Moments after their escape from the inn, Rue and Jules’ Euphorian trajectory halted when the candle ran out. They found themselves atop a mountain of dark, gray storm clouds. Rain pounded over them, and every so often a burst of lightning lit up the sky around them. The noise was unimaginable. They had to scream in order to hear each other.
Jules threw her head back in frustration. “What the hell did you do?”
“What did I do?” Rue hollered back. “What did you do?” She adopted a mocking voice. “‘Think of home.’ That was a great plan! You thought of your home, and I thought of mine, and now we’re stuck halfway between the two!”
“Bitch, what did you think of your home for?” Jules raised her arms in exasperation.
Rue matched her annoyed demeanor. “You just said ‘home!’ If you wanted me to think of your home, you should have said!”
“Some crazy asshole was going to cut your heart out, and you wanted more specific instructions?” Rain water splashed on her face and spewed from the edges of her lips as she yelled. “Should I have had it in writing? Or a diagram, maybe!”
Rue was taken aback as Jules’ words and the weight of the situation struck her square in the chest.
Before she could respond, an enormous net fell over the two of them from above.
Their bodies tumbled together inside the net as they were dragged through the clouds. A moment later, they came hurtling onto the deck of some sort of sky ship. Still uncomfortably trapped in the net, Jules and Rue looked up to find themselves faced with an entire crew of pirates.
One of them, a young blonde-haired woman, sneered at them then addressed one of the other pirates. “Look, Captain Shakespeare! Caught ourselves a little bonus: a couple of lightning marshals.”
The one called Shakespeare looked Rue and Jules over with a distinguishing eye. “They don’t look like lightning marshals to me.”
“Why else would anyone be up here in the middle of a storm?”
The captain cupped her chin, pretending to consider the question. “Well, let’s think… Maybe for the same goddamn reason we are!” She turned impatiently to Rue and Jules. “Who are you?”
The two locked eyes and remained silent.
The captain nodded, then addressed the crew. “Let’s see if a night in our lovely brig will loosen their lips!” The other pirates responded with rousing cheers. “Get them to the brig. And the rest of you, back to work! We’ve got lightning to catch!”
Jules clenched her jaw as she struggled to keep herself together. “I don’t know.”
Rue stared off into the distance. “You know, it’s funny, I… I used to watch people having adventures. I was jealous of them.”
Jules said dryly, “You ever heard the expression, ‘Be careful what you wish for’?”
Rue scoffed out a rough laugh. “What, so ending up with my heart cut out, that’ll serve me right?”
Jules backpedalled as fast as she could. “No, no! I didn’t… I didn’t mean it like that.” She sighed and cast her eyes downward. “Honestly, I admire you dreaming. Shop girl like me, I could never have imagined an adventure this big in order to have wished for it.” She shrugged her shoulders, marveling at the difference between her expectations and what had actually come to be. “I just thought I’d find some lump of celestial rock and take it home, and that would be it.”
Rue looked at Jules with the barest hint of a twinkle in her eye. “And instead you got me.” That earned a small grin. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years watching Earth, it’s that people aren’t what they may seem, you know? Like, there are shop girls… and there are girls who just happen to work in shops for the time being.” Despite the shackles around her wrists, she reached out and squeezed Jules’ hand. “And trust me, Jules, you’re no shop girl.” Jules met her gaze, eyes full of gratitude. Rue returned it. “You saved my life. Thank you.”
In the wilderness of Highland, Maddy stood by a lonesome tin bathtub in the middle of a verdant field. Where an inn had once stood surrounding the tub was now a fertile meadow, seemingly untouched with the exception of the solitary bath, which sat heavily and entirely out of place.
One of her lackeys questioned nervously, “Kat doesn’t have it?”
Maddy turned her eyes to the henchwoman who was inexplicably named BB. Humorlessly, she replied, “Why don’t you find out?”
BB, knowing she had no choice but to obey, slowly dipped her hand into the water and tried her best to control the discomfort that showed conspicuously in her expression.
While she did that, another of Maddy’s henchmen brought forth the boy named Troy, now returned to his original teenage boy shape. Maddy put her hands on her hips, not in the mood for games.
“Where is my stone?”
The boy shifted apprehensively. “I don’t…” Maddy drew her sword and settled the point under his chin. She was not in the habit of being patient. He cowered before her. “Okay, okay! The lady, see, in the tub, I heard her talk about a stone.” He nodded vigorously. “Yeah. The girl had it. The girl had it.”
“I don’t know.” She tilted her sword higher, just short of piercing his skin. “A girl! She got away. Because this was like, uh, a trap set up for her, but Kat, she walked straight into it.”
“A trap? Set by who?”
“A man you don’t ever wanna meet. He’s… he’s gone. He took Dame Hernandez’s carriage.”
Maddy frowned. “This guy wanted my stone?”
“No. He wanted the girl’s heart.” Troy shivered. “He said the girl was a star and he wanted to cut out her heart and…”
“Eat it,” Maddy finished his thought for him as the entirety of the situation dawned on her. She lowered her sword, marveling at her luck. “Holy shit.” She faced Troy with a near-manic glint in her eyes. “Do you have any idea what this means?” The boy shook his head, fear still evident in his manner. Maddy gazed beyond him, a devious grin spreading over her face. “Everlasting life. King… forever.”
BB finally pulled her arm out of the bathtub and attempted to shake the bloody water from her sleeve. “It’s not here, ma’am.”
Maddy barely acknowledged her. She grasped Troy by the collar of his shirt and marched back toward her carriage. “This dumbass is coming with us.”
In the back of the coach he had stolen from Kat, Nate fumed as he rolled across Highland without a clear destination. The carriage was magically pulling itself, and it showed in his rapidly aging appearance. He glanced at his reflection in the window and immediately turned away, repulsed by his own image. Irritated and out of options, he rubbed his ring to call on McKay.
Moments later, the two snapped at each other through the mirror.
Nate’s frown deepened. “Fuck off. I’ll bring her home and deal with her there. Make sure everything is ready.”
Still locked up in the brig, Rue and Jules still sat uncomfortably, though slightly closer together. Rue looked at Jules cautiously.
“So… tell me about Anna.”
Jules opened and closed her mouth, then shrugged. “Well, she… I don’t know, there’s not much more to tell you.”
Rue smirked, just a little. “Because the little I know about love… is that it’s unconditional. It’s not something you can buy. And as much as you talked about her when you first took me hostage and dragged me through the woods, I would think you’d still have more to say.” She peered at Jules gauging her expression. “Are you in love with her?”
Jules looked back at her, a question in her eyes. “I mean… this whole thing was to prove how I felt. It wasn’t about me buying her love.”
Jules was silent for a moment before she gave in and joined Rue in a fit of giggles.
“I found the skyship,” McKay spoke to Nate through the mirror in the lair. “It’s headed north toward the port town at Mount Blow.”
Nate, still cruising through Highland’s countryside, nodded curtly at the information.
McKay continued. “Heads up though, you’re not the only one after the star anymore. Somebody’s hot on your heels.”
Nate clenched his jaw sharply at this. “Who? A witch? A warlock?”
“A member of the royal court. And she’s gaining on you. Get a move on!”
By the time Captain Shakespeare entered the brig to interrogate Rue and Jules, the storm had passed, and what clouds remained outside the ship reflected a bright, silvery glow from the midday sun.
On the other side of the door to the brig, the captain’s crew eavesdropped intently amid the occasional murmur and raised eyebrow.
Jules did her best to sound intimidating through gritted teeth. “If you even think about touching her...”
Shakespeare cut her off, “You may think you’re being a badass by giving me attitude in front of your lady friend, but if you talk back to me again, I’ll feed your tongue to the dogs! We clear?” She put her hands on her hips, pulling her coat back to show off the impressive cutlass that was sheathed at her waist.
Jules pursed her lips but conceded. “... Ma’am?”
“Better.” Shakespeare’s eyes glinted as she gave a nod. “But still interrupting.” She tapped her chin. “So, what to do with you, let’s see… A hanging’s always good for morale, maybe we’ll watch you dance the gallows jig!” Small noises of approval from the crew made their way through the door. “Or maybe I’ll just tip you over the side and be done with it!” She cocked her head. “It’s a long way down. Plenty of time to reminisce about your pitifully short lives.”
Shakespeare took a deep breath in. “Well… That’s one lie too many.”
The other pirates muttered in confusion, struggling to hear through the thick wooden door. “What’s she saying?”
A moment later, the captain’s voice raised again, coming through loud and clear. “Thought you could just wander onto my terf, did you?”
The pirates glanced between each other with growing excitement. “Is she gonna… yeah I think she is!”
The captain’s voice boomed even more powerfully, “And live to tell the tale?”
“Go, go, go!” The crew all shoved to get away from the door. “On the deck, let’s go!” They rushed out, not wanting to miss a second of their captain’s dramatics.
Moments later, the pirates collected on the upper deck and peered over the side to see Captain Shakespeare dangling Jules out the porthole by the ankles. They could hear the faint sound of Rue screaming from inside the ship.
The captain’s voice carried through the sky. “Big mistake, kid!” The crew hushed. “And the last one you’ll ever make!” She let go of Jules’ boots, sending her sailing down toward Earth through the clouds. The crew members cheered then immediately fell silent when the captain’s head whipped around to look sharply up at them.
A minute later, Shakespeare burst onto the deck, hauling a still-screaming Rue with her. Rue’s face was red as she fought to break out of the captain’s grip. “No! No! You fucker! You murderer!”
Shakespeare dragged her along without too much effort. “Come on, come on.” She faced her crew, her face humorless. “I’m taking the girl to my cabin. Mark my words, anyone who disturbs me for the next couple of hours will regret it.”
The first mate tugged on a strand of her blonde hair and whispered, “Not me though, right?”
Shakespeare rolled her eyes. “Cassie, I love you, you’re my sister, but I’ll make an example of you if I have to.”
Cassie nodded as the captain moved past, then turned to her fellow crewmates, shooing them from their gossiping cluster. “Captain’s busy, so should you be.”
As the pirates began to disperse, Shakespeare shoved Rue into her quarters yelled, “Get in there, wench!” and slammed the door behind her.
Waiting for them inside was Jules, wearing only her undergarments.
The captain locked the door behind her then let out a sigh and smiled brightly at her former hostages. “So, that went well, I thought.” Her voice was lighter as she walked around her extravagant cabin. “Now, tell me news from the mortal world. I want to hear absolutely everything.”
Rue shook her head, also smiling. “Hang on. I can’t believe your crew fell for that! And where the fuck did you get that mannequin from?”
The captain chuckled as they congregated around the table at the center of her quarters. “Oh, it works every time.” She shrugged. “An ounce of bargaining, a pinch of trickery, a sprinkle of intimidation, and… voila! The perfect recipe for a towering reputation without ever having to spill one drop of blood. Even my sister out there thinks I’m some formidable character trope. People tend to see what they want to.”
“Right.” Jules leaned against the captain’s desk. “I just don’t get how they won’t recognize me.”
“Jules, when I’m done, your own mother won’t recognize you.” Jules blinked at the mention of her mother, but had no time to dwell as the captain pressed on. “Now, no time to waste. We don’t have much time before we make port.”
Shakespeare crossed the room and threw open a pair of double doors to reveal a shockingly large and well-stocked walk-in closet. “First and foremost…” She started shifting through the collection of clothes. “It’ll be so good to see you out of those dreary clothes. They were very, I don’t know, small town errand-girl.” After a moment of searching, she selected one of the more colorful, only vaguely pirate-y outfits and tossed it to Jules. “Much more you. With a haircut and some different makeup, none of them will be any the wiser.”
“Now you,” she faced Rue and gestured to the racks of clothes, “go ahead and take your pick. I’ve got something for just about any taste.”
Rue, not wanting to impose, raised her hands. “Oh, no, really, I’m fine.”
The captain approached her and said quietly, “Honey, you’re wearing a bathrobe.”
Rue looked down at herself for a couple of seconds then wordlessly wandered into the closet.
“Now,” she helped Jules into the new clothes as she spoke, “Wall, the mortal world. I want to hear everything.”
“You’re not from Wall, though, are you?”
Shakespeare shook her head. “No, sadly, no. But ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved hearing the stories. People always told me it was just folklore, but deep down I knew they were true.” A distant, dreamy look emerged in her eyes as she tugged a jacket with shiny buttons and intricate patterning over Jules’ shoulders. “When I was young, I used to sneak away from my parents at the market just to go peek over the wall… dream of, maybe, crossing it one day and seeing it all for myself.” She went silent for a few seconds, lost in thought, then snapped back to the moment and said simply to Jules, “Hair.”
Shakespeare retrieved a pair of scissors from her desk and gestured for Jules to sit. Jules paused apprehensively, but followed the silent instruction. As the captain snipped away at Jules’ hair, she resumed her musing. “Of course, I did my best to fit in at school and everything. Got a little older, tried to make my mother, Captain Ghostmaker, proud. Forged a decent reputation as a ruthless marauder and cold-blooded killer. It was never exactly what I wanted,” she kept snipping, hardly even looking at Jules, “but, my mother died. Alcohol poisoning of all things. Cassie, my sister, is older, but she never really had any interest in leadership, so I promised our mom I would take over the family business.”
The captain put a hand over her heart and mouthed the word “yes” when Rue came forth from the closet donning a charming fitted jumpsuit. The blush that appeared on her cheeks at this deepened when she saw Jules’ eyes widen as she looked Rue over subtly from her seat.
Shakespeare glanced between them with a knowing smirk before turning back to Jules’ hair and continuing as if nothing had happened.
“You know, it really is nice to be able to confide in you two. The pressure of maintaining the whole Captain Shakespeare persona for the sake of the crew… I don’t know. I’m very much a woman of my own creation. Even chose the name specially. ‘Lexi’ doesn’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of enemies, you know? But ‘Shakespeare,’ that works on all levels. I get to sit back and think of the legendary wordsmith, while adversaries and my crew are thinking ‘Shake! Spear!’” She made some morbid stabbing motions with the scissors and laughed to herself while Rue and Jules shot each other amused looks. “It’s little things like that that make me happy.”
Jules tried to look up at her without moving her head too much. “I don’t get that, though. Wouldn’t you be happier just being yourself? Why fight to be accepted by people you don’t actually want to be like?”
“Yeah,” Rue spoke up, sarcasm heavy in her voice. “Why would anyone want to do something like that?” She looked pointedly at Jules.
Seconds later, Lexi finally stopped snipping at the back of Jules’ head and stepped away, leaving Jules’ hair somehow longer than it had been before, with streaks of pink fading up from the ends. She was a brand new woman, but somehow she was more herself than ever.
From the deck, they heard Cassie holler, “Port ahoy! Ready the lightning barrels!”
The skyship docked, floating at the edge of a pier overhanging a cliff. Lexi, the crew, and Rue exited the ship and walked into town, all jovially talking amongst themselves.
Some of the crew branched off to restock provisions, while Lexi led Cassie and Rue to a hut bearing a sign that read, “Fezco the Fence’s Dodgy Den.”
Inside, Fezco, who Lexi had warned Rue prior to their arrival was “normally not rotating in the same direction as planet earth,” looked on as Cassie hauled in the barrels of lightning.
Fez tapped his chin as he evaluated the product. “Not gonna lie, it don’t seem super fresh.”
Lexi cocked her head. “Shall I give you a little taste then, Fez?” She pulled out a sample canister and held it out.
Worry was evident in Fez’s eyes when he said, “Nah, it’s cool, I’m good.”
Lexi opened it anyway. The bolt that shot out of the canister zapped across the room, frying random objects with electricity.
Fez rubbed the back of his neck exasperatedly. “Shit, Shakes, you know this shit ain’t cheap.”
Lexi ignored his complaint and pointed at the lightning barrels. “I think it’s still crackling, very much alive. Tres fresh.” She clapped her hands together. “So! Name your best price.”
“For ten thousand bolts? Let’s see…” He bobbed his head around as he considered.
Lexi interjected, trying to show off her business savvy. “Ten thousand bolts of the finest quality, grade A lightning.”
Lexi crossed her arms. “Seeing as I’m feeling particularly generous today, I’ll settle for two hundred.”
Fez’s face fell. “Two hundred? What drugs are you on? One-eighty.”
“C’mon, dude, that’s not negotiation. I’m changin’ my number. One-eighty-five.”
“Did I hear two hundred?”
“From you, man, you been sayin’ it.”
“You said two hundred,” Lexi smirked, enjoying having the upper hand.
“If I said that shit you’re a fuckin’ ventriloquist.” Fez sighed. “One-ninety-five, final offer.”
Lexi’s smile turned smug. “One-ninety-five it is. So, with sales tax, that’s, let’s see… two hundred.”
Fez let his shoulders sink in resignation. “Great. Fine.” He pulled a bag of coins from his pocket and dropped it in Lexi’s outstretched hand. “Put the shit in the back.” Before Lexi could motion for her companions to follow her out, Fez pulled her aside and asked, “Hey, you heard any of these rumors ‘bout a fallen star?” Rue’s eyes widened and she took half a step back toward the door. Fez continued. “Everyone’s talkin’ about it. Get your hands on one of them, we can close the shop, retire.”
Lexi stiffened. “A fallen star?”
“Yeah. You ain’t heard about it?” Lexi shook her head. Fez pulled a pipe out of his pocket and lit it as he spoke. “Nothing? Not even a lil’ whisper? People won’t shut up about it down at the market.”
Rue’s ears perked up at this. “Which market? The market near the wall?”
Fez gave her a look out of the corner of his eye, unsure why she had chosen to speak up but not thinking much else of it. “Yeah.”
Lexi cut back in. “Well, Fez, you’re wasting your time listening to gossip from the assholes trading down there.”
“Oh, speak of the devil!” Lexi called out as a rugged, gray haired man entered the hut.
Ditchweed Cal raised his eyebrows and approached the huddle of people at the back of the shop. “Oh? Talking about me?”
“Oh, just about what an unassailable force you are, Cal. How the world wouldn’t be the same without you.” Lexi rolled her eyes, just barely managing to hide her disdain. “You look tired. A good night’s sleep is invaluable at your age.” She pushed Cassie and Rue toward the exit and spoke over her shoulder. “But you two, you have business to attend to, so we’ll just let you get to it. Cal. Fez. Take it easy.”
Lexi, Rue, and the crew flooded up the gangplank toward the skyship, all jolly from their dealings. Already aboard and waiting for them was Jules, looking confident in her new appearance. As the crew walked up, she took a drag from a long pipe and immediately had to fight off a round of coughs. Most of the pirates hadn’t noticed her yet.
When they were close enough that they would hear her, she greeted their leader. “Captain Shakespeare.”
The crew’s first instinct at a stranger on their ship was to charge forward with their swords drawn, but Lexi rushed to stop them.
“Hey, hey, stand down!” She pushed forward and shook Jules’ hand. “Meet my friend, the fearsome buccaneer, Jules Vaughn. She’ll be joining us for our journey home. And,” she turned toward Jules but continued to put on the show for the crew, “this is Rue.” She gently pushed Rue toward Jules, and the two smiled conspiratorially at each other. “I thought about keeping her for myself, but I figured you could keep each other company.”
Jules put an arm around Rue’s waist, trying to convince herself that she did it purely for the sake of the onlooking pirates.
Over the next several days aboard the skyship, Rue and Jules, with the assistance of Lexi and the crew, found various ways to keep themselves busy.
The crew tried to teach them how to steer the ship and laughed raucously when they both failed miserably.
The captain coached them in sword fighting and piano playing.
During a storm, they helped the pirates catch a batch of lightning. They worked together on a single net and managed to haul in an applause-worthy round of bolts.
They ate with the crew, and Jules fed Rue the first bite of food she’d ever tasted.
They climbed up into the rigging and hung out to one side of the ropes, feeling the wind and taking in the views.
One night, after much ale had been passed around, everyone on the ship enjoyed some music and dancing. While Jules attempted to assist the other musicians with her newly earned piano skills, Lexi stepped in to save Rue from a dance with one of the more handsy crew members.
Lexi grinned. “Well, it’s certainly not the waltz.” She spun Rue again. “But seriously. Just try it.”
Rue scrunched up her nose. “Okay.” After a few seconds of focus, the glow that her skin had been casting more and more intensely over the past few days faded.
A new song started, and Lexi nodded proudly at her friend. “Very good.”
A few seconds later, Jules approached, tapped Lexi on the shoulder, and asked to cut in. Lexi bowed out, and Jules took ahold of Rue’s waist. The two of them moved effortlessly together to the music. Their bodies pressed lightly together, and they both felt warmer in each other’s arms. Neither of them could help the smiles that spread across their faces as they danced.
With Lexi’s advice relegated to the back of her mind, Rue allowed her happiness to illuminate the night with abandon.
“You’re sure? Absolutely sure?” Nate’s face was menacing. “Sure you’re not lying?” He conveyed the threat through a simple raise of an eyebrow.
“Shit, man, you don’t trust me?”
Nate almost chuckled. “I don’t trust anyone.” He continued to peruse the shelves. “What are the odds you’ve got a Euphorian candle hiding around somewhere?”
Fez frowned. “Unlikely.”
Nate cocked his head, annoyed, as he dropped a small bag of herbs on the counter. Fez glanced at it and muttered, “That’ll be five seventy-five, playboy.”
Nate clenched his jaw and dropped a handful of loose coins next to Fez’s outstretched hand. “Not much of a talker, are you, Fezco?” he retorted.
Fez shrugged in response.
“Let’s keep it that way.” Nate snapped his fingers, then he swept out of the hut, leaving Fez alone, opening and closing his mouth, unable to make a sound.
The skyship made a glorious landing in a sparkling lake. The whole crew joined Lexi up on deck to wish Rue and Jules farewell.
Lexi accompanied them off the ship and hugged each of them tightly, securing a gilded sword to Jules’ hip as a parting gift. Cassie handed them a canister of lightning then returned to the ship. Lexi pointed at a trail leading away from the water. “There’s the road you’ll need for Wall. Good luck on your journey home, Rue, wherever that may be.” She winked. “And good luck to you, Jules, with, um, Anna.”
Jules looked at her with gratitude. “We can’t thank you enough for your generosity.”
Lexi raised a hand. “Don’t mention it.” Jules looked on the verge of chuckling, so Lexi added, “No, seriously, don’t mention it. Reputation, you know?” Jules nodded and shook Lexi’s hand.
Before letting go, Lexi leaned in and whispered something in Jules’ ear. Rue, a few feet away and unable to make out what she was saying, squinted in curiosity. At the end of the muttering, Rue was just able to make out Lexi saying, “Just think about it.” Jules let go of Lexi’s hand and returned to Rue’s side.
They started on their way, and Lexi and the crew waved until they were out of sight.
Rue rolled her eyes. “Just then. When she whispered to you.”
“Oh, uh… Nothing, she, she was just saying we should use the lightning to get you a Euphorian candle. You know, barter system.”
Rue eyed her suspiciously, not believing that was the whole truth, but she decided not to press it.
“For the last time,” Maddy backed Fez into the wall with the point of her sword, “where is the girl?”
Fez shook his head noiselessly, hands raised in surrender.
Maddy grabbed his collar with her free hand and pushed him further up against the wall behind the counter. Items fell from the shelves above them due to the force with which Fez had been shoved. She was not accustomed to being made to wait. “The girl with the stone! Where did she go?”
Fez’s mouth moved, but thanks to Nate’s curse, he was unable to relay the information she sought.
She snarled at his lack of cooperation. “Are you mocking me?”
He shook his head frantically, eyes fearful.
Nate, back in the carriage and once again staring at his reflection in the window, looked sourly at the lines that had deepened on his aging face. He pointed at his forehead, using magic to diminish the wrinkles, then punched the seat next to him when a grouping of liver spots appeared on his arms.
He rolled his eyes but rubbed his ring to answer when McKay called from the mirror. “What?”
“Yo, you gotta stop wasting magic on your looks, bro.” Nate glared murderously into his ring, so McKay moved on. “Just thought you should know the star’s back on the ground.”
“Yeah, I fucking know that. I didn’t get to the lake in time.”
“Doesn’t matter. I found her. She’s on the road to Wall. If you take the shortcut across the marshes, you should get there in time to cut her off.”
Nate nodded and grinned balefully with renewed determination.
Rue and Jules walked along the path, their boots kicking up small clouds of dust. Sunlight was warm on their backs.
The sound of people approaching reached Jules’ ears. Acting purely on instinct, she shoved Rue into a bush without warning; she fell in almost in a drunken fashion. Jules immediately jumped in after her.
When she landed, she found herself face to face with Rue, close enough that if she moved her face even a centimeter, their noses would touch. Her breath hitched at the proximity. Rue’s breath, on the other hand, was ragged. Jules assumed it was due to the surprise of being pushed to the ground.
“Are you trying to break my leg again?”
Rue conceded then adopted a look that was both curious and slightly taunting. “You sure you’re not tempted?”
Jules’ heart skipped a beat. She hoped the heat that crept into her cheeks didn’t show in a blush. She made a concentrated effort not to look down at their bodies, which were pressed rather closely together. Jules licked her lips unconsciously. “Uh, tempted? By what?”
The noises made by the people passing on the road grew louder and then quieter as they passed.
Rue’s expression gave way to a wistful grin. “Immortality. I hear it can be quite addictive.” She searched Jules’ face. “What if it wasn’t my heart? Not me. Just some star you didn’t know.”
Jules’ eyes widened in surprise. “You really think I could kill anyone?”
Rue giggled then raised her eyebrows, daring Jules to answer.
Jules thought over the question for a moment. “I mean, even if I could… Everlasting life?” Her lips pulled to one side. “I feel like it would be lonely… I don’t know. Maybe if you had someone to share it with.” She stared at the ground. Her voice was soft. “Someone you love. Maybe then it might be different.”
Rue looked thoughtfully up at Jules, considering her response.
Jules angled her head over her shoulder, listening for the people who had traveled past them. The coast seemed to be clear, so she propped herself up and held out a hand to assist Rue. “Come on, I think we’re safe now.”
She looked around her group, gave a quick signal, and they all stormed onto the skyship in an ambush.
As the battle broke out, Maddy rushed through the swinging swords toward the captain’s chambers.
Inside the cabin, Lexi was blissfully unaware of the frenzy on the other side of her door. She danced around in her closet, making the most of her privacy by twirling about in the clothes she had collected but were nowhere near impressive or intimidating enough to embody her pirate persona.
As the fight raged on outside on the deck, Maddy busted through the cabin door just in time to find Lexi high kicking through the entrance to her closet and shimmying with a bright pink feather boa.
Maddy stopped short, having gone in expecting a brutish, domineering captain of the skies. “What… the fuck?”
Lexi whirled around at the intrusion and blurted, “What are you doing here?”
“Okay, you basic bitch. I’m gonna count to three. One… two…”
Before she could get to three, Lexi’s entire crew piled into the cabin, weapons at the ready.
Maddy froze for half a second, analyzing the situation. She had the captain in her grasp, but she quickly came to the conclusion that she was outnumbered. She glanced over Shakespeare’s crew, then she ran to the end of the cabin and dove through the glass window into the lake below.
Jules glanced sidelong at Rue as they strode along the path. She had given Rue her coat along the way, and Rue pulled it tighter over her shoulders as they made their way.
“You know, you kinda glitter sometimes. I just noticed. Is that like, normal?”
Rue looked toward the sky as she chuckled. “Let’s see if you can figure it out for yourself.” She watched Jules’ face. “What do stars do?”
Jules put on her best thinking face. “Hm. Attract trouble?” Rue pretended to be offended. “No? You sure?” Rue gave her a light shove, knocking her off the path a bit. “Okay, sorry. Sorry.” Jules took a moment to regain her balance, giggling, then she jogged back over and bumped Rue back with her hip. “Hold on. Do I get another guess?” Rue shrugged playfully, so Jules continued to poke fun at her. “Is it… Do they know exactly how to annoy a girl named Jules Vaughn?”
They both continued to laugh, leaning into each other’s shoulders. A few moments later, they came to a sign saying that the village of Wall was sixty miles away, and their amusement faded away.
“How long will that take?” Rue asked quietly.
Jules shrugged. “Maybe two days.”
Rue’s head was lowered, and she looked up at Jules through her lashes. “We don’t have two days, though. Anna’s birthday is tomorrow.”
Jules looked away, surprised at herself for having momentarily forgotten the reason she had set off on this journey in the first place. “Oh. Yeah. It is. Good catch.”
Back on the skyship, Lexi sat behind her desk, a defeated expression etched on her features. She was still in her unimposing attire, looking more feminine than she had ever allowed herself to look in front of her crew. The pirates were still crowded in her chambers, watching her nervously.
Cassie pushed through the group and set a steaming cup of tea on the desk in front of her sister. “Nice cup of chamomile.”
Lexi heaved a long sigh. “Get out, everybody. Get out.”
“What? No, no.” Cassie moved around the desk and put a comforting arm around her sister. “Don’t be stupid.”
“It’s okay, Captain.” One of the other pirates stepped up. “We always knew you were a big softie.” The rest of the crew pushed them to the back of the group and out of sight. They all smiled at Lexi affectionately.
Cassie gave Lexi’s shoulder a squeeze. “You’ll always be our captain, Captain.”
Lexi sighed again, this time out of gratitude for her crew’s loyalty. With a grin, she shooed her comrades out of her quarters.
All of Maddy’s entourage lay bloody and lifeless on the skyship’s deck.
Sopping wet, Maddy trudged back to her coach, where Troy was waiting. He played nervously with the horses’ reins until he saw her approaching.
“Dame Maddy, your troops… they’re dead.”
Maddy shot him a murderous glance. “Oh really?”
She jumped up into the driver’s seat, pushed Troy out of the carriage onto the ground, and snapped the reins.
Rue and Jules, once again, crouched off the side of the road to hide from a passerby. The sound of hooves pounded their ears as a caravan wobbled past them. Rue squinted when she spotted the driver.
“Hey, I know that guy.” She looked at Jules optimistically, pointing at Ditchweed Cal. “He knows the captain. She said he trades at the market near Wall. Maybe he can give us a ride.”
She jumped in front of the horse and yelled, “Wait! Stop, please!” The caravan skidded to a halt. Jules grinned, relieved that he had stopped, and approached the man driving. “Sorry. Thank you. My name is Jules Vaughn. This is-”
“That’s my flower.” Cal’s face clouded with anger. He pointed at the glass flower that had somehow managed to remain where Jules had placed it in her hair, where it had been since before this whole adventure had even begun. “I’ve been looking for that for eighteen years!” The bird that was chained to the caravan started chirping and flapping its wings agitatedly. Jules’ hand flew to the flower protectively. She took a couple of steps backward as he continued to howl at her. “Give it to me!”
Rue jumped to Jules’ defense when Cal leapt from his seat to make a grab at it. “Back the fuck up, dude, that was a gift from her mother!”
Cal stopped in his tracks when Jules drew the sword that Lexi had gifted her. “Oh.” He cleared his throat and backed off. “Maybe I was mistaken.”
“Right. Well, obviously it’s valuable to you, so you can have it, in exchange for what I need.” Jules eyed him, sword still raised. “A Euphorian candle.”
“And safe passage to the wall,” Rue chimed in.
Cal did his best to look taken aback. “A Euphorian candle? No, no, I don’t deal in black magic.”
“Really?” Jules glanced doubtfully at Rue before she reiterated the latter’s request. “Well, what about a ride to the wall?”
Cal perked up, seeing an opportunity. “Oh, why didn’t you ask in the first place? For that flower, I can give you a ride to the wall. Food and lodging along the way.”
Cal’s expression stretched into a malevolent smirk. “Do you have any idea what you just handed over?”
Jules’ brow twitched into an apprehensive frown. “It’s like… a lucky charm or something.”
Cal shook his head. “Lucky indeed. Protection.” He tucked the flower away inside his jacket. “It’s exactly the kind of thing that would have prevented me from doing this.” He pressed the pad of his index finger the center of Jules’ forehead, magically transforming her into a field mouse.
Pleased with himself, he scooped her up in his hands.
Rue screamed, positively ballistic at the trick he had played. “Fuck! What the fuck did you do to her?”
She ran at Cal, arms swinging, but when she got close to him, it was as if there were an invisible forcefield preventing her from making contact. Cal had no idea she was even there.
“I’m a man of my word,” he said to the mouse cupped in his hand, “I’m not going to hurt you.” He climbed into his caravan, and put Jules into a little cage. “There, food and lodging, as promised.”
Rue entered the caravan behind with her hands on her hips. “So you definitely just like, can’t see or hear me at all, then?” Cal made no sign that he perceived her presence. Rue pursed her lips and nodded to herself. “Great. Well in that case, I’m just gonna say that you smell like absolute piss. You look like a disgusting unwashed penis. And I fucking swear, if I don’t get Jules back exactly the way she was, I will haunt your swampy ass until the day you die. I’ll destroy your life.”
Cal walked right past her out of the caravan, oblivious.
When they started moving, Rue sat down next to the cage and looked in at the mouse Jules had been turned into. She poked her finger through the cage’s wires and wiggled it in a tiny wave. The mouse that was Jules inspected it for a moment, whiskers twitching, then wandered about the enclosure.
Rue continued despite the fact that she was only talking to herself. “Well, that wasn’t true. I know a lot about love. I’ve seen it, centuries and centuries of it. It’s the only thing that makes watching your world bearable. All the wars, the pain, and the lies, and the hate. That shit made me want to turn away and never look down again. But god, the way humans love… I mean, you could search the damn universe and never find anything like that.” She sighed. “So, yeah, I know love is unconditional. But I also know that it can be unpredictable, unexpected, uncontrollable, fucking unbearable,” she let out a watery laugh, “and surprisingly easy to mistake for loathing. I guess what I’m trying to say is, Jules,” she took a deep, stuttering breath, “I think I love you.”
The tear waiting in her eye broke free in relief. “My heart feels like it’s going to burst out of my chest. Like it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to you. And if you wanted it, I wouldn’t need anything in return. No gifts or dumbass demonstrations of devotion. Nothing but knowing you love me too. Just your heart, in exchange for mine.”
Rue looked over her shoulder as the sound of Cal screaming at his horse carried through the door. She blew out a long exhale, then she turned back to Jules.
“I hate everyone else in the world but you.”