Gifts Excerpt: Chapters One and Two

 


1The steamship’s engine ground away, taking them ever closer to the island they’d spotted at the base of the rainbow. Every member of the crew seemed to be spinning fantasies about what they’d find there, though most of them focused on the end of short rations. The ship’s progress felt all too slow when clear skies and calm seas kept the island visible but out of reach.Samantha leaned against the rail and stared at the island with the rest of the off-duty crew. They’d probably been to many islands before, unlike her, but still, relief seemed only a small part of the excitement thrumming through them.Perhaps they saw this as an adventure after all, especially after surviving yet another fierce storm. She couldn’t be the only one looking forward to solid land beneath her feet.“You’ll regret the sleep you’re missing come landing,” Mister Trupt said as he swept by on his way to instruct some aspect of the ship. The first mate’s voice held more laughter than warning, his understanding clear.He came to a sudden halt next to Sam. “Thanks to you for your help, especially after…” His mustache twitched when words failed him, a state she suspected came rarely.As much to ease his discomfort as her own at being put on the spot, Sam waved off the apology. “You did nothing more than what you had to.”“And I’d do it again.”He turned and left before she could determine whether his statement came as an acceptance of hers, or a warning of what had yet to come.She might have fixed the damaged pump so they didn’t ride too low after the storm, but her knack for repairing mechanical objects came from the aether they gathered about themselves, not any training or skill. Why should the first mate trust her to control the ability when even she wasn’t sure she could?The sour thought haunted Sam as the island neared.The charts held no mention of this one, making the likelihood of a port slim. But once they’d resupplied, the captain knew the correct heading. Soon the sailors wouldn’t have to worry about a Natural wandering their decks…or transforming what powered the ship from below them.“And would you look at that,” Seamus said at her side. “You’ve found us a beaut of an island, Miss Samantha. So much greenery means fresh water, and like as not some game as doesn’t come already doused in salt, whether salted a purpose or tugged from the salty water.”He licked his lips in anticipation, and her thoughts strayed to a fresh meal all too quickly. She’d received the same cut rations as the others when she’d been discovered, and scavenged what she could as a stowaway before that.A little hunger and short rations were much better than the crew’s first reaction, though. They’d tried to toss her overboard on a sand spit that vanished and reappeared with the tides. A death sentence.Still, she would do much for the taste of some fruit jam like Cook prepared back at Henry’s estate.Homesickness swept over her as deep as one of the waves crashing across the deck during the previous night. Her sister and Henry would be wondering why she hadn’t sent word. If only she’d found Henry’s man on the dock in Dover. Then she’d be safe in a haven for people like her on the Continent instead of half a world away surrounded by rough sailors.“You’re a wonder, Miss Samantha.” Hassan changed his path to stop beside her after coming down from the rigging. “A king’s treasure to be sure.”Her cheeks heated at the praise, and it washed away all thought of the English countryside where she’d hidden for half her life. “I didn’t do much.”His wide mouth spread in a grin as he slapped both hands on the rail and laughed. “Not much? Not much, the miracle says.” The other sailors nearby joined in his laughter. “You fixed the engine ’til she’s strong, you fixed the captain’s crazy navigation device so he can see the earth itself, you fixed the pump so we didn’t drown…” With each statement checked off on his dark fingers, the sailors let out a cheer. Then his grin became wider still as he leaned close to whisper in the carrying voice every rigger learned, “And you didn’t transform our ship into a top-heavy monster.”The laughter swelled around her, and Sam appreciated the sentiment more than they could ever know. She’d never been teased about her gift instead of feared before. Not even when she’d fixed the steam-powered heater on Henry’s estate. Henry’s people, most of them, had accepted her as Lily’s sister despite her Natural tendencies, not because of them.Still, she heard the warning beneath the joking statement. Not so long ago, they’d expected just what he’d described from her, and they weren’t all that wrong.No matter how much hunger and desperation had kept her knack under control in the many weeks of their journey, she’d heard the engine wanting more.Sam turned back to stare at the approaching island as Hassan wandered off, having said his piece. He’d gotten his laugh and now returned to whatever duty he’d been about when he first saw her there. It wasn’t as if he could miss her, the only female in a crew of hardened sailors. She was the youngest or next to it as well.Thought of Nat sent her scanning the crew for her friend, defender, and companion.He’d been with her the moment she’d seen the rainbow marking their path to the island, but he’d had other tasks to see to. No one had complained when Sam stayed up top to watch their approach, but then she had sailors all around her the whole time. If she were to do anything to make them nervous, she had no doubt they’d have her bound up faster than a sail with a storm coming in.Oddly, the idea offered some comfort.Here, she could trust them to stop her while still being kind. Discovery had always meant imprisonment in an asylum before. Despite the respect Henry’s lineage, and his own labors, commanded, there would have been dire consequences for her sister and her brother-in-law as well. The ship ran on rules as strong as any on shore, with as swift punishments, but necessity and value weighed heavier than law.And they found value in her.2The call to assemble clanged from the bell shortly after they’d dropped anchor. It surprised no one and all of the crew had already gathered on deck.Mister Trupt stood by the helm, the register in his hands. The list normally came out when it was time to divide up earnings, but even then it served tradition more than a true need. The first mate knew every name the sailors might have gone under, those of their own choosing and those given them.Nat stood with the rest, no less eager to learn how he would be sent to the island. He wanted to discover whatever the lush jungle offered as much as any other despite his affection for the sea.Mister Trupt called out the names, assigning some to hunting, others to chopping trees necessary for repairing the storm damage, and still more to seek fresh water to replenish their supplies.Not once did Nat hear his own. Even when the first mate called out those allowed to take their leisure on the shore his name was not mentioned.“The rest of you will be the skeleton crew. Keep the ship at ready. These are uncharted waters, and therefore hold unknown dangers, especially this close to land. Pirates or natives may pose a threat.”He snapped the register closed and turned to walk down to the captain’s cabin where he would store the document.Before he got free, the captain sprang up the short flight of steps with unexpected energy. “Mister Trupt, if you would, I need three of the men to accompany me on an exploration. This is uncharted as you’ve said. We will amend the charts and perhaps discover trade opportunities.”Mister Trupt scowled at the request, the ledger coming open once again as he considered his assignments.Nat held his breath, sure this time he’d be loosed on the shore. After all, he had the most experience with Captain Paderwatch’s research having kept the captain busy many a day when he’d first come aboard.“Seamus, Pennybright, Hassan. You’ll go with the captain after a visit to the armory.”Again the book snapped shut, the sound a bit more adamant the second time. Mister Trupt strode for the steps without allowing for any further interruptions.Nat stared at the first mate, glanced at the captain, then returned his gaze to the one man with control over all shore access. Before he consciously started moving, his legs were already in motion, set on a path to intercept.“Mister Trupt,” Nat said when he’d come close enough not to shout. “Am I not to go ashore?”The first mate’s shoulders tensed. When he turned, his expression showed no significant emotion.“Was your name called off the list?”A flush heated his cheeks as Nat answered, “I did not hear it called.”“Then you’re not to go ashore.”Mister Trupt spun and took the three strides necessary to reach the captain’s cabin, but Nat could not leave well enough alone.“But why?” he asked before rethinking the wisdom of a protest.This time, the first mate’s expression left no doubt as he glared down at Nat. “It could be because your actions have not been wholly trustworthy this voyage,” Mister Trupt said, his words sharp. “It could be you sought to keep a stowaway hidden. It could be how you antagonized the engineer…”With each statement, Nat shrank a little further, wishing his question unspoken.“But the true reason is simple. You are responsible for Miss Samantha for all you’ve left her to her own devices this morning. She is to stay on board, which means so are you. Understood, Mister Bowden?”Nat stared at the worn boards beneath his feet. “Understood.”“I did not hear you, Mister Bowden.”Nat glanced up, meeting the first mate’s mild gaze firmly. “Understood, sir. I’ll get on about it now, sir.”Mister Trupt relaxed both his stance and his face as he gave Nat a smile. “She’s done much good and is sure to do more before we land somewhere civilized enough for her to depart. That weighs in your favor. But she is your responsibility, and fair or not, the girl has the ability to wrench the very ship from beneath us. She’s not to leave your sight unless placed back in her room with the key turned. There will be no slipping on this, Mister Bowden. She will not be left to wander when so few remain aboard to monitor her.”Hearing the warning and knowing he’d been a bit too lax with the ship’s rules, Nat could only nod his agreement.“Wait here.”Mister Trupt left him to stew in his own shortcomings while the first mate entered the captain’s cabin to replace the register. If not for the reputation Nat had earned since coming on board, first by keeping the captain from plaguing the crew and then by learning each part of the vessel with careful attention paid to those best skilled in the tasks, he’d have gotten more than a warning. He knew as much from when the engineer’s false accusation almost ended with him hanging from the yard arm.“Here you go, Mister Bowden. Take care not to lose this key, or our Natural. Mister Garth will be staying aboard to tend to some repairs. You are to keep out of his way and make sure Miss Samantha does the same. I will not hear of any trouble upon my return, now will I?”Nat closed his fist around the key once used to lock him inside and now to keep the crew happy. Samantha ran free in the engine room for many weeks without causing any damage. It didn’t seem fair to lock her up, especially after she’d repaired the engine and several other vital mechanical devices.He sighed and thrust the key into his pocket. Mister Garth’s story about the untrustworthy apprentice had shown well enough how expectations could be as dangerous as any reality even without his own experience with the crew’s reactions.blogscenesteam“AH, THERE YOU ARE, MISTER Bowden. I wouldn’t have expected to find you already at my cabin door.”Nat turned to face the captain, half-tempted to renew his pleas to go to the island. He could bring Samantha with him, fulfilling both demands.“Mister Trupt has much to do with preparing the equipment. We have sizable damage that I’m more comfortable patching here, with such a good supply of raw wood, than chancing a failure as we cross the wide stretch between us and the Americas. We’ll be here for a number of days, I suspect, and so the crew will need a proper base on the island as well. Not to mention renewing our stores from what vegetation and meat we can find.”Captain Paderwatch got a dreamy look on his face that boded ill for Jenson, the cook. Like as not, he’d be tasked with recreating something from the captain’s extensive travels as a child and young man studying different cultures, something far apart from the simple fare the crew preferred.“You wanted to see me?” Nat cut in before the captain got started into a tale of another voyage.While Nat listened intently to the sailors’ talk, the captain more often spoke of topics like food and marriage habits. It would be a long sail before Nat would have a use for such knowledge. Not until he succeeded in his effort to someday command a vessel himself.The captain shook his head to clear it and narrowed his gaze to take in Nat rather than whatever he’d been contemplating from the past. “Right. Yes, Mister Bowden, I did. Step into my cabin for a moment.”Nat couldn’t imagine what instruction the captain would consider so important as to delay his own explorations of the island, and the first mate had already given Nat a charge. If ever Samantha would get in trouble, this would be the time for it with the crew focused on preparations and no one paying any mind.“Come along, Nat. I haven’t much time.”“Mister Trupt—”“Mister Trupt can wait.”Nat’s shoulders curved as he gave in to the inevitable. He couldn’t chance this being a true order, not when he’d stretched the captain’s patience well beyond any friendship the man held for Nat’s mother.The door closed behind him with a finality that made Nat flinch. But then he’d been barred from the island. While the captain had better things to do, he must watch over Sam as the first mate commanded. He hoped she’d stay out of the way and take care.“Mister Trupt put you in charge of Miss Samantha, did he not?”The captain paused long enough for Nat to give an uncertain nod, surprised at the turn their conversation had taken.“I want you to do something for the girl. I want you to transform her into the look of a boy. Cut her hair and dress her in your spares, at least until she can purchase some of her own.”“What?” Nat stared at the captain. “You can’t mean what you said. She’ll not stand for it. Why would you do such a thing?”Captain Paderwatch gave a slight smile as though amused by his protest.“She may not look it now,” Nat persisted, “but you have only to talk with Miss Samantha to know she comes from a good family. She’s been raised well. Why would you ask me to take away such a critical part of her being?”The captain sank into his chair, attempting to tug it closer. He often forgot how the furniture had been nailed to the floor to prevent it from creating additional dangers in storms. The captain looked more the professor he’d been than a captain in this moment, but Nat had no patience for a lecture.Nat braced both feet and crossed his arms to glare at the captain as much as he knew he should be practicing deference and working to win back the man’s regard. “I won’t do it. She’s lost so much I won’t take who she is from her as well.”The captain thrust a hand through the hair that clung to one side of his bare pate. “She stands out too much, Nathaniel. Every moment she’s up on deck, she draws the attention of the sailors, and then they remember her nature. She saved us more than once. They know this as well as you or I do. But it takes so little to turn their regard into something darker. A miracle she might be, but her presence is tied up with luck, and luck can run bad as well as good.”He’d had the same worry often enough so Nat couldn’t disagree with the statement.Still, he planted his hands on the desk in front of the captain and demanded, “What does this have to do with stripping away who she is? We’re not so large a vessel they’ll be deceived into thinking her a second cabin boy you picked up before we left Dover. They know Samantha now.”The captain released a drawn out sigh and rubbed a hand across his forehead. “I’ve given this much thought, Nat. It’s not something I suggest lightly. Miss Samantha has been an aid to us. She deserves better thanks than all I can offer her, but she cannot stay aboard. The risk is too great.”“She was with us the whole voyage and has broken nothing,” Nat protested before the captain could continue.Captain Paderwatch’s eyes narrowed as he stared back at Nat. “I’m well aware of the facts. Now, at least. Had she been revealed soon out of Dover, we’d have turned back to drop her off. Instead, you saw fit to keep her presence hidden.”Nat’s gaze fell first, and his fingers scraped against the wood of the desk surface. “I discovered her too far out to turn back,” he said in a soft tone, not arguing so much as stating a fact. He knew well enough he should have ignored her pleas and reported Samantha to the captain when he’d first discovered her. But he hadn’t known her to be a Natural then. He hadn’t known his inaction put the ship at risk.“But she didn’t break anything,” Nat repeated, “and she fixed some.”The heat of the captain’s gaze eased a bit. Nat dared to look up only to see worry where there had been disappointment and censure before.“The risk is not so much of a Natural on board, though I can hardly believe those words even from my own lips. The risk is more that she does not belong. She’s not part of the crew, and even without her knack, her lack of place makes her vulnerable. Mister Garth still regards her with suspicion. How much would it take for the others to turn against her if something went wrong?”The tension in Nat’s shoulders made it hard to deny the charge, but he didn’t see how her looks mattered. “You still plan to put her off. What difference does it make if the crew sees her as a boy? We can’t be more than a week out of the Port of New York.”The captain laughed. “You need to spend less time in the engine room and more studying your charts, Mister Bowden.”He waved off Nat’s attempt to remind the captain he’d been barred from the vicinity of the engine.“The storm took us well past New York City. When we find landing in the Americas, it’ll be the Port of Savannah by my calculations.” He sobered. “And that is half the problem. We can’t very well turn Miss Samantha over to her family when she has none in the Americas, whether New York or Savannah. The crew might not care girl or boy, but if she adopts a boy’s style now, she’ll have a hope of carrying it off once she disembarks. A young woman alone faces greater dangers than you can imagine, especially in a port city.”The true meaning behind the captain’s request became clear, all too clear when he considered Mister Garth’s charge of bringing on a doxy when Samantha was first discovered. He had only to think about the dockside women in the ports he’d seen, and the riggers’ teasing, to know just what kind of life a woman without protection came to.Captain Paderwatch nodded. “I see you get my meaning. But a boy…well, there are always boys looking for work or a berth. She’d be lost in the crowd and find making her way a sight easier without the restraints placed on the female gender.”“I understand,” Nat said despite his reluctance. It did not seem fair for Samantha to give up everything just because a carriage disaster separated her from those responsible for seeing her safely to the Continent.Now she was halfway across the world from where she’d been headed, the captain would not agree to letting her sit out the full voyage and return to England, and her safety depended on becoming what she was not. Even without her affinity to all things metal, her circumstances had sunk far below what a well-brought-up young woman could be expected to endure.“You’re a good boy—man,” the captain said, breaking into his morose thoughts. “You’ve made many a poor decision this voyage, though you’d not be the first, nor likely the last, to have his head turned by a sweet face. It’s good to see you taking responsibility for your actions. Your mother would be proud of you.”With that, he waved toward the door, clearly dismissing Nat in favor of whatever preparations the captain needed before setting out to explore the island.Nat held the praise close, hoping he’d somehow managed to make up for those self-same poor decisions even if he couldn’t quite regret most of them.Samantha had become a friend and companion.He might regret breaking trust with the captain, engineer, and crew, but he could not regret protecting Samantha. Nor should he with how her presence kept them safe through not one but two storms. An early departure always risked such with the winter still casting its shadow onto the spring in the form of fierce weather. Without her aid, though, they’d surely have been lost.blogscenesteam

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