"First rule of piracy: be in the wrong place at the right time."

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“First rule of piracy: be in the wrong place at the right time” –Pirate Captain Genevieve Jones puts this rule to the test when she and her ship, the Heart of Gold, attack an airship carrying the recently betrothed Duchess of Albany, Lalita Laffel. When the final war of the Old Gods destroyed the seas, the Liberty Empire rose from the ruins and conquered the skies- but its control may be slipping as pirates roam, occultists dabble in profane magics left by dispossessed gods and disgruntled colonies ferment trouble.

Magic hunter Rachel Masters has been dispatched to Albany by Talon’s Inquisition, to recover a legendary and dangerous magical weapon left by the gods before it can be used against the Empire. When the archbishop refuses to allow Rachel access to the Sanctus Treasury, she realizes that she will need assistance from the Duchess Lalita, who unfortunately must first be rescued from the mercenary clutches of the elusive pirate Genevieve Jones.

Before turning to piracy, Genevieve served in the Liberty navy, but her experiences left her with old scars and a terrible burden to carry. Finding a rich bounty for her renegade crew is now Genevieve’s priority- but fate has set these strong women on a collision course as they uncover ancient rivalries and treacherous magic’s that threaten not only the Empire, but the world!

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Chapter One

'First rule of piracy: be in the wrong place at the right time,' said the first mate, Ethan Burrows. The wiry man grinned at her over his shoulder as he balanced barefoot on the Heart of Gold's starboard taffrail.

'Good eyes, Mr. Burrows,' Captain Genevieve Jones replied. She turned her airship's helm a point to starboard on an intercept course with the two ships rising from the horizon beyond the sea of permafog. Light from the westering sun smeared their long canvas balloons in hues of peach and grey barely distinguishable before the distant clouds. The wooden hulls suspended beneath were little more than brown smudges riding high like lazy gulls in an up-draft.

'May have been my eyes what spotted them,' Burrows said, 'but you said where they ought to be, and by Talon, there they be.' He laughed heartily. 'The men'll sing of this tonight. There ain't a man among them who'll doubt Gin Jones's seamanship now.'

She glanced at the motley crew of ne'er-do-wells and ship-rats standing on rails and hanging off the rigging beneath the Heart of Gold's balloons, cheering and hooting. Most wore whatever their mothers had tossed them out with or prison rags; they were the last scoundrels she'd ever imagined would be under her command.

'Let's not get ahead of the tide, Mr. Burrows,' Genevieve said. 'Order the men to pipe down--the sun at our backs will make our friends over there blind but not deaf.' Disorder sunk ships long before they fell under the enemy's guns and she would not allow it on hers.

Burrows whistled sharply, and the quartermaster's booming voice barked for silence in the midships, sending the crew back to polishing cannon balls and loading their flintlock pistols.

Genevieve leaned over the helm, looping her arms around the smooth handles, and scrutinised the faint ships sailing south. They had risen well above the line at the horizon, where the darkening sky met the featureless fog sea. 'What do you make of them?'

'She's the Swan Song, all right.' Burrows pointed to the larger ship with a reddish hull and long balloons sailing almost a mile behind her smaller escort. 'Ain't another ship her size on the Meridian Sea.' He slipped a spyglass from his trousers and casually flicked it out to full length. Looping one arm through the rigging, Burrows leaned outboard until he was nearly perpendicular to the hull with nothing but open sky between him and a thousand-foot drop to the foggy void below.

He peered down his glass with the wind whipping at his loose black hair. 'The other I ain't seen before'--he let out a low whistle '--she's all angles and business--a thirty-two-gun frigate, I'd wager.' The ropes creaked as Burrows hauled himself upright. He skipped onto the deck, landing deftly at Genevieve's side. 'Thirty-two to our twelve. One of these days, you're gonna get me killed, Gin.'

'We have the sun and wind at our back,' Genevieve said calmly. 'We'll cut across the Swan Song's stern before she can bring those guns to bear.'

Burrows snatched his flat cap off the helm pedestal, brushed his hair back, and fitted it over his head. 'I'll bet you a bottle.'

Gin turned her gaze back to the escort ship. Without knowing her armament or crew it was not a safe bet. She couldn't be shy before action, though 'Deal.'

'And none of that bilge-water you're feeding us'--he offered his hand--'I want one of those fancy bottles I seen you hiding.'

Damn Burrows. She couldn't slip anything past his notice. Gin nodded and squeezed his hand until he winced.

'To your good fortune, Captain.' He smiled, nursing his aching hand.

'It's not luck, Mr. Burrows. Everything is measurable, everything calculated.' Including the smile she'd allowed herself.

'See, that's the problem with you navy types,' he said, gesturing widely. 'You're never willing to have a little faith.'

She really couldn't slip anything by him. Gin affixed him with a stony glare. 'Mr. Burrows?'

He paled at her expression, lips drawn taut. Seamanship wasn't the only thing Gin had a reputation for. 'Don't look so surprised.' A nervous laugh escaped his lips. 'Between the drills, the night watches, and having us run out the guns every other day, we all reckoned it.'

She narrowed her dark eyes. 'Don't mention it again, Mr. Burrows.'

'It ain't our business anyhow. You're one of us now, Captain.' He clapped her on the shoulder and lounged back against the taffrail. He cast his gaze again to the horizon, a smile returning to his face.

Genevieve kept one eye on Burrows and the other on her altimeter, adjusting the Heart of Gold's balloon pressure carefully. Although he, and the crew, followed her lead at present, Genevieve was still the outsider on this ship.

It was a dangerous game without the navy's chain of command to protect her. There were no ranks or laws among pirates--only loyalty, and the crew were more loyal to Burrows than her. Gin needed him more than she was comfortable with.

A twinge crept into the old wound in her left thigh, and she sighed through her teeth and massaged the hideous scar tissue through the oily fabric of her overalls. Burrows looked her up and down, his brow knitting together. Straightening up quickly, Genevieve pulled out her pocket watch, paying specific and careful attention to it until the man looked the other way. Her thigh, however, continued to throb until she could feel it in her bones.

Genevieve coiled the watch chain around her finger. 'Twenty minutes 'til we make the history books.'

'Or the footnotes of a ship's log.' Burrows chuckled grimly.

She allowed herself another smile. 'Have a little faith.'

He hunched over, wheezing and growing a hearty flush across his ruddy cheeks, and she wasn't certain if he was choking or laughing. Smiling contentedly, she studied their targets as she waited for him to compose himself.

The other ships were close enough to make out with her own eyes now. The Liberty Navy escort ship was no frigate, but something of a light cruiser--some new design that Genevieve had never seen before. The Heart of Gold was an aged gunship by comparison, but she was small and nimble with a sturdy oak hull that hearkened back to the age of ocean-bound vessels, before the Calamity of the Meridian Sea.

Although the escort ship was smaller than a cruiser, with no more than twenty-four guns, she was larger and better armoured than the Heart of Gold by far. With an over-sized engine, she would also be difficult to outpace. Genevieve studied it from stem to stern and quickly concluded she had no intention of getting near enough to find out what it was capable of. No, her target was the Swan Song, the plump yacht trailing behind her escort.

'Beat to quarters, Mr. Burrows, if you please,' Genevieve said sharply, 'and hoist the colours.'

Burrows straightened, his cheeks still reddened. He stomped his feet together and threw a mock salute. 'Aye aye, Cap'n!' Spinning on his heel, he parade-marched down to the midship.

Gin drove a deadly glare into his back. Though a ship's mate shouldn't flaunt before his captain, she couldn't discipline Burrows--not without turning the crew against her.

Alone on the quarterdeck, Gin slouched across the helm once more, kneading her thigh with the heel of her palm where no one could see it. Nothing soothed the deep throbbing in her leg, though. Boots thundered on deck as the crew assembled at their action stations, priming their pistols and loading the cannons. A pair of Liberty Renegades opened the breach of the Diplomatic Solution--the affectionately-named and over-sized cannon mounted on the prow of her ship--and loaded her with twin shells.

Her crew was loyal now, when high in spirits and eager to put their guns to work. Whatever pasts they'd run from, they'd united on the Heart of Gold for the same reasons: they'd either turned their backs on Liberty or Liberty had turned her back on them. Under the stress of action, though, would they look to their captain or to Burrows? She hoped a successful raid would cement her authority. Until then, it balanced on a knife's edge.

Genevieve straightened and gripped the helm in both hands. Closing her eyes, and with practised calm, she flushed doubt from her mind and focused on the task ahead. With good cheer and a glimmer of fortune in the crew's eyes, she could hope for no better odds for committing piracy under the nose of a Liberty Navy man o' war.

The Swan Song sailed southbound over the misty Meridian Sea, unaware of the threat lurking behind the shroud of the late sun. She was an old, plump vessel larger than any sensible shipwright would make nowadays. The sun-cracked paint and faded awnings couldn't dull the grandeur of her castle motif architecture.

Old Captain Gallagher sat at a circular dining table in the midships, admiring the carved crenellations in the parapets of his ship more than listening to the conversation buzzing around him. The gentry and nobility of Liberty had little of interest to say to an old military man like himself. Servants had arranged tables for evening tea in the open air of the last of the warm summer evenings.

A murmur of polite discourse filled the air. The gentlemen dressed in patterned suits with flamboyant waistcoats and ladies in impractically decorated corsets and pleated dresses were wedding guests of the duchess of Albany. Captain Gallagher's weathered brown eyes drifted to the horizon, wondering what madness had driven him to accept the duchess's invitation to tea.

'Ship ho!' came a bellow from the maintop, accompanied by the peal of brass bells.

Gallagher snapped back to reality and shot to his feet, bumping their table and making the porcelain rattle precariously.

'Where away?' He scanned the golden-embroidered horizon, but could make out no ship amongst the spotty clouds.

'Two points abaft the starboard beam,' the watchman called.

Gallagher spun instinctively to the heading, and was blinded by the orange-gold sun melting over the horizon. He squinted and sheltered his brow. There, on the leftmost edge of that bright orb, was a shape shrouded by shafts of light. He glanced away, blinking spots from his vision.

That ship was close--far too close.

'Oh, Joseph'--the duchess shook her head--'let's not do this again--not during tea.'

Gallagher's brow furrowed as he glared at the young duchess sipping her tea, nonplussed. She possessed every bit of her mother's regal grace, porcelain skin, and a careful bundle of red curls atop her head. Her eyes, however, were shrewd like her father's. He dared not underestimate her.

'I was paid far too handsomely to not see you safely to your wedding.' Gallagher hobbled from the table, making his way astern. 'Neither your father nor your commodore will be pleased if I am tardy.'

The duchess's chair grated on timber as she shot up and hustled after him. He stomped up the ladder to the quarterdeck, with the click of her heeled shoes close behind.

'Captain on deck,' the coxswain shouted from his post behind the helm.

The ship's officers turned from the horizon, the master and the lieutenant habitually saluting his presence. 'I'm retired,' Gallagher grumbled, waving them off as he marched before the helm. 'Send the passengers to their cabins and clear the deck for action.'

The duchess stopped just behind him; despite his best attempts to ignore her, she place her hands on her hips and stood up to him with determination written on her face. 'Really, Joseph, I insist you're over reacting. She's probably another merchantman, or a--'

'Captain Gallagher,' he barked, his grey stubble wrinkling into a scowl. 'Albany may be your Duchy, but the Swan Song is mine.' Her mouth hung agape for a moment and then snapped into a tight pout. 'Lieutenant,' Gallagher waved over the red-coated officer without taking his eye off her, 'arrange the duchess an escort to her quarters. I want two marines posted at her door.'

Duchess Lalita pulled her lips into the practised smile of a politician. She adjusted the small hat atop her head and beckoned the two marines who had come to escort her. 'Come along then.' She trotted down the ladder, her bustle swishing behind her.

Gallagher followed her that far, glaring until she'd vanished below decks. His ire then shifted to the disorderly mob crowding his deck, the corner of his lip twitching. With an unidentified ship just minutes from striking distance, the patricians and servants thought nothing of pushing and shoving one another to get a glimpse. Gossip and speculation rose in a deafening crescendo; even the ship's marines were caught up in the despicable display.

Gallagher rapped his fingers along the rail, his chest swelling, and bellowed in the way only a ship's captain could, 'All passengers to quarters! All hands to action stations!' Silence cut across the deck, which became so still he could hear the stays creaking. The sea of heads turned to him in wide-eyed unison; patricians hesitated and glanced, dumbfounded, amongst each other, and the marines stood rooted to the deck. 'If I see any sailor slacking, you'll be spending next watch hanging by your ankles from the devil's nest.'

As if fire had sparked beneath them, the marines sprang into action, scrambling for their guns and caps. The patricians, still believing themselves above discipline, milled about on deck, voicing their dissent. Gallagher affixed his glare sternly upon the crowd. His reputation, and the threat of punishment--even an illegal one--was enough for the marines to overcome their fear of the patricians, and herd them below decks.

The lieutenant took over in the midships, lining up his marines in a defensive perimeter around the Swan Song. The militaristic sharpness hearkened Gallagher back to his days in the navy--a small comfort to ease the tension in his chest.

He sighed and dipped his hand into the pocket of his old, woollen coat, and plucked out a spyglass and smoking pipe. 'So, this is my retirement.' He returned to his coxswain, shaking his head. 'Wet nurse to green sailors and haughty nobles.'

'Chin up, old dog,' the coxswain said. 'After this milk run, we'll have money to fix the Swan Song up proper. Then it's nothing but tranquil cruises through the Liberty Isles.'

'Let's not get ahead of the tide.' Gallagher pressed the pipe between his lips and peered down his spyglass. After the coxswain struck a match across the wheel and lit Gallagher's pipe, he puffed smoke out his nose as his eyes strained against the glare of the sun.

The airship was now so close that it blotted out part of the sun, and Gallagher could make out her shape clearly: a bulbous hull with two squat masts supporting an angular balloon cradle. Dread gripped his chest long before she flew her colours: a blood-red bovine skull on a white flag.

'The Liberty Renegades,' he growled.

'This far south?' The coxswain gaped. 'Talon help us.'

Gallagher clapped the spyglass shut and turned to his deckhand; the boy stood on his toes, peering at the ship over the bulwark. 'You, boy.' He pointed with his pipe, smoke curling from his lips.

The deckhand startled and leapt to attention, standing with shoulders back and chin out. 'Aye, Captain.'

'Tell communications to radio our escort.'

The boy threw a stiff salute and dashed off, chancing a final glance westward before disappearing into the lower decks.

Captain Gallagher puffed madly on his pipe, smoke dispersing on the wind as quickly as it billowed from his nose. If he could sink a ship with a scowl, he'd have certainly done so by now.

'What orders, Captain?' The coxswain shifted uneasily behind the helm.

Gallagher glanced ahead of the Swan Song. Their escort, the Challenger, now sailed nearly a mile in front of them. Her captain had drifted too far--carelessly indulgent of the grunt in those modern engines, no doubt. Without her, the Swan Song had only pistol and rifle to defend their ship. Gallagher drew his old service flintlock; he despised leaving his fate in the hands of others more than anything.

'Flank speed, Mr. Baton. Bring us alongside the Challenger close enough that I may throttle Captain Rogers without ever stepping off my ship.'

Baton gave a grim chuckle and flipped the engine telegraph up two notches. 'Aye, Captain.'

The mass of wood and canvas shuddered, her ageing timbers rattling in protest at the sudden acceleration. The Swan Song's four great engines whined in an increasing cacophony as they thrust the plump ship forward.

Even at flank speed, the pirate gunship closed in until Gallagher could see the Renegades' gleeful, gold-hungry faces. He cocked his flintlock--he had no intention of letting them on his ship without first bloodying their noses.

The gunship tacked astern at the last second with shocking nimbleness and then cut across their stern with all her guns to bear.

'Down!' Gallagher roared, and tackling Mr. Baton to the deck. 'All hands down!'

He clenched his eyes shut and listened for the roar of cannons. Silence ticked by, paid only by the creak of the rigging and then the gentle thump of boots on the poop deck. Gallagher lifted himself, eyes widening, as a swarm of Renegades, borne aloft by gliders swooped onto the stern of his ship.

A tall woman with olive skin and cold business in her eyes stood over him and drew two flintlocks from her sides. 'Lay up or be laid down.'

Chapter Two

The Swan Song's escort cruiser, the Challenger, was a warship built with purpose. Despite its angled armour and sleek hull, however, the shipwrights had somehow found space in her stern to include a generously-sized cabin for important passengers.

Inquisitor Rachel Masters didn't acknowledge the first knock on her cabin door, nor the second. A third never came. As the door creaked open, she greeted her uninvited guest with a murderous glare from behind the desk. 'I asked not to be disturbed.'

Captain Rogers threw the door open, anyway. 'I considered that,' the black-haired man lounging against the door-frame smiled, 'but then I remembered this is my ship.'

Rachel hunched over her squat desk, disorganised documents piled atop. The black-and-gold robes of Talon's Inquisition adorned her shoulders, and curly locks of red hair framed what could otherwise be considered a pretty face if not for the black bags beneath her eyes and the unamused pout creasing her pale features. Her brown eyes, hardened and red rimmed by book weariness, affixed him with an expectant glare.

'Need you on deck.' He nodded over his shoulder.

'I've got a lot of papers to sort through.' She huffed and returned to her work. 'The duchess is already anxious about the Inquisition snooping around her treasury for illegal magic to begin with.'

Rogers grinned. 'I'm sure your reputation and winning disposition have nothing to do with it.'

'Diplomacy is not typically in my job description.' She snorted, unable to control the smile pulling at her lips.

The captain shook his head and chuckled. 'I do, however, need your other talents on deck. We've got a Renegade gunship in sight. You may not be in the navy anymore, but I still trust your eyes.'

Rachel's brows arched. 'Send a runner when they're in striking range.' As if on cue, the ship turned hard to port, jostling Rogers against the door-frame and sending loose paper and pens scattering off her desk. She shot up, now alert to the sound of drums beating to quarters on the decks above and the reverberations of the engines accelerating below. 'They're already here.'

Rogers nodded. 'Didn't see her until she was on top of us.'

She glanced out her stern windows to see the Swan Song occupied a greater portion than when she last looked. How many hours ago had that been? She twinged in guilt at dismissing his initial request.

'I'll be thirty seconds,' she said.

Gathering her papers, Rachel stuffed her casebook until it struggled to close and tucked it away in a drawer. She marched toward the door, running fingers through her red curls and fixing them out of her face with pins.

As she followed the captain through the Challenger's gun deck, she stretched her back, twisting until her spine clicked. Rogers grimaced her way, and she smiled back while twisting her neck the opposite direction until it loosened with a satisfying pop.

The captain shook the shivers from his limbs. 'You're a menace.'

The gunnery crew dashed across their path, carrying cannonballs in pairs and hauling powder from the magazine. Gun ports were kicked open, the cannons loaded and braced. Rachel danced around them, the turning force of the Challenger making every step a struggle not to fall over.

She climbed the ladders topside, squinting as the evening sunlight struck her eyes, and a strong, westerly wind swept stray hair away from her face.

'It's good to have you in the sunlight.' Captain Rogers winked at her and marched back to his quarterdeck.

With a hand keeping the sun from her eyes, she scanned the northern horizon, catching a glimpse of the gunship behind the larger ship. 'Close contact--no kidding.'

'She showed the Renegade colours not moments ago,' he said, brow furrowing pensively.

Drawing her spyglass, Rachel sighted the Renegade ship. 'They had to know our route ahead of time, but why wait until we're two days out of Liberty to strike?'

Rogers shrugged. 'They're Renegades.'

The inquisitor pursed her lips. There had to be more reasoning than that. On the Renegade gunship's prow she sighted the name. 'The Heart of Gold.' The Challenger's engines roared, sending Rachel's heart pounding, as the ship finished her wide turn, bringing her heading north and accelerating forward.

'Whoever she is, she won't be long for this world.' Rogers shook with amusement and turned to the command crew. 'Order the Swan Song to descend beneath us.' The communications officer saluted and sent a runner dashing off to the relay below decks. 'Keep the guns steady and fire on my order. Gallagher will have my epaulets if we wing the Swan Song.' His orders echoed down the chain of command until every man stood over his gun, primed to fire. 'This ought to catch them off guard.' Captain Rogers grinned back at her.

Rachel puffed air into her fringe and returned to her glass. 'The Renegades must know they can't fight the Challenger.'

The gunship circled behind the Swan Song, using the bulky ship as a sight-blocker. As she passed behind the stern, a dozen red kites swarmed from the Heart of Gold and descended upon the helpless Swan Song.

'There--they're using gliders!' She pointed, passing her spyglass over to Rogers.

He stared into it grimly as the Heart of Gold broke cover from behind the Swan Song, and the cannons spoke with a flash and disappeared behind a screen of white smoke. The salvo flew high, one shot bouncing off the Challenger's thick balloon canvas harmlessly and another carrying away a block from the rigging. The Challenger replied with her bow cannons, but the nimble gunship ducked behind the Swan Song unscathed.

'They mean to use their ship as a distraction.' Rogers scratched the stubble on his chin, passing the spyglass back to Rachel. 'Mr. Bollard,' he said to his lieutenant, 'organise a boarding party. We'll meet them in kind.' Bollard saluted and hurried down to the midships.

Rachel tucked her spyglass away. 'I'm going with them.'

The captain crossed his arms. 'The last thing I need is the Church breathing down my neck because their precious inquisitor got herself shot.'

'I can't do my job without the duchess,' Rachel said, straightening. 'That aside, you called me because you needed my help.'

As his brows sunk farther over his dark eyes, she sucked in a breath and prepared her preemptive protest. 'Just be careful.' Captain Rogers shook his head.

She dropped her hands to her hips. 'I can take care of myself.' Spinning around, Rachel stomped down the ladder and waded through the group of marines in red coats, unpacking their boarding kits. Lieutenant Bollard, a stout man, half a head shorter than Rachel, with a clean shaved and ruddy face, stood atop the rails organising his men.

'Mr. Bollard,' Rachel said, 'I'm to accompany your party aboard the Swan Song.'

The man sized her up in a glance and frowned. She regarded him with a fierce grimace, having had quite enough of people doubting her ability, even silently.

'I hear you were quite the hot-head in the navy,' he said.

'I prefer to call it ambition.' She pursed her lips.

'There will be no issues following my orders, I hope.'

Rachel nearly laughed, understanding him plainly now. She put on a flattering smile. 'No, sir. I'm a Church jess now--you have the lead.'

Bollard's face warmed, though he retained his authoritative expression. 'I hope Church life hasn't slowed you down.'

'I'm not as fit as I used to be, but I'll keep up.' She fell in line alongside his fire teams, smiling to herself. Pulling open her robes, she drew her revolver from under her arm. Her weapon had been a gift from Talon, fresh off the production line, and she smiled with satisfaction as the marines admired it with sideways glances.

They would have never seen, let alone been able to afford, one. For Rachel, it was her pride and joy; the heavy weapon kicked like a mule and could blow a hole through a ship's bulkhead.

Bollard barked a command, and his fire teams scrambled into two uniform lines. Although Rachel had drilled these scenarios thousands of times, the instinctual discipline had long since left her. The first ranks knelt with their barrels laid over the bulwark; the second rank stood behind, aiming over their shoulders. Gatling cannons on swivels tracked the fast-approaching ship and sharpshooters scaled the rigging to their vantage points until the Challenger's top deck bristled with guns.

The minutes ticked by as they approached the Swan Song--precious time the Renegades could be looting, pillaging, and doing whatever else they pleased. On a gunship that size, there could be as many as fifty Renegades. She'd counted at least half as many gliders in the air--more than enough to overwhelm the small compliment of marines stationed on the Swan Song.

The Challenger decelerated suddenly, and Rachel leaned outboard, watching the Swan Song come up on their port side. Her rose-red forecastle concealed the midships and whatever opposition stood ready to receive them. She took in a deep, calming breath, tightening her grip around the reliable weight of her revolver.

'All hands, brace for lock,' Captain Rogers boomed from the quarterdeck.

Every man and woman on deck tensed as the Swan Song shot by in a blur and the boarding clamps dropped onto the Swan Song's rails. Iron and wood groaned, and all the ship's hands tipped sideways as the runaway ship dragged the Challenger in reverse.

Rachel had been prepared to be greeted by gunfire, not silence. The firing line shuffled restlessly as no Renegades stood to meet them--not even the crew remained on deck. Whatever had taken place aboard the Swan Song, only the abandoned remnants of evening tea remained.

'Boots on deck! Let's move it,' Lieutenant Bollard shouted. He vaulted over the rail first, landing on the Swan Song with the marines right behind him.

He crossed into cover by the tables, watching the left flank as his fire team hustled up behind. The four teams fanned out into a half-circle, covering every angle. As Rachel stepped over the rails, cannons thundered overhead. She hit the deck instinctively and braced for impact.

'The Challenger's been hit!' one of the marines cried.

Rachel picked herself up. The Heart of Gold rained iron over the Challenger from her broadside with a height advantage. The navy escort pulled away and the gatling gunners swivelled their cannons up and cranked the barrels, filling the air with hollow pinging as shot flattened against the gunship's sturdy keel.

'Eyes on the objective, lads and ladies,' Bollard said before any panic could take root. 'The captain can handle one little gunship.'

Rachel tore her eyes away from the cannonball-sized hole the Renegades had put through her cabin window. Those Renegades would have hell to pay if she found glass amongst her belongings.

The Challenger's marines swept the Swan Song's top deck clean without any sign of the Renegades and rallied to breach the ballroom on the deck below. Rachel stood behind Bollard in the crowded antechamber and marines stood shoulder to shoulder all the way up the companionway.

This was the only entry, and they could be about to charge straight into a firing line. She tightened her grip on her revolver as one marine threw in the door and Bollard stormed inside. The inquisitor followed on his heels.

'Friendlies front centre,' the stocky lieutenant shouted. 'Watch your fire.'

The boarding party fanned out across the wide room and approached the passengers tied up in bundles in the middle of the room. Rachel held her breath, waiting for the Renegades to spring from hiding places and start shooting. Bollard, however, reached the opposite side of the ballroom and signalled it was all clear. The Renegades were gone.

The patricians sat on the floor, the ropes lashed hastily around their middles a less effective restraint than their own fear. Some looked terrified and some outraged, but none appeared to be injured, and certainly none of them had been robbed. Rachel had witnessed the aftermath of a Renegade raiding party before--this was something else.

The same could not be said of the ship's marine compliment; many were only kept upright by the ropes, although none were quite dead.

'Miss Masters, over here,' Bollard hailed from where he knelt by Captain Gallagher.

The old captain was red faced and seething around the knotted cloth clenched between his teeth. Bollard ungagged him and held a fresh cloth to his bloodstained temple as Captain Gallagher spluttered curses that would have made Rachel's mother blush.

Gallagher looked Bollard in the eye. 'The duchess.'

A cold hand wrapped like a vice grip around Rachel's heart, and she stepped forward. 'Where is she?'

'Her quarters are astern.' Gallagher nodded in the direction of two doors at the end of the hall, and Bollard shot to his feet, barking orders to his marines.

His words, however, were already behind Rachel as she barrelled through the doors with her heart in her throat. The corridor's many doors went by in a blur of red and white, her vision tunnelling on the grand double doors ahead of her.

She stumbled into the hardwood doors, shoving them and rattling the locked handle in vain before kicking at them in frustration. She thumped her forehead against the door, her chest heaving as she fought for enough air to speak. 'Duchess Lalita,' she called.

There was no answer. As Rachel considered her options, Bollard caught up to her with two more marines on his heels. She swallowed against her dry throat and tried again. 'I am Inquisitor Rachel Masters. I'm here to make sure you're safe.'

'Don't come in!' the duchess cried.

Rachel frowned. Something was off about her voice--she wasn't afraid of them but afraid of them entering.

She waved Bollard and his marines over, and they pressed themselves to either side as Bollard stood behind her, rifle aimed at the door.

Kneeling before the lock, Rachel pulled a hair pin from her tangle of curls. She bent the thin metal to shape and slipped it into the keyhole; after a moment of twisting and rattling, the locking mechanism tumbled open. Stepping back, she drew her revolver and smiled at Bollard's startled look.

On her nod, the marine on her left grabbed the handle and shoved the door in.

Rachel stepped into the room, her pulse hammering in her ears. Clearing the left, she locked eyes with the duchess who made herself small in the corner of the cabin. White outlined her blue irises all the way around, and the tendons in her pale neck stood taut beneath the lace choker.

Rachel lowered her revolver, and that moment of hesitation was all her assailant required. She caught a glimpse of movement from behind the door, and before she could turn, the woman was there. She shunted Rachel's elbow one way and the revolver barrel the other, face bored and impassive as she peeled the gun from the inquisitor's grip in a single motion.

She barely had time to regain her footing before the next blow came; Rachel brought up her hands to block, but her limbs moved too slowly. Two consecutive hits drove the wind from her lungs as she fell back.

Rachel wondered if she was unconscious, but the burning in her lungs put the query to rest. She forced her mouth open and sucked in a ragged, desperate breath. Lurching up, she found herself sprawled out on a bench against the hull.

Although she'd been out for only a moment, Bollard and his marines already lay in a tangle of limbs on the floor, along with the duchess' own two guards. The woman standing over them was just taller than Rachel with broad shoulders and defined arms protruding from a sleeveless white shirt. Her skin was an olive tone of Samarkese descent, and her loose ponytail shone black with a hint of brown in the evening light coming through the stern window.

With mechanical efficiency, she cleared the barrel of each marine's rifle and tossed them out of reach. Her own weapons remained holstered--a knife and two flintlocks on either side of her torso. She carried herself with that economy of motion Rachel saw in career fighting men, like Bollard. This woman was not like the other Renegades she had fought--not like any she had met.

As Rachel shifted, the woman's dark brown eyes locked with hers, her expression remaining neutral as she studied her. Rachel balled her hands; the Renegade's calm demeanour only served to strengthen her rage, but, disarmed, she had no outlet. She glanced at the floor, scanning for her revolver.

The Renegade caught her meaning and reached behind her back, drawing Rachel's weapon. The inquisitor's eyes widened in cold fury, though the pirate hardly seemed to notice.

'Interesting design,' she murmured, cracking open the cylinder and checking ammunition. 'Thank Talon for always finding us more effective means to kill each other.'

Rachel ground her teeth. She was not going to let a pirate take her gun or insult her God. Her rage screamed at her to tackle the woman, but she'd been defeated in close quarters effortlessly--she needed a gun. The only flintlock in sight, though, was in Bollard's holster just beneath the Renegade's feet.

A crash in the corner startled the taller woman. In a flash, she aimed the commandeered revolver toward the duchess, whose attempted escape had been rather quiet until she tripped in her heels and shattered a hanging lantern with her forehead.

The Renegade bounded across the room toward her, and as she grabbed the duchess Rachel dove for the flintlock. She hit the deck and slid to a halt just short of her target, but lunged again, wrestling the gun from Bollard's holster, The inquisitor rolled over, bringing the muzzle to bear and thumbing the gunlock back.

The Renegade had positioned herself behind the duchess. The girl gulped visibly as the revolver's barrel pressed against the back of her neck. Rachel rose slowly, her hands trembling with rage. She aimed at the woman, but with the duchess between them and such an unreliable weapon, she could not risk taking a shot.

'Who are you?' she demanded.

'Genevieve Jones, captain of the Heart of Gold,' she said boldly.

Rachel's eyes narrowed. 'Genevieve'--she paused for another breath--'the Liberty Navy has seized control of this ship. You've nowhere to run.'

'I beg to differ.' Her tone was as flat as her expression.

She wrapped one arm around Lalita's middle and pulled her in closer, eliciting a yelp. Despite the blood trickling from a cut on her forehead, she struggled against the hold. Genevieve slowly circled Rachel, keeping the duchess between them and her back to the wall at all times.

'Surrender and I'll leave you with the navy,' Rachel stepped forward, careful not to tread on the hands and faces of her fallen comrades, 'but force me to take you in and the Church will do far worse.'

For the first time in the exchange, Genevieve cracked a smile. It was a calculated expression but the only hint of emotion she'd shown thus far. 'Who do you think I am?' She threw her back at the balcony door, it crashed open and she rushed outside.

With her feet mired in the pile of bodies on the floor, Rachel stumbled in pursuit of the Renegade. As she ran through the doors, a sharp pop sent her ears ringing--an extraction balloon burst from the back of Genevieve's belt. Rachel froze in the doorway, staring dumbly. Not even inquisitors had access to that kind of equipment.

Utter disbelief cost her precious seconds as the canvas balloon bloated into a sphere and yanked Genevieve and the duchess off their feet. Running forward, Rachel leapt for their ankles, but fell short as they drifted off the stern of the Swan Song.

She brought her pistol up, but the wind had carried the duchess over the brumous sea; even if she hit her mark, the balloon had nowhere to fall but the mists. She almost threw the weapon overboard in frustration but settled for slamming down her fist on the rail and glaring daggers at Genevieve.

The Heart of Gold swooped across the Swan Song's stern. Beneath the hull trailed a tow line, to which clung the last of the boarding party, gliders still attached to their backs. A gaff scooped up Genevieve's extraction balloon, and the ship carried on its way with the Challenger following in close pursuit. Her twin chaser cannons slung iron in a thunderous roar.

With only a bruising of daylight on the horizon, the engagement would soon end, one way or another. For a moment Genevieve and all the terrible things Rachel wanted to do to her disappeared from her mind, replaced by a tightening knot in her gut.

If Captain Rogers sunk that ship, the duchess would go down with her.

The Heart of Gold came about suddenly, bringing her broadside to bear, and Rachel froze in place, staring dumbly as the cannons flashed. Hot iron arced through the air straight towards her and crashed through the Swan Song's stern, throwing Rachel to the deck.

Rose-tinted splinters showered her robes and hair and clattered all around her. Glass windows crashed, and the engines let out a roar and then spluttered as their life ebbed away in a greasy plume of smoke.

She pulled herself up by the rails. With the Swan Song disabled, the Renegade gunship turned east and sailed for the horizon. Although the Challenger was faster in a straight line, she turned at a lumbering pace.

By the time the navy ship had come about, the Heart of Gold had set her studding sails; with the wind at her back, she opened half a mile of sky between them. As the light faded to still darkness, the Heart of Gold vanished from sight, her stern lanterns winking from existence.

Rachel stared into the night at where her quarry vanished. She tore her eyes from the black horizon and stomped back inside.

Thank you for reading the first two Chapters of Guns of Liberty. The book will be available on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback on July 2nd 2019!