A Price on Her Head

The naval tinker wore dirty goggles, fresh gold shoulder boards, and a fresher blood wound on his cheek. 

“Beggar, shove off,” he said. 

Beggar? Her mind snatched the word, pushed and prodded it. She was Deniz, daughter of the governing satrap. But her father no longer existed. The palace was rubble. She blinked at the sailor and itched her palm. Before, villagers would press a coin into that hand. No more. Now, where desert met diamond-crusted black sea, factories belched diesel smoke and engines hammered. The port sweated with the task of crafting copper-shelled submarines, torpedoes, and other contraptions to fight the northern islands.  

Beggar. Yes, it was the right word for her. But there was another word for him.

“Brother,” she said. He was only slightly older, but they’d had many siblings, and brothers who studied off palace grounds. He now had work. She possessed only a dagger of hunger in her belly, and was about to tell him so, when a whirring thud of blades exploded overhead. 

She shot into the factory’s shadow. Drones with red-tipped tentacles spun low in the sky and hissed metal. The electronic beasts had been built in the last century, before this new bronze age, when the world wasn’t ripped by endless black storms that wreaked havoc with signals and circuitry. But they worked well enough on calmer days. 

Her brother flung his cigarette to the dust; a hesitation that cost his highborn head as drones hurled blades into his body.. Deniz crouched and shivered and watched his lifeblood snake into cracks in the factory’s concrete yard. Her brain gingerly touched something sharp: afterward, would she have the moral strength to simply mumble a blessing and hustle by his remains?

No. She stole everything.

Work shirt, tool belt, and a pouch with dried sardines wrapped in wax paper. His goggles were the best prize. They were dark-lensed and hid her broken eye, the one that drifted to the side when she tried to target her gaze. Lookouts in the village clock tower spied her thievery and  hurled threats that chased her into the desert. Threats warning that the new satrap, Xavier, a cousin with black eyes and temper, would put a price on her head. 

Mind spinning with the insults, legs aching, she found a hillside perch to gaze down at the palace ruins. She experimented  with the goggles, testing the zoom and night vision. Along a ravine that cracked a weedy vineyard, she spied a small, dark space carved into the rock. She crept down to investigate. 

It was deeper than she had imagined, a true cave rather than one night’s safe nest. Paintings ornamented the walls, ancient sea battles fought by galleys and Persian ancestors in sailor garb and noble finery. At the back wall, she spied a white glow. Her palms itched again. Treasure. Let it be treasure.

She edged closer, and her shoulders slumped. Just a cracked jar of ivory alabaster containing a peeling leather scroll. With a sigh and a glance at the cave’s entrance to confirm she was alone, she settled down to study it. Reading wasn’t easy, but she traced the script with a dirty fingernail and deciphered each word. The writing began with history and progressed to battle tactics, diplomatic customs and logistics of city-state governance. It was too long for one sitting; after she foraged herbs and berries each day, she returned to the cave night after night. When she finished, she read it again. The broken vessel held a treasure: wisdom of a warrior queen. A blueprint for governance.

Eventually, she finally returned to the village. The streets were silent. Shattered gears from the clock tower littered the square. At the docks, she found hard-eyed men loading submarines.

The sun shone bright in a clear sky. Her mind turned over strategy. “It would be better to wait,” she said. “Attack when storms affect their signals.” 

One man paused in his labor. “We’ll fight now.” His voice rumbled deep and he possessed the raw hands of a smith. The new leader, Xavier.  

Deniz’s mind buzzed with knowledge from the scroll. She’d offered good counsel. To offer to put her life on the line, that would be better. “Cousin,” she said. “I will join you.” 

“The royal thief?” A slow smile creased Xavier’s face.

Thief. A better word than beggar, but some part of Deniz still hated it. Her mind danced around guilt and poked it with a shard of ivory alabaster, jagged and sharp. Hadn’t stealing her brother’s goggles led to the discovery of the cave, and then the scroll? 

“Let me steal in the seas,” she said. “Instead of the streets.” 

Xavier slowly nodded, looking thoughtful. “Princess transformed to pirate.” He tossed her a copper helmet. “You may draw more fire than the others.”

Three days later, the fleet set sail. She issued the dive order to six sailors with grease-slick faces. With a wretched mechanical groan and grind of propellers, the ship slipped beneath the sea’s surface and the clash of submarines and drones commenced. Instruments blinked red and the ship rocked. 

“Fire,” she ordered, followed by an explosion too soon. Deniz imagined a fellow submarine, hull cracked like an eggshell, spiraling into darkness. Her stomach squeezed at a memory of finding sardines in wax paper. She struggled to catch her breath.

As soon as she could speak, she ordered again: “Fire.”

Answering echoes of shrapnel slapping water confirmed the torpedoes hit their sky-borne targets. The sailors roared and Deniz’s mouth twisted into a conquering smirk. Perhaps their fleet would win. Perhaps not. What mattered was that her deeds become known, that the enemy place a price on her head. She would navigate her political star as high as the real stars. The sub had six torpedoes left, and all could be fired from the surface. She nodded at the helmsman and gave the order to rise.   


Marilee lives in Washington, DC, where she writes fiction first thing in the morning and works as a lawyer for the rest of the day. Her other stories have appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Cleaver, Metaphorosis, Molotov Cocktail, Orca and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter @marilee_dahlman.

A Price on Her Head is the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine September Flash Fiction Challenge, which was based on the historical badass for September: Artemesia.

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