaking hair. Rhoda pulled another hood from her blouse and covered her own two braids before wrapping an arm around Csilla’s waist and moving them both forward.
“Thank you, Rhoda,” Csilla said as her sister helped her limp to the edge of the gallows’ shadow.
“You didn’t really think I would leave you to hang, did you?” Rhoda asked, the taunting sneer gone from her tone. She leaned forward, turning her head left, then right. “You’re my sister. I’ll always be there to rescue you when you get yourself into trouble.” Csilla took notice of how she didn’t address her as Captain; she likely never would.
Csilla braced herself as they left the cover of the platform and pushed into the chaotic crowd toward their escape. Soldiers still fought to get through the swarm of people while others searched for the one who had cut the rope. Smoke continued to clear, and the soldiers took the opening to shoot straight for the gallows, where Csilla and Rhoda had been a moment before.
“She’s escaped!” a soldier yelled from behind them. “The pirate has escaped!”
Rhoda picked up her pace, practically dragging Csilla along. Csilla put as much weight as possible on her left foot, trying to ignore the sharp pain that shot up her leg with each step. I will not die today, she repeated over and over in her head. Rhoda will not die today. I will not die until Flynn Gunnison has paid for what he’s done.
“Where are the others?” Csilla whispered to her sister.
“The twins are here,” Rhoda whispered back. “They have more smokers ready if we need them. The rest are with Nara and the ship.”
Csilla nodded, gripping Rhoda’s waist tighter as she bit back her cry. Her ankle twisted again beneath her. The world spun, her vision spotting. She needed water. She needed food. She couldn’t remember when she’d last had a good meal. But she didn’t dare give up hope or Rhoda would use her instead of her old dolls for target practice. Just a bit farther and they’d be home free. If they could just get through the open doors and to their ship, then she could rest her ankle as long as she needed to.
“Find her!” someone yelled. “Find her allies! Do not let them leave this fort alive!”
Soldiers swarmed through the crowd, a few brushing past her in the chaos. Csilla always preached to her crew to remain calm in the worst of situations, to raise their chins against the biting wind, to grit their teeth and breathe deep when they wanted to scream and give up. Her girls never surrendered, never raised a white flag.
But there she was, their captain — her ankle throbbing, her spirit broken, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes like a weak little doe.
A soldier combed through the rushing men and women and stopped directly in front of Csilla and her sister. His brow turned down and his curious eyes flicked between the two them, their faces shrouded in shadow.
“Remove the hoods,” he ordered, stepping even closer when they tried to shuffle past. When they didn’t comply, he pointed his sword at Csilla. “I said, remove the hoods.”
Rhoda sighed, then a hiss filled the air. Thick, white smoke rose in plumes from multiple spots in the crowd, unleashing more screams and yells among the harbour-folk. Smoke engulfed them almost immediately, shielding them from sight. Rhoda used the opportunity to hoist Csilla’s arm over her shoulder, taking some relief off her ankle. Another body pushed in at Csilla’s right, lift ing her other arm. The scent of the mint leaves that Serafina liked to chew calmed Csilla’s heart a beat.
Soldiers yelled orders but their confusion made them incapable of doing anything. They were birds flying blind. Smoke billowed up into the sky and out of the gates of the fort, masking their group as they continued forward through the sea of people. Soldiers yelled from behind, their curses fading the farther Csilla and her crew trekked down the hill to the harbour.
Cutting from the crowd, Rhoda and Serafina guided Csilla down a side path. Serafina’s twin, Rosalina, darted in front of them, her dark ringlets bouncing as she led the way. She placed her hand idly at her back, ready to unsheathe her hidden blades if need be. If it came down to it, by Maiden’s honour she would protect Csilla before her own blood.
A small farmhouse stood in a field off the path, surrounded by tall grass and little white flowers. Csilla thought someone stood in the open doorway, long dark hair blowing with her skirts as she watched the Maidens run like the wind toward the sea. She knew the watching stranger didn’t matter in the scheme of things, but something in the back of her mind made her glance over her shoulder at the girl before they rounded the hill.
The sea finally came into view, followed by another glorious sight — the Scarlet Maiden with her crimson sails flapping, ready for departure. Csilla had never been so delighted to see her ship, even when she had set foot on it for the first time as captain. The deck had been her home since she was a little girl, more a home to her than anywhere else in the world. She needed the scent of the wood, the wind blowing against her cheeks, and the sun on her skin out in the open water.
Hidden by a short peak of land, the ship was unable to be seen from the busy harbour and its nosy inhabitants. Csilla and her girls neared the edge of the cliff, the Scarlet Maiden waiting below in the water.
Csilla peered down at the waves crashing against the jagged rock. Freedom was within reach, but first a high drop off a sharp and terribly intimidating cliff. “You just had to make this escape as dramatic as possible, didn’t you?” she asked Rhoda as she cocked her brow. She remembered the time Rhoda blew up a military ship at a trading harbour just because she could.
“Oh, shut up about it,” Rhoda grumbled. “We jumped higher cliffs than this in Macaya when we were kids. Now, do you need me to throw you over, or are you going to be a big girl and get your arse in the water?”
Csilla shot her own daggers at her sister with her eyes and moved back to make room for a grand swan dive. The sound of someone clapping stopped her as she bent at the knees.
“Well done,” a familiar voice rang out behind. She would recognise that smooth honey tone anywhere. It was the same one that had coaxed her into bed, along with the soft eyes and even softer lips.
Csilla spun around to glare at the captain of the Anaphine and the one she’d almost let shatter her. She’d never developed a liking for killing, despite how many had died by her sword, but she would enjoy ripping Flynn apart piece by piece.
How could she have let him lure her to this in the first place? She’d been so gullible, so naïve; she’d never make the same mistake again.
“You son of a — ” she started.
“Ah, ah, ah.” Flynn cut her off. He smiled and wagged his finger at her. “Our mothers have nothing to do with this, so please leave mine out of it. I could rattle off nonsense about your mother, but I’ll bite my tongue for your sake.”
There were shouts in the distance, coming closer every second. If she could somehow drag him with her to the Scarlet Maiden, she would, but she’d be lucky enough to get to the ship herself with her brokenness.
“I’ll kill you, Flynn Gunnison.” The words tasted delicious on Csilla’s tongue. “When you least expect it, I will be there, waiting in the shadows. And I will end you.”
Flynn chuckled, as if knowing she wouldn’t follow through on her threat. “You can hate me all you want, but I count on seeing you again very soon.” Her stomach twisted at the reminder of a time when she would’ve been excited for that moment, but now she only felt the thrill of avenging his betrayal.
Without another glance at him, she turned around and flung herself from the cliff. Her hood fell away and the wind cut through her hair, billowing her cloak behind her, and when she hit the water, it engulfed her like a blanket. She came up for air, glancing back at the cliff as her crewmates made their own leaps. Flynn stood at the edge, waving good-bye. For now.
Excerpt from Crossbones by Kimberly Vale reprinted by permission. Copyright Wattpad Books.
Crossbones by Kimberly Vale is out October 5; you can preorder a copy right here.