“May God bless her and all who sail on her.”
I cleared my throat, hoping I’d said it correctly, and gripped the bottle of champagne, terrified of letting it go too early or, worse still, missing the ship entirely.
Beyond the ship, the ocean shimmered in the midday sun. Diamond-like sparkles of light bounced off the calm cerulean water—water that looked so inviting, I wanted nothing more than to jump in, to surrender to the balmy ripples. Of course, wanting it and doing it were two different things. First of all, I couldn’t swim, and secondly, my mother would pitch a fit if I took another step closer to the dock edge. She was already a bag of nerves from today’s event.
I looked behind me, needing reassurance from my parents. This was my first official royal engagement, and I was terrified of messing it up. My father beamed at me with pride while my mother gave me a thin smile. I could see the fear in her eyes although she was doing her best to hide it. I was amazed she’d come at all. The ocean positively terrified her. My father’s hand was almost white with how hard my mother was squeezing it. Next to them, my little brother, Anthony, was picking his nose and examining the treasure he found up there. Not for the first time I was reminded how fortunate it was that I was the first in line to the throne.
Beside me, my life-long best friend nudged me to let go of the bottle. Officially, his title was Sir Hayden Harrington-Blythe, but to me, he was just Hayden. He’d been my first crush since our first day in kindergarten when he’d pulled on my pigtails, and I’d stamped on his foot. Despite our unpromising start, over the years we’d turned into friends. My crush on him was long since over, and his pigtail pulling days were long gone, but somehow, our friendship had survived.
“You do know you are supposed to let go of the bottle right?” whispered Hayden in my ear. I gave him a look I only ever reserved for him and lifted the bottle. Letting go, I watched it swing on a length of string, arcing towards the majestic ship’s wooden hull. It made a tinkling sound as it smashed against the side of the ship, scattering glass all over the paved dock. I couldn’t help thinking it was a waste of good champagne and that it would be better served at the ball being held in honor of my birthday in a couple of days’ time. Still, I felt invigorated by the salty smell of the ocean, the atmosphere of a thousand happy people coming out to see the launch, and the fact that I now had a boat that bore my name. I was feeling as excited as I could hope to feel, second only to being allowed to actually go out on the damn thing.
The Erica Rose’s white sails flapped in the breeze below the official flag of Trifork as if she were eager to be off, out onto the ocean. I couldn’t blame her. To sail on the ocean was a lifelong dream of mine. Ever since I could remember, I’d looked out of my bedroom window toward the ocean and dreamed of the day that I’d be able to disappear beyond the rolling waves toward the horizon.
It was a dream that had never, and would never, be realized as long as my parents were in charge. For a kingdom so well-known for its naval and merchant vessels, my parents were ridiculously strict about letting me go near the ocean. This was the closest I’d gotten in the whole eighteen years of my life, and I had a full team of palace guards surrounding me, stopping me from taking one step closer to the water’s edge than I had to. It was all because of my mother, of course. My father might have been the one that ruled Trifork, but in the palace, my mother was the one that wore the pants, so to speak. If my mother said I couldn’t go near the ocean, then my father wasn’t going to argue with her. However, today was a special day, and not even my mother could come up with a good enough reason for us not to be here. She might have been absolutely petrified, but she was the queen, a duty she held above everything, even crippling panic.
Everybody clapped as the wooden ship began pulling up its anchor, its crew readying themselves to set sail.
I took a deep breath and inhaled the salty air. Above the excited chatter of the crowd, seagulls cawed to each other as they flew overhead looking for an easy snack. Oh, how I envied them and their freedom.
My father managed to extricate himself from my mother’s vice-like grip and joined me on the dock’s edge. My poor mother’s face turned even more ashen, and she had to grip a nearby railing instead to save herself from fainting. It was almost cruel, living so close to the ocean and being so frightened of it. I saw her eyes darting past my father and me to the ocean behind us as though it could somehow climb above the dock and swallow us whole. I don’t doubt it could on a stormy day, but today the skies were blue, and the sea was calm.
“We here in Trifork have a rich sailing heritage, one of which I am immensely proud,” began my father into the microphone that had been set up for the occasion. “Today is a big day for me, both as a king and a father. As you all know, my daughter, the princess Erica Rose, will turn eighteen in just two days’ time. Her first official engagement was supposed to be at the ball, but she begged me to be allowed to launch this ship. Being the dutiful father I am, I agreed.” He paused at this point waiting for a laugh. When he got it, he carried on. “This is my birthday gift to you, dear Erica. I know you’ve always had a fondness for the sea and so this ship not only bears your name but also belongs to you.”
I blinked a couple of times, unsure if what I was hearing was true. The ship was mine? I wasn’t allowed to dip my toes in the shallow waves at the beach, but I was allowed to own a ship?
I gazed up at the huge galleon. “She’s mine?” Hope rose in my chest that I might, for the first time in my life, be able to go out on the ocean. My parents had never so much as let me sail in a dinghy before now, let alone go on a ship.
“She’s all yours, sweetheart. As part of our fleet and a working ship, she will be taken out by her captain, Captain Jackson. But when she’s back in Trifork, you will be able to see her whenever you want.”
“Yes,” beamed my father, oblivious to the disappointment I was feeling. Only see her? I didn’t want a ship to look at. I’d spent my entire life watching the ships of Trifork sail in and out of the harbor. I wanted to sail to foreign lands, to feel the sea breeze upon my cheek. I wanted to know what it felt like to roll over the gentle waves with the vastness of the ocean the only thing in view.
My mother caught my disappointment though. She could read me like a book. An elegant woman with a sharp tongue and an even sharper sense of style, she swallowed her terror and took a few steps toward me, toward the ocean. She walked tall and calmly, but a slight tremor in her step gave her away.
“Aren’t you happy with your new ship?”
“Yes ma’am,” I lied. What was the point of having a ship if I wasn’t allowed on it?
She flicked her eyes past me, once again, toward the ocean. What was it she was looking for? Her eyes snapped back to me. “You know my feelings on you going near the sea, Erica. It’s a dangerous place. I nearly drowned when I was about your age.” She took my hand and pulled me a couple of steps toward her—away from the dock’s edge.
I’d heard the story a million times. Every time I even hinted at wanting to go near the sea, she’d dredge up the same story about how she nearly drowned when she was younger. I wasn’t in the mood to hear it again.
The ship was cast off, the gangplank raised. My ship was about to go on an adventure I could only dream of. The wind caught the sails and the majestic vessel began to move, her crew waving at us as she inched away from the dockside.
My father clapped me on the back, a beaming smile on his face. Even my mother, who usually had a face like a prune when it came to anything to do with water, had found her smile again. I glanced over at Hayden. He knew I was disappointed. I talked about nothing but the ocean with him. He loved the water as I did, but unlike me, he could go out onto it whenever he wanted. He even had his own boat. It was nowhere near as grand as the Erica Rose, but at least, he was allowed to sail in it.
He flicked his eyes almost imperceptibly towards the ship. I arched a brow.
“Do it,” he mouthed silently and cast his eyes towards the ship once again.
He wanted me to jump on the ship! He was actually daring me to do it. Thoughts of all the silly childhood pranks and adventures he’d led me into filled my mind. Hayden was the epitome of an irresistible bad idea. I followed his eye line to where the gangplank had been pulled up. The gate was still open, but it wouldn’t be for long. The ship was already a foot away from the dock and moving swiftly towards the open sea. I had seconds to make a decision.
My heart hammered, and adrenaline took over. Without thinking too hard, I ran from my parents, barged past the palace guards, and jumped as far as I could right off the dock. The ship had moved much faster than I’d anticipated, and I missed the gate by a long shot, and instead of landing on the ship, I plunged head first into the sea.
All I could hear were my mother’s screams as the water crowded in around me.
The water that had looked so warm and inviting when I’d been standing on the dock was actually a lot colder than I’d imagined, and as I scrambled for air, its icy grip took my breath away
Mouthfuls of briny water flowed into my mouth, causing me to choke as I tried desperately to keep above the water’s surface. In one terrifying instant, I realized what it was that my mother had been keeping me from for all these years. As I’d never been allowed in water deeper than a bath, I’d never learned how to swim. It occurred to me now that this wasn’t exactly my finest moment.
The dress I’d had picked out for me, a knee length cotton blue dress was perfect for looking smart and launching a ship. It was utterly useless as a floatation device. The heavy, waterlogged fabric weighed me down, making it even harder to try to keep my head above water.
Beside me, I heard a splash. I looked over to see a red and white life ring bobbing close by with a rope attached to it. On the other end of the rope, the Erica Rose’s crew shouted at me to grab hold. After I’d managed to pull myself through it, they heaved me up and pulled me over the side of the boat.
A group of worried faces peered down at me. One of the men reached a hand down to help me up. As I righted myself, my dress dripped ocean water all over the deck and tightened around me. I felt so uncomfortable in the soggy outfit, but when I saw how far from the dock we’d already moved, excitement flooded through me. The fear I’d felt just moments before dissolved, leaving me feeling exhilarated. I was on a ship for the first time in my life, and we were sailing away from the dock.
With giddy excitement, I gripped a railing. On the edge of the dock, my parents shouted and waved for us to come back. My heart fell as I caught the expression on my mother’s face. Her usual stern expression had contorted to one of absolute fear, and she wasn’t trying to hide it anymore. Her screams pierced the air, her usual stoic facade dropped completely as she tore at my father who was desperately trying to pull her back from the edge of the dock.
Her fear of falling into the ocean was obviously smaller than losing one of her children to it.
My stomach churned as I realized the severity of my actions. I’d only wanted to go out to sea. I didn’t want to hurt my mother in the process. I was going to be in the worst kind of trouble for this little stunt, and as we floated further and further out to sea, the more I realized that the adventure was not worth it.
Captain Jackson, a tall man with a perfectly groomed black mustache and oiled down hair greeted me with a salute. I’d never been saluted before. Bowed to and curtseyed aplenty, but a salute was new to me. I raised my hand and saluted back, unsure of the etiquette.
“I’m going to try to turn the ship back, your highness, but it may take a little time to adjust the sails. The wind is not optimal right now. There’s a squall coming, and I’d hoped to get far enough away to miss it.”
I glanced out to the horizon. The seamless blue sky was darkening, and the sea below it matched its threatening color. Where had that come from? Only seconds before, the weather had been as perfect as anyone could wish for.
“Yes, please turn around.” My heart dropped as I realized that my adventure was over before it had even started, and I’d gotten nothing out of it except to embarrass myself in front of thousands of onlookers and terrify my poor mother.
I looked back over to the shoreline. My parents and all the onlookers were barely dots on the horizon now. To my right, I could see the public beach to which people flocked in the summer months. Beyond that were magnificent white cliffs that I’d heard plenty about but never actually seen before as they were only visible from the sea. To my left, the coast was much rockier, and here was where the royal castle stood. Only a wide promenade separated the rocks from the castle. It looked so dark and imposing with its granite grey towers; I barely recognized it from this angle.
“Why don’t you go to my cabin and get changed out of those wet clothes. I’ll have one of my crew show you where it is.”
Captain Jackson swiveled on his toe and left me alone, feeling terrible. I’d not paused to consider the crew or the captain, and now they were going to have to abort their mission. I could chalk up a few more people to the list of those I’d disappointed. With a sigh, I walked to the other side of the deck to look out at the vast ocean. In the distance, the sea turned black and churned ominously almost as though that part of the ocean was alive and out to get us. It was a stark contrast to the crystal clear and calm water beneath the ship. Above me, the crew of the Erica Rose battled to maneuver the sails to turn us around.
“Your Royal Highness.”
I heard someone shouting at me above the wind that was now blustering fiercely. Lightning forked, splitting the sky in two, and the wind tugged my hair from the clip that had been keeping it in place. Strands of long red hair whipped around my face. I turned to see a young man heading toward me.
“I’m Joe, Your Highness, the second in command of the Erica Rose,” he said, giving me a quick bow. “The captain has asked me to escort you to his cabin.”
Joe was barely older than me, with short, dirty blond hair and a winning smile. I was surprised to see someone so young be the second in command of such a ship.
“It’s getting a little choppy,” Joe cautioned, his cheeks red as he took my hand. “They are going to struggle to get the ship back to shore. The forecast mentioned a little bit of turbulent water, but it looks to be shaping up to be a proper storm out there.”
I followed Joe to a big wooden doorway, which he opened for me and beckoned me inside. As I thanked him, a boom filled the darkening sky.
“Thunder,” Joe remarked, taking my hand and leading me down a corridor. I held on tightly to him as the ship listed violently to one side from the sharp turn of the wheel. He showed me to a large room with a writing desk on one side and a bed on the other.
“There will be some clothes in the wardrobe there,” he said, pointing to a small door. “I don’t expect the captain has any dresses, but I’m sure you’ll find something dry to wear.”
I watched the storm unfold through a small porthole as Joe left me to help the captain. It seemed no one was expecting the weather to be this bad and how could they? Only ten minutes earlier, there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky, and now there was barely any blue left, only the darkness of the sea and the sky. It was strange how quickly the storm had taken hold. I certainly had never seen anything like it before. Outside, the rain began to lash down, pitter-pattering on the round window. Thunder crashed as the waves became more intense with the roaring wind that whipped all around us. The storm had sneaked up on us quickly, and as far as I could see, we were getting further and further away from the coastline. Whatever Captain Jackson’s men were doing to turn the ship around, it wasn’t helping.
I hated admitting it to myself after dreaming of the day I could finally sail on the sea for so long, but I was beginning to get scared. My mother’s screams echoed in my head, although we had drifted too far to really hear her. The boat creaked with the strain, and from out of the window, I could see we were being pulled closer and closer toward the storm. A crash from behind me made me jump. I turned to find that some previously neatly stacked dishes had been flung from the cupboard and were now in hundreds of pieces on the floor. Holding on was almost impossible, the ship was lurching so much. I tried walking over to the wardrobe that Joe had pointed out, but the floor beneath me was rocking so much under the motion of the waves that I could barely stand at all. With a shock, I saw a stream of water pushing the remnants of the dishes across the floor. It was coming from the doorway. We were taking on water. I held on to the writing desk to keep myself upright, but the motion of the ship knocked me to the floor. Something sharp pierced my side, and when I looked down, I saw a sliver of broken plate had cut through my dress and into my flesh creating a bloom of fresh blood on the wet fabric.
I looked up to grab hold of the desk to pull myself back up and was shocked to see that the window was now partly submerged. We were sinking, and we were sinking fast. Pulling myself up, I ran to the door quickly. I had to get out, or I would drown. I yanked the door as hard as I could, and as it opened, a deluge of water rushed in knocking me over once again. The lights flickered out leaving me in complete darkness as the water engulfed me, sending me flying into something hard. Water filled my lungs as the blackness folded in around me, my mother’s warnings of the fierceness of the ocean echoing in my head.