In this scene, Cora, along with her friends Dee and Laden, have snuck into her mother's study during her father's wake. They hope to learn what Cora's mother is planning, but they have been discovered by a young priest, Astor, and Cora needs to distract him while Laden searches her mother's documents...
“Laden’s just going to check through my mother’s papers. She has some old letters from Grandmother that have the most amazing stories.” She led them both to a painting on the wall of a with glowing blue spirit sails, a dark hull, and a black flag waving from the main mast, bearing just the icon of a white bird.
Astor’s eyes widened. “Is that her ship?”
“It looks strange. Why is the hull rounded along the bottom, like a sea ship?”
Cora smiled. “In Gran’s day, were used to travel on the sea as well as in the air. The merchant fleets hadn’t completely converted to air travel yet.”
“So she was a merchant?”
Astor’s eyes followed Cora’s gaze and tracked up the painting to the black flag. “Oh, she was… a pirate?”
Dee held her breath.
“Indeed,” Cora said. “And quite a good one, by all accounts.”
“I didn’t think there were lady pirates,” Astor said.
Cora snickered. “I don’t know if you’d call them ladies, but most of the colony ships have women in their crews, or so Gran used to say. The same went for the pirates.”
“Your grandmother was from the colonies?”
Cora shrugged. “Perhaps. She never really said where she came from originally. I don’t think even Mum knows for sure.”
Astor nodded and squinted at the painting. “White Raven,” he read from the ship’s hull. He visibly shivered. “Rather ominous name for a ship.”
The legend of Raven and Swan was taught to every schoolchild as one of the cornerstones of the church’s teachings. They were sisters, identical, each with beautiful long necks and white feathers.
Father Sky offered his daughters each a gift. Swan asked to own the most beautiful thing in creation. Raven laughed and asked for the most powerful thing in creation. Their wishes were granted. Swan was given the sun, and Raven was given a cunning mind, wisdom, and intelligence. Raven was jealous and thought her sister’s gift was far greater than her own.
Raven stormed off, and at night snuck into the sky to try and steal the sun for herself. But morning broke, and the sun rose. The blazing light made Raven’s neck shrink back to hide from the glare, and the heat burned her, scorching her feathers forever black. When Father Sky saw what had happened, he banished Raven from the Heavens, and she hid among men, trying to trick them with the many secrets she knew.
Ever since, it was said, when a cursed or evil woman died, her soul became a raven and wandered the world, picking at the things cast aside by man and nature. Good women, on the other hand became starlings or larks. The most pure and noble of women became swans, with mighty wings to take them to the Heavens. Well educated women became owls, but those birds’ association with the night and such creatures said to walk the world in the darkness led many to mistrust them. As a consequence, it was frequently considered in poor taste to educate women beyond the necessities of reading and writing or more feminine skills such as embroidery.
Men of exception, likewise, had their own special paths to the afterlife. Most men became smaller birds, like women. Men who achieved great things, or died in a truly honourable way, became hawks, as Barrow had said Cora’s father would. Royalty and high nobility looked forward to becoming eagles, the greatest of all birds. Criminals were doomed to become crows, but at least they had the hope of enduring enough time in the world that they would one day fly to the Heavens.
No such mercy for women. So Cora’s grandmother had decided she would take that lack of mercy and turn it on her enemies. So she named her ship in honour of the first thief, Raven.
“Gran was a pirate captain. The more afraid of you the enemy is, the less they fight back. And then you don’t have to hurt as many people.”
“They let a woman be captain?” Astor gaped at her.
Cora laughed. “It’s not as outrageous as you might imagine. You should hear the stories she used to tell me. The battles and adventures.” She sighed; a true, genuine sigh, not the affected kind she used to fill silences in polite company. Heavens, she missed her Gran.
Astor smiled at her, his face gentle in the dim light of the gas lamps along the walls.
“Here,” she said, for a moment ignoring that she was only meant to be distracting the young priest. She didn’t often get to share stories of her Gran with someone new. Laden and Dee had heard it all before, and her mother had long since decided it wasn’t proper for them to openly discuss their family’s sordid past. She reached to a shelf and slid out a small, leather-bound book fastened by a cloth strap and a clasp. She twisted the clasp open and peeled back the pages to reveal writing—the hard, sharp script of a person without the patience to blot before turning a page or take care not to scratch through the paper.
“This is her journal. There’s a likeness of her tucked into the front.” She handed it to Astor and he took out a small card painted in age-dulled colours. The women was striking, with a tricorne hat and golden hair spilling out around her dark, piercing eyes. Eyes Cora had inherited. In one hand she held a rapier and with the other she held onto a ship’s rigging.
“ ,” Astor read from the inside cover of the journal.
“Yes,” Cora said. “I’m named for her.”
“Funny. I wouldn’t have expected your mother to want to remind people of this.” He paused and glanced at Dee and Cora. He sucked in his bottom lip and bit down. “I’m sorry, I meant no disrespect.”
Cora placed a hand on his and shook her head. “It’s fine. But you’re right. Sometimes I wonder why Mum even keeps Gran’s things.”
Glass shattered behind Cora. She spun in a fluid motion, whipping her head around to fix Laden with a harsh stare. He’d knocked over a decanter, leaving shattered glass and water all over the floor.
“Careful!” she hissed.
Laden turned and looked up, his face pale and sheets of paper shaking in his hands.
“What is it?” Dee asked.
“Cora…” his voice trembled. “We need to get you out of here.”
“Why?” she asked, advancing on him. “What have you done?”
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s what your mother’s done.”
“Talk sense,” she said.
He held up the papers. “Your mother’s guilty of treason.”
But of course, there's more to the legend than the Empire allows people to know. If you want to learn the truth behind the myth, you can find out in Lady Raven, or sign up for my mailing list, and receive a sneak look at a later scene in the book tomorrow, where Cora finds out what really happened between Raven and her sister.