She had only heard gunshots at a distance. She knew they were loud. Every book she had ever read said that the blasts were louder than smith hammers. Every story she heard tossed around the table or spilled around the hearth said that the blasts were so loud they would shake through her bones. There was a certain Captain who had once told her that all he could do was laugh during his first gun battle, because he was deaf to everything except what sounded like a drunken giant stomping upside down across the sky. And still, to her, they were just thunderclaps in a storm that never quite made it to shore.
She had seen guns. There were two dozen on top of the palace wall, housed on sharp platforms that jutted off the main walk way. From above, she imagined the walls looked like a jeweled necklace, each gun a dull stud on its wooden stand. But they were cold as jewels, silent as stones. None of them had been fired in her memory.
All the salutes were saved for the guns aboard, safer firing out over the water.
Immediately, coming down onto the gun deck, those guns seemed like looser things. They were tied down, lashed to metal rings as if the roll of the ocean might have inspired them to something drastic in the past. They creaked on their stands, echoing the deeper groaning of the hull. Their muzzles gleamed when the light caught them, and their rough barrels were sand-scrubbed, light and dark.
She brushed her finger tips against the metal, and smiled just a little. They were still cold.
“Load,” Vardan said, standing across from her. He didn’t look at her when he spoke, and there was no hurry in his tone, so she stayed where she was. One of the crew hurried forward, set a thick packet of powder into the muzzle of the gun, then cotton, and stamped them both down with a rod before rolling the ball into place. She could already smell the powder, the acrid edge of the smoke.
“Untie there,” Vardan told her. He nodded down to the ropes just in front of her feet, while the rest of the gun crew was still picking their places for the training. He didn’t pay the other four any attention, still calm as steel, and she slid down to one knee, following his direction. She pulled the knot free, and stood just as Vardan straightened under the beams. They both waited while the rest fumbled with their own lines.
“Brace up,” Vardan said when they were all standing again. They all ran their ropes through their hands, taking the slack out, then readying to pull.
Vardan gave the order, and she was surprised how quickly the gun rolled forward, as if she had pulled too hard. Vardan only told them to resettle and pull again. Then again. The muzzle edged out the gun port.
“Hold,” Vardan ordered.
She went still, just where she was, hand still wrapped in the line, and waited.
“Light it,” Vardan said.
She heard the flint, the sudden hiss as flame caught on something other than air. Turning, she watched the fuse disappear, and counted, knowing what would come next.
It boomed. The rope jerked her forward. The sound was in ears, and in her chest, too deep in both, numbing and rattling. She turned her face away, shut her eyes, feeling smoke and ash and heat brushed back by the breeze. It stayed warm longer than she thought it would. The inside of her chest was still buzzing, remembering how to be still as bone, when she took her next breath.
“Lady Kadelyn?” Vardan asked her.
She looked up, hearing what it would not be polite to ask: Are you all right? His voice was a little too far away, and she knew she was blinking too fast, breathing too hard. Still, she nodded instantly.
“Do we try it again?” she asked. Her voice was a little too close, loud from the inside out.
Vardan nodded. “At the very least until I’m sure the guns won’t be knocking you all over.”
She started to look down, hide the sudden the tightness in her face, and stopped. The boy in front of Vardan on the left side of the barrel was on his ass, blinking, and trying to shrink farther into the decking. Vardan didn’t even glance at him.
Kadelyn hoped her smile didn’t touch her mouth, knowing she couldn’t keep it out of her eyes. Vardan’s lips twitched too.
“Roll it back,” Vardan ordered. “Clean the bore.”
One of the crew pulled a scrub down from the beams, while the rest of them shuffled around to shove the cannon the rest of the way back to its original position. He shoved the long scrub down the barrel the same way he had packed the powder in a few minutes before. Then they waited.
Vardan nodded to Kadelyn. “Call it out,” he told her.
Kadelyn paused to make sure she understood, but he was stepping back to let one of the other trainees take his place while he watched. Turning, Kadelyn looked at the straight, ready backs of the other five.
“Load,” she said.