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The Hardest Step

by Kat Beyer

I should have known when we took the ship too easily. "She's cursed," one of the prisoners told me smugly. I looked at her where she hung still in the water. "You board," said my Captain.

I hauled myself aboard, sweating in the tropic night, wondering why I couldn't smell gunpowder—but then, few shots had been fired. We had won by the trick of having more guns than they, and they could not have known that we were nearly out of balls and powder both.

I took a step towards the aft deck and jumped in the air when a voice spoke beneath my feet.

"Where do you come from?"

"Fr-from the sea," said I.

"And claim this ship?"

"I d-do," I answered, choosing that that would be the last time my voice shook.

The voice laughed with a creak and boom below decks.

"Then take the wheel."

"I will," I said.

The first step was not the hardest. The night pressed in on me suddenly, squeezing the breath out of me, tight as a corset, thick as August in Tortuga.

But I bore it. I had before. The air parted again.

The second step was not the hardest. A riptide of blood covered the deck, washing me to the knees, while out of it rose every man I had killed in battle, clutching their wounds, looking at me with eyes that stared into my future and saw my end. I smelled the stench of iron in their bloodsoaked clothes.

I faced them all a second time. The tide receded, taking them with it.

The third step was the hardest. The lights from the other ship went out, the water stood empty, then surging waves shook the whole sea and I saw the ship I stood upon, and I myself, sailing down into a terrible maw with teeth of foam that would surely take me—alone, all alone.

But I kept my sea legs. I had earned them. The lights blinked back over the still water.

"Take your ship, girl," said the voice.

"Not so loud," I said.

I took the wheel, and called across the water that the ship was mine, could I have a crew?

"You've got balls, I'll give you that," laughed the Captain. "Very well, I will send you a crew if you will sail under me."

"For a while," I called back. "Long enough."

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