The Left-Handed Fate

Return to Nagspeake with a new fantasy adventure from Kate Milford! The Left-Handed Fate publishes August 23rd from Henry Holt & Co.

Lucy Bluecrowne and Maxwell Ault are on a mission: find the three pieces of a strange and arcane engine they believe can stop the endless war raging between their home country of England and Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. During the search, however, their ship, the famous privateer the Left-Handed Fate, is taken by the Americans, who have just declared war on England, too. The Fate (and with it, Lucy and Max) is put under the command of new midshipman Oliver Dexter…who’s only just turned twelve.

But Lucy and Max aren’t the only ones trying to assemble the engine; the French are after it, as well as the crew of a mysterious vessel that seems able to appear out of thin air. When Oliver discovers what his prisoners are really up to—and how dangerous the device could be if it falls into the wrong hands—he is faced with a choice: Help Lucy and Max even if it makes him a traitor to his own country? Or follow orders and risk endangering countless lives, including those of the enemies who have somehow become his friends?

 

 

Chapter One
June 22, 1812

Baltimore was a beautiful, twinkling, probably hostile collection of lights up ahead, half-hidden by two sheltering arms of land and one massive fortress. The topsail schooner Left-Handed Fate slid like an elegant knife through the water, trying as hard as ever she could not to look like a British privateer as she passed under the guns of Fort McHenry. The three youngest passengers stood at the port rail, leaning progressively farther out over the water in order to get a view unobstructed by someone else’s head until the tallest, a young man in spectacles and a blue velvet coat, shoved the leather portfolio he was holding into the hands of the girl in the middle, pivoted abruptly, and vomited over the side.

“Is Max all right?” asked the smallest, a child with Chinese features, leaning around the girl to give the older boy the briefest of looks.

“Just committing his supper to the sea.” After that, other than handing the portfolio back once the boy called Max had composed himself, Lucy Bluecrowne ignored them both. Her eyes were on the fortress, and not all the vomiting landlubbers in the world were going to distract her from the hornet’s nest they were sailing into.

“But there isn’t even any sea running,” the small boy protested. “This river’s calm as glass.”

“Since when does he need a reason?” Lucy muttered.

“I’m right here,” the taller boy, Max, said with wounded dignity. “And I’m not seasick, Liao.”

“Nerves, then,” Liao said sympathetically, patting his arm.

“I’d be an idiot not to be nervous,” Max retorted.

“Enough,” Lucy said abruptly. The night was far too clear for this sort of adventure. You wanted dirty weather—clouds, mist, a good fierce soaking storm—for sneaking in and out of unfriendly ports. But the weather hadn’t chosen to cooperate, so here they were, the Fate and her crew, waltzing toward the harbor of Fells Point as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

The crew had done what they could to disguise her more distinct features—detaching and stowing the left-handed figure head that was sometimes called a Fate and sometimes called a Fury, overpainting and scuffing the beautiful piney green she usually wore on her sides, dirtying up the decorative gilt gingerbread-work that was the bosun’s mate’s pride and joy. The Fate looked drab and nondescript now, except for her sharply back-slanting masts. Fortunately the schooner had been built in Baltimore, so it was perhaps the one place where she would look right at home. And they were headed for a friendly shipyard. Still… Lucy forced herself to unclench her jaw.

She also forced herself not to look back. The Fate had enemies behind her as well as enemies ahead, but there were already plenty of eyes scanning the dark river behind them for familiar sails.

Or strange lights on the water. Or strange lights under it. Or, worst of all, strange lights aboard the Fate itself. Lucy shuddered, then reached out and scratched one of the nearby lines of rigging for luck.

“Cutter’s ready,” came a rough whisper from across the deck. Lucy put one arm—a comforting arm, it was meant to be—around Max. For some incomprehensible reason, this made him flinch, which made her want to give him something to flinch about. Instead she took a deep breath and reminded herself that, yes, he was sure to be terribly nervous, and also he had just thrown up, and she led him across the deck as gently as she thought appropriate. Meaning that to anyone watching, it probably looked more like dragging him for twenty-five feet than leading him, but with effort, she kept herself from shoving him across with a kick in the backside to hurry the process along.

Kendrick and another sailor called Whippett were holding one of the Fate’s cutters steady against the starboard side. Max managed not to fall in the water as he climbed down into it. This was uncommon enough to seem like a good omen to Lucy.

Captain Richard Bluecrowne appeared at her side just as she was about to clamber down herself. “Take care, Lucy. You’re clear on the rendezvous?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And if there’s trouble?”

“All clear on that, too, sir.”

The captain nodded. “ Don’t go out of your way—I should prefer you to get Max where he needs to go and back again as quickly as possible—but keep your eyes open and take note of anything that might confirm or disconfirm the rumor.”

The rumor. “Yes, sir.”

He leaned over the gunwale and tossed a quick “Best of luck, Mr. Ault” to Max, then kissed Lucy’s forehead. “See you soon. May no new thing arise.”

Liao ducked under one of the captain’s arms. “And don’t worry, Lucy. I shall look out for our papa and the rest in the meantime.” His voice was jaunty enough, but Liao was twisting the end of his long, braided pigtail between the fingers of his right hand. It was a thing he’d done for as long as Lucy had known him, and it meant he was nervous, too.

“I know you will, Liao.” She kissed the little boy’s cheek, then dropped easily down the side of the Fate and into the waiting cutter to join Max, Kendrick, and Whippett.

She and the two sailors piloted the cutter toward a dark stretch of open land to the north of Baltimore proper, just beyond the shipyards that lined the waterfront of the town of Fells Point. Kendrick was her father’s coxswain; he was one of the most trusted hands aboard the Fate and also the closest thing to an uncle that Lucy had. She’d known him and Whippett most of her life, and the three of them handled the cutter like the practiced team they were, right down to beaching it neatly and getting Max out of it again without him getting his feet wet. Two good omens, that was. Then Lucy, Max, and Kendrick hiked through the open scruff under that awkwardly clear night sky toward Fells Point, leaving Whippett to guard the boat.

“So where is this shop?” Lucy asked as they encountered the beginnings of a packed-dirt road underfoot at last.

“Bond Street,” Max said. They walked on, passing the first shipyards and bulkheads, and at last found themselves rather suddenly in town. Max paused under a flickering street lamp, opened his portfolio, and took a hand-drawn map from it. “Let us just find out where we are now. Gough Street? That should intersect with Bond.”

“Look,” Kendrick said in a grim tone. Lucy followed his pointing finger to a crisp new broadside tacked to the side of a ware house. Printed upon it in words big enough to read from all the way across the street: WAR WITH BRITAIN HAS COME AGAIN AT LAST.

Lucy sighed. “Well, evidently it’s not just a rumor. Mr. Madison has finally made it official.”

Max swore. It was so out-of-character that even Kendrick glanced over in surprise. Max paced a few steps away, still swearing, and came back rubbing his face. “Nothing for it,” he said, finally. He consulted his map for a minute, then put it away. “Let’s go.”

Lucy trailed Max and Kendrick deeper into Fells Point, her insides slowly coiling themselves into knots. She always experienced a sort of mild upheaval when she came ashore, where she constantly suspected she abruptly and obviously didn’t belong. But this was worse—now she felt doubly like she must stick out like a sore thumb. There was no reason to suppose anyone who looked at her would know she was British; for the most part Americans and Englishmen looked and sounded basically the same. But it didn’t matter. Lucy sensed eyes on all sides, and her feet, so sure and effortless at sea, seemed determined to trip over every cobble in the street, just in case anyone hadn’t already noticed this awkward enemy girl in their midst.

Max, on the other hand, appeared to be suddenly, completely, and infuriatingly at ease and in control as he navigated through the early-evening streets. He led them unerringly to a shop with some sort of philosophical device over the door: an assortment of spheres connected by slender metal shafts that gleamed darkly in the moonlight. “This is it.”

“It’s closed,” Lucy observed.

Max nodded up to the second-floor windows, where slivers of yellow light peeked out from behind the curtains. “He lives upstairs.” He commenced alternating loud knocks and hard yanks on the pull that rang the bell just inside the door. Lucy glanced around, but even with most of the businesses shuttered for the night, Bond Street was a busy lane. Dozens of people were out, and nobody took any notice of the noise Max was making. A lot of them seemed to be talking about war, though. Lucy caught snippets here and there: “If it takes a second war to finally have independence…” “We’ve been at war for years already, as far as I’m concerned.” “What odds New England’ll finally secede, the Tory bastards?”

Lucy fidgeted. Kendrick lit a pipe and smoked placidly. Max kept on knocking and ringing, knocking and ringing.

At last an old woman threw open a window on the second floor and leaned out. “What on earth is the meaning of this? The shop is closed!”

Max leapt back into the street and waved. “Good evening! I’m sorry to call so late, but I’m here to see Mr. Jeton. My name is Max Ault. I’m Lawrence Ault’s son.”

The old woman’s eyes popped so wide her spectacles fell right off her nose. She grabbed for them, performed a neat midair catch, and disappeared back into the room above. The window slammed shut.

Lucy, Max, and Kendrick looked at one another. “Good luck,” Lucy said.

Max smiled. “What’s there to need luck for?”

“Well,” Kendrick said around his pipestem, “this Mr. Jeton’s country just declared war on ours and you’re about to ask him to help you build the most powerful weapon in history. So.”

“Not to use against America, obviously,” Max grumbled. “This war is nothing. Who cares about James Madison’s war? It’s irrelevant, a distraction. It’s Napoleon Bonaparte and his wars that matter.”

Kendrick said nothing, just exhaled a mouthful of smoke, but his eyebrow rose nearly to his hairline.

“Obviously,” Lucy repeated, trying to keep a straight face. “I’m sure Mr. Jeton will see that. And people love being told their presidents are irrelevant and their wars a distraction, so that’ll help.”

Max’s face began to look a bit green, but before he could vomit again, a light sputtered to life in the shop. The door swung open and the old woman stood there glaring out at them. “Who are these?” she asked, eyeing Lucy and Kendrick.

“Traveling companions,” Max said, his gaze flicking past the woman and inside in search of Mr. Jeton. The woman’s eyes narrowed even further.

“I’m his wife,” she said coldly. “And I’m sorry to tell you Mr. Jeton isn’t at home.” She didn’t look sorry at all.

“Well… well, when do you expect him back?”

“Not for a fortnight.”

Max’s jaw dropped. “He’s not coming back for two weeks?”

“At least,” Mrs. Jeton replied. Was it Lucy’s imagination, or did she look a bit smug?

Max pulled himself together and cleared his throat. “Might we come in, madam?”

“No,” the old woman snapped.

“Well… do you know if perhaps he—Mr. Jeton—left something for me? I did write him to say I was coming.”

“He didn’t leave anything for you.”

“For my father, perhaps? Lawrence Ault?” Lucy restrained herself from kicking Max as the old lady said nothing and he kept on talking. “He was looking for a… a mechanical something-or-other, a piece of a larger thing, and Mr. Jeton wrote to tell my father he thought he’d found it, and that Papa should come and get it.” Blessedly, Max stopped then, probably because there was no more he could say without getting into uncomfortable details. Still nothing from the old lady. “So my letter didn’t arrive?” Max persisted a little desperately. “I did write.”

“Oh, it arrived,” Mrs. Jeton said frostily. “It certainly did.”

“Well, that’s good news.” The old lady didn’t seem to agree, and under her unfriendly stare, Max’s face went very confused. “Then… well, I imagine we shall just… wait?”

“I shouldn’t advise that.” Then she stepped back into the darkened shop and shut the door right in poor Max’s face. Through the window they could see the little light of her candle disappear back up the stairs.

“Not what you’d hoped, then,” Kendrick said mildly.

Lucy scanned the street, then nodded at the dark alley between Jeton’s shop and the next one over. “The passage there.”

“Why?”

“Because if I go to work on this lock, people might notice,” Lucy said patiently. Then, without waiting to see if Max followed—which took effort, because she knew the horrified expression on his face would be priceless—she walked purposefully down the street until she could sidestep into the shadows.

Taking care not to trip over the lumps and holes and old, rusted buckets that filled the passage, Lucy made her way to the back of the shop. Then she squatted before the rear door and took her folding knife and her marlinespike from the embroidered ditty bag she always carried when she went ashore. The marlinespike, a curved steel spike on an inlaid handle that was mostly useful for splicing rope, had a flattened tip that ought to do nicely for this lock.

A clumsy noise rattled in the passage. “What are you doing?” Max hissed, just barely avoiding landing on top of her as he tripped over a mass of refuse.

“Shut up. I think I can get this open. This wasn’t her forte—Liao was the family picklock—but she’d learned enough to pop a door or the lock on a trunk now and then.

“Then what? Are you—” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Are you proposing we sneak in and just… and just take the thing?”

“Obviously. I’m a privateer. We sneak in and take things. This is what you hired us for.” Lucy, like all her shipmates, generally preferred the term letter-of-marque to privateer. Letter-of-marque felt less piratical. Just now, though, she wanted to make a point.

“But—that’s stealing!”

Lucy dropped the spike she’d been about to slip into the keyhole and gaped up at him. “As opposed to the way we acquired that other item for your papa? That thing that’s in your cabin as we speak?”

“But you took that from the French. We’re at war with—” Lucy made her glare extra-scathing, and Max’s voice died away. “Oh.”

“Exactly.” She went back to work. “We were at war with the French, making our capture of the first part of this project of yours a lawful act of war. Now we’re at war with the Americans, too.” It was unquestionably true about the French capture, but Lucy didn’t go so far as to actually say what she was doing now was also a lawful act of war. She was murkier on the laws governing war time taking-of-things from civilians on land. Hopefully Max was, too.

Meanwhile, here was a problem: the moment she had the spike in the keyhole, Lucy knew she wasn’t getting the lock open. The keyway was too narrow for her to move the spike ever a little bit. She could barely feel any of the interior works, never mind manipulating them at all.

Well, this was embarrassing. Lucy gave the spike a few useless twitches while she tried to fi gure out how to get out of this situation without admitting her mistake to Max. Liao would have had the thing open ages ago, she thought sourly. “Do you know what you’re looking for once I get us inside?” she asked, playing for time. If I get us inside.

Max took a deep breath. “No.”

Lucy lowered her hands. “What?”

“I don’t know what it is.”

“You hired us to bring you to Baltimore to retrieve this priceless thing, an artifact that you keep saying is part of ”—she lowered her voice—“some remarkable arcane weapon, and you don’t know what this thing is?”

Max’s face was so red even the shadows couldn’t hide the fl ush on his cheeks. “Jeton’s letter to my father just said he thought he’d found ‘the thing you were looking for.’ I don’t have my father’s side of the correspondence.”

“But your father’s notes—”

“Keep your voice down.”

“But you have your father’s notes, Maxwell,” she hissed.

“My father’s notes say things like mechanism, question mark, and manna, question mark, and clock or similar, question mark. They aren’t what you’d call terribly descriptive.”

“So how on earth were—”

“I was expecting Mr. Jeton to be here and to be willing to give me this thing, whatever it is, because he told my father to come and get it!” Max exploded. A light flickered to life behind the curtains above them on the second floor of the house. Lucy shoved her tools in her bag, grabbed Max’s arm, and dragged him back toward Bond Street.

While they’d been arguing, Lucy had been vaguely aware of noise rising in the street. By the time they reached the mouth of the alley, it had escalated to a proper din: loud voices, hooves, and wheels. Kendrick’s broad back barred their way, but Lucy and Max could make out big clumps of shouting people gathering on Bond.

Pipe smoke swirled around Kendrick’s head. “Stay there,” he murmured. “Something’s happened.”

Lucy and Max crouched in the shadows, listening. Evidently, somewhere in Baltimore, a printshop that had fiercely denounced the president and his declaration of war in its publication had been put to the torch by a mob. Dispirited, she dropped to a seat against the wall. It was hard to imagine how their timing could possibly be worse.

To distract herself from this fact—which could, she supposed, be interpreted as the fault of the Fate and her crew—she turned on Max again. “You don’t know what we’re looking for,” she whispered. “This is unbelievable. All this time you’ve had us racing after this… this remarkable thing that’s going to change the course of the war, and here we are and you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

“Oh, get over it,” Max grumbled, leaning churlishly against the wall with his arms folded. “It isn’t as if you could get that lock open, anyhow.”

“Another minute, I would have!” He never needed to know the truth.

“No, you would not,” Max argued. “We both know it, so let’s just move on past this little escapade and fi gure out what to do next. And anyway, what Jeton has is only a piece of the remarkable thing that’s going to change the course of the war.”

“A piece you can’t build the thing without.”

“Yes.”

“And there are three pieces.”

“One of which we already have.”

Lucy nodded at the shop to their right. “But you don’t know what this piece, the one Jeton has, actually is.”

“No.”

“And the third piece? The one you’ll need after we fi nd this one?”

“What about it?”

“Do you know what that piece is, Max?”

He pursed his lips and said nothing.

“I thought as much.” Lucy shook her head. “Unbelievable.”

“It’s going to get worse out here before it gets better,” Kendrick muttered. “Let’s go. Sharply, now.”

They ducked out of the alley and onto the street, which was only coming more and more to life as the news of the newspaper’s torching spread. Fortunately, with news like that, nobody seemed to have attention to spare for three strangers, and they reached the beach, Whippett, and the cutter without incident.

“Papa’s not going to like this,” Lucy grumbled as she took her place at the prow of the beached boat.

Max had the gall to actually shrug. “Your father works for me at the moment.”

It was that comment, true though it undoubtedly was, that made Lucy give the cutter a sharp shove into the water just as Max reached one foot gingerly over the side to climb in. It was just enough to throw Max’s balance off and send him sprawling into the surf. He came up sputtering just in time for a wave to smack him neatly in the back of the head and knock him flat again.

Excerpted from The Left-Handed Fate © Kate Milford, 2016

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