1:00 pm EDT, March 7, 2019

‘Scavenge the Stars’ cover reveal, excerpt set the stage for a gender-swapped classic

Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim follows Amaya as she plots revenge on the man who ruined her life in this retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The beautiful cover for Scavenge the Stars was a collaborative effort between designer Marci Senders and photographer Tom Corbett. The image of our windswept heroine invokes both a feeling of strength and vulnerability, sunlit from the back and wearing an embroidered jacket while clutching a dagger.

It draws you in, but also warns you that a perilous journey awaits within the pages of this novel.

Read ‘Scavenge the Stars’ chapter 1

The most basic rule of water: better to be above than below.
–The View from Southerly: A Maritime History

The first thing Silverfish had learned onboard the Brackish was how to hold a knife.

Not the useful kind that could gut a man, but something smaller, duller, and better suited for a child’s grip.

The second thing Silverfish had learned was just how much a fish’s innards could stink. How the odor clung to her hands for days after she’d worked the gutting deck, where offal and grime stubbornly adhered to the ship’s lacquered wood.

She had been forced to get used to these lessons over the last seven years, embittering and eroding her like salt on stone. Now as Silverfish worked, the wailing of seagulls above her as familiar as a lullaby, she ignored how the slime of a sturgeon stung her withered hands. Although she had once again been assigned to the foulest corner of the ship, she couldn’t help but smile.

In a few days’ time, she would never have to scrape fish guts again.

The Brackish creaked around her, as if in resentment. Out of habit, she scanned the deck for Roach. The Water Bugs—the other children—scurried about on the lower deck or climbed into the netting to fix loose ropes and retie knots. The younger Bugs were good for climbing and getting into small spaces, while the older ones like her were used for manual labor: stitching up sails, scrubbing the hull, hauling cannon fodder on the gun deck.

She finally spotted Roach up in the mainmast, his long, lanky body perched precariously above the riggings. He had gone up there plenty of times, but Silverfish still felt a swoop in her belly and the instinct to pray to her father’s gods. A dark stain lingered at the foot of the mizzenmast where Mantis had fallen only a few months before. Mantis had been the nimblest of them all, but when he’d lost his footing and tumbled down, there’d been nothing graceful about it. His bones had made a resounding crack, a sound that had followed Silverfish into dark and suffocating dreams for weeks afterward.

There hadn’t even been time for final rites. The Bugs had merely hauled his shattered body overboard, hardly daring to pause their work lest the captain decide to add the time they wasted to their debts.

Roach noticed her and gave a two finger salute, a familiar gesture that meant I’m all right. It was their routine, a sort of call and response. Forcing her worry down, Silverfish saluted back before shooing away a seagull that descended low enough to see if it could steal a snack. It settled again on the railing at the end of the gutting line where Beetle worked.

Beetle was the smallest and youngest among them, barely eight years old. The girl didn’t even know how to swim yet. The hilt of her knife fit awkwardly in her tiny hand, her fingers constantly readjusting themselves as she struggled to open up a fangfish. Her wispy brown hair stuck to the sweat on her face, and blood splattered her thin forearms. The girl snuffled, trying not to cry.

Silverfish hesitated, debating whether or not to move toward her. As soon as she took a step, a roar came from the lower deck.

Silverfish!”

Captain Zharo stood at the bottom of the stairs. She forced herself to meet his piercing gaze. She hated having to look at his face, red and blistered from the sun and half-concealed by a gnarled black beard. The rest of his hair was a tangled knot that Silverfish was certain he never washed.

“You take care of that sturgeon, or I’ll use you to remind the others how to slice open a belly,” he growled.

“Yes, Captain.” She bent her head and continued working, but her shoulders didn’t lose their tension, even when he stalked away. She watched him from under her lashes as he stomped past the wooden blackboard nailed under the foresail. On it were the names of every Water Bug onboard—several crossed out, including Mantis’s—followed by a series of numbers. It was how the captain kept track of their debts, calculating how much time they all owed on his vessel.

Out of habit, Silverfish’s eyes went straight to her name and the small sum beside it. The price of only a few precious days.
As Zharo passed the board, a twelve-year-old Bug named Weevil waited for him to get out of earshot before fishing something from his pocket: a piece of hardtack.

Silverfish’s heart sank.

The hardtack was already halfway to Weevil’s mouth when the captain turned and spotted him. He was across the deck in a few strides. The boy dropped the hardtack and tried to back away, but the captain already had him by the collar. Some of the Bugs gasped as the captain pushed Weevil against the railing, half his body leaning precariously above the water.

“You do it again, you’re for the sharks,” Zharo growled. “I’d kill you now if it didn’t mean losing a pair of hands.”

Weevil was all too quick to nod his understanding, moaning in fear as he tried not to tumble overboard. With his shirt ridden up in the captain’s grip, Silverfish could plainly see the stark hungry press of his ribs against his skin. Silverfish knew that hunger well, that clawing desperation that lurked between survival and suicide.

Silverfish shouldn’t have cared. Weevil knew better than to steal. They were all starving, after all.

Amaya would have cared.

But Silverfish hadn’t been Amaya in years. She had left Amaya behind, hundreds of miles away, buried at sea.

It was the first cruelty Captain Zharo had shown her. When she had set foot on the Brackish’s deck seven years ago, the man had looked her over, unimpressed, and said, “Who you are and where you came from don’t matter. Your name’s Silverfish now, and you’ll be thankful for it.”

She had once thought that beatings were the worst punishment the captain could dole out, but now she better understood what had happened that day, the same thing that happened whenever a new child was brought onboard. The captain stripped them all of their names, their lives, everything that made them people.

Because to him, they weren’t people. They were bugs, easily squashed under his heel.

Captain Zharo let Weevil go at last, forcing the boy to scramble for a hold on the railing. As Weevil slumped with relief onto the deck, Zharo went back to the debt board. With a single motion, he erased Weevil’s sum with an aggressive swipe of his sleeve, the chalk screeching as he increased the amount by two weeks. Then he picked up the abandoned hardtack and shoved it in his own mouth, crumbs spilling onto his beard as he grinned at Weevil and continued on his patrol.

Silverfish lowered her head, puncturing the soft underbelly of the sturgeon she held. She scraped out the red globules of its insides and flung them into the metal pail before her, some of the warm ichor seeping into the open sores on her hands. In the water, the fish’s blood turned purple.

The Water Bugs were no better than the contents of that bucket: useless, repellent, easily dumped. She glanced at the end of the line at Beetle, who was still trying not to cry.

Silverfish knew better than to get involved. After a few more days of this, she would leave this festering ship for good.

Beetle whimpered loudly now. She hadn’t hardened yet, but she would. She would have to.

What’ll the captain do if he comes up here to shut her up?

Cursing again, Silverfish threw the sturgeon’s carcass into the bucket with the rest she’d gutted and moved down the line. Without a word, she crouched beside the girl and grabbed the next fangfish out of her still-full pail, swiping the knife up along its belly. Surprised, Beetle’s whimpers died down to harsh little gasps as she caught her breath. They worked in silence for a while, and Silverfish was content to keep it that way.

Then came a voice, small and broken, from beneath all that wet hair and snot.

“Will you tell me about Moray? You used to live there, didn’t you?”

Silverfish nearly dropped her blade. It had been a long time since she’d heard the name of her city spoken out loud. She tried hard not to even think it. Memories had a way of creeping up on you if you let your guard down, of taking you by the throat and refusing to let go.
Beetle was waiting for her to go on, her eyes wide and frightened and eager for escape. She was tempted to tell the girl that it was better to simply forget the past and everything you were before.

Silverfish took a deep breath.

“I remember walking by golden, columned buildings. Those might have been the banks in the Business Sector, or maybe the Widow Vaults.” She found that once she started talking, the memories, hazy as they were, became insistent. “There were gardens, too, filled with ferns and palms and trees that dropped fruit when they were ripe and heavy. My mother and I would take the bananas, mangoes, and papayas from them for our breakfast. And the water of the bay is beautiful. It’s blue and clear, and you can see the coral and fish beneath.”

Beetle’s eyes were faraway, her lips parted. “Da used to tell me he’d take me there one day,” she whispered. “Soon as he got the money to.”

Silverfish instantly regretted saying anything. Beetle had only just begun her seven years, and Silverfish was already filling her head with images of a life beyond this ship. Part of her wanted to keep the hope alive in this girl, this tiny flicker of the future. Another part wanted to douse it with seawater, to make her realize that this was now her only reality: blood, guts, and fear.

Debt ruled on both land and sea. Silverfish knew they could never likely escape it.

Beetle’s face was red, but her eyes were shining. “You’re going home soon, aren’t you?”

Home. Back to Moray, to her mother, to everything she had forgotten while trapped on this gray expanse of a prison. Would her mother even recognize her? It had been so long since she was truly Amaya. Would her mother see the girl who used to sing to her rag dolls, who used to leave an offering of milk and herbs for the gods, who used to curl up to sleep beside her? Or would she only see Silverfish, a stranger with deadened eyes and blood crusted under her fingernails? She supposed she would find out in a few days’ time.

“Yes,” she said, blinking a few times. “I’ll go back.”

The small, quavering smile Beetle gave Silverfish only lasted a second, but it was enough. She had done the right thing. She had done the Amaya thing.

Then a shout pierced through the air:

Man in the water!

Silverfish joined the Bugs who scurried to the railing, many of them still holding their knives. She saw him within a moment: a dark shape bobbing as it tried to stay above the surface of the frothing water. She ran down to the middeck, where the rest of the Bugs were crowding the starboard railing, and squeezed in next to Roach.

Captain Zharo was already yelling at them to get back to work, his hand straying toward his pistol as if itching for an excuse to put a few holes in them.

“There’s a person in the water!” one of the bugs cried.

“Does it look like I give two shits? Let ’em drown and be done with it.”

Silverfish gritted her teeth. The man was barely staying afloat, inhaling water every time he tried to open his mouth to call for help. He’d likely been fighting against the waves for a while now and was rapidly losing energy. A goner.

Then something else caught her eye: a flash of gold on his chest. His coat, heavy and black with water, was lined with golden buttons.

A wealthy man. Maybe even a merchant from Moray.

Silverfish inhaled sharply. “Get one of the nets ready,” she snapped at the Water Bugs. When they only gaped at her, she swore and grabbed one herself.

Concern creased Roach’s face. “Sil,” he warned as she threw down the fish net.

Captain Zharo bellowed behind them, but Silverfish ignored him and leaned over the railing.

“The net!” she screamed down to the man. At first she couldn’t tell if he’d heard her over the rushing of the waves, but she released a quick sigh of relief when she saw him weakly cling to the netting. She tried to haul the man up, the muscles in her arms and neck straining. Some of the Bugs, seeing her struggle, hurried forward to help. Silverfish winced as she heard—and felt—the netting tear.

The man fell over the side of the railing onto the deck. The children scrambled away as he spit up water, coughing and shuddering, before flopping onto his back and laying still.

“Have you completely lost your mind?” Roach hissed as Silverfish knelt at the man’s side. He was tall and burly, his skin brown, his jaw lined with scruff. Likely from Khari, her father’s country. Bright spots of color studded his shirt like bullet wounds—the ruffled orange petals of marigolds. “You should’ve let him drown.”

“He . . .” Silverfish faltered, wondering what Amaya would say. “It wouldn’t be right to let him drown.”
Roach gave her an incredulous look, his wiry brows furrowed.

A pair of boots appeared before her. Silverfish followed them up to the captain’s scowling face, his bared teeth—or what was left of them—stained with tobacco. His hand clenched and unclenched beside his pistol.

Silverfish gave a small nod to Roach, who carefully moved away from her. She began to shiver.

“Have you gone deaf, Silverfish?” the captain growled. When she didn’t answer, he smacked her so hard she fell to the deck. One of his rings caught her lower lip. “Well?”

The pain was a bright starburst across her vision, and she fought for breath. She licked her lower lip and tasted copper. “N-No, Captain.”

“I said to leave ’im be.” He cast a disdainful glance at the man’s unconscious body. “And now you’ve gone and torn a net. Repairs cost money, you know.”

Silverfish froze. No, no. Please no.

Zharo crossed to the debt board as the Bugs scattered to get out of his way. His sleeve was already coated with chalk dust from erasing Weevil’s sum, and it left a streak across the board where he struck out her remaining balance. Picking up the chalk, he made it scream against the board, quadrupling her debt.

Zharo’s beard split as he grinned at her with those yellowed, decaying teeth. “Looks like you’ll be around four more weeks, Silverfish.”

She fought back tears. The ever-present pain and exhaustion, the sores on her palms, the stink of rotting fish—it had all been bearable only because of the thought of reuniting with her mother. The only thing getting her through these last few days had been the relief of finally returning home, a dream as sweet and hazy as incense.

Now it would be a month.

The captain nudged the unconscious man with his boot. “Seeing as you thought to pull this trash from the water, he’s your responsibility now.” He tilted his head, then snapped his fingers at a boy, who flinched. “Tear off these buttons and bring them to my cabin. For every one you steal, I’ll cut off a finger. Everyone else, back to work!” The Bugs scuttled away except for the boy, who pulled off the man’s golden buttons with shaking hands.

Silverfish crouched there, her cheek ablaze with pain, as she stared at the man she had rescued. Blood dripped from her split lip and into the puddle of water around the man’s body, each drop unfurling like small purple flowers. Blue sea, red blood.

She wouldn’t know who he was—or what he was—until he woke, but when he did, she hoped she’d been right about him.

Surely saving a man’s life is worth a few more weeks, thought Amaya.

He better be rich, thought Silverfish.

About ‘Scavenge the Stars’

When Amaya rescues a mysterious stranger from drowning, she fears her rash actions have earned her a longer sentence on the debtor ship where she’s been held captive for years. Instead, the man she saved offers her unimaginable riches and a new identity, setting Amaya on a perilous course through the coastal city-state of Moray, where old-world opulence and desperate gamblers collide. Amaya wants one thing: revenge against the man who ruined her family and stole the life she once had. But the more entangled she becomes in this game of deception — and as her path intertwines with the son of the man she’s plotting to bring down — the more she uncovers about the truth of her past. And the more she realizes she must trust no one…

Packed with high-stakes adventure, romance, and dueling identities, this gender-swapped retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo is the first novel in an epic YA fantasy duology, perfect for fans of Sarah J. Maas, Sabaa Tahir, and Leigh Bardugo.

Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim hits store shelves on January 7, 2020. You can currently add it to your Goodreads list.

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