The Doctor

El Lobo Del Mar

405 posts in this topic

Rhiannon stared as her husband lay there. She heard a moan from the bed and as if swimming underwater and coming to the surface, she saw Rhys laying on the bed.

She ran over to him. He laid there holding his side, his fingers and hand turning red with the blood that was seeping from the wound inflicted on him by Madoc.

"Oh my God, Rhys."

She held him and the blood continued to seep, crimson and staining her hands and saturated her dress.

His breathing was shallow. "Ah, Rhiannon. I always thought I would die at sea. From a battle or maybe even a mutiny. Going down with my ship. Never in my dreams for the crime of being in the arms of a woman."

"Rhys, here. Let me help you sit up. It might not be as bad as it looks..."

He shook his head and whispered, "I know it's fatal, my love."

She felt hot tears trace down her face. "Rhys. Please don't leave me, Rhys. You promised me...you promised you would love me forever."

"I will, my darling....love...love you forever...."

"No, Rhys. NO! I won't have it. You said you would marry me. Together forever. That--that is what you promised me."

His eyes closed, the bedclothes turning red.

She laid her head on his shoulder and cradled his head in her arms. "I won't hear of it, Rhys. I won't let you leave me. You can't. You won't. I won't have it. I--I can't bear it. I can't go on without you."

His breathing grew more labored. "Can't--can't breathe. Not much time. Promise me one thing. Go to---go to Barbados. Get help from.....find him. He will know what to do."

She was sobbing. "You are coming with me. I won't have it any other way. I love you. Don't leave me, Rhys! DON'T LEAVE ME!"

He drew a breath and touched her face. "I'll always be with you. I love you, Rhiannon....always and for...forever...."

His eyes closed and he went limp.

She cradled his head to her cheek and wept. But there was no response from Rhys.

Rhiannon didn't know how long she laid there holding on to him. Finally she dragged herself out of the bed, emotionally numb. She took cloths and wiped as much blood as she could from her hands and her body. She then took a pitcher of water and filled the basin. The water turned red. Fill and rinse, fill and rinse....there was no stop to the crimson water. She just repeated the actions as if someone else were doing it.

'Got to get out of here....leave....leave....'

She knew the vengefulness of Madoc's sons, particularly Henry who always resented Rhiannon usurping his dead mother's place. If she stayed, there was a more than good chance she would stand trial and swing for killing her husband.

'Go to Barbados...find him...he will know what to do...'

That is what Rhys whispered to her. But who? The captain....what was his name? Fox. That was it. Captain Fox.

As if in a trance she dropped her bloodied chemise and threw it in the fireplace. She dressed quickly in riding clothes. Walking over to the safe, she emptied the contents into a cloth bag. Jewelry and coins.

She shoved any papers and property deeds she could.

She took out the final papers.

It was the marriage contract between her father and Madoc. It was the promise of giving Rhiannon the woods and meadowland between the two estates when she produced an heir.

'So I was nothing but a broodmare.'

She crumpled the paper and threw it into the flames.

'Take that. I won't be sold like a slave.'

Opening up her armoire, she took anything she could and shoved them into two duffel bags.

Taking her cloak she wrapped it around her shoulders.

Looking at Rhys' body on the bed, she felt the tears slide down her face.

She brushed the hair out of his face and kissed his lips that were still warm.

Softly she whispered, "I know you will always be with me, my love. A love like ours can never die. There is nothing I can do anymore for you. May God have mercy on your soul, my darling."

She touched the sleeve of his shirt.

"I love you, Rhys. Forever. I'll never love anyone again. Not like I love you."

She didn't even bother to look at Madoc.

She tossed the bags out the window and then threw her leg over the sill. She looked down. About twenty feet. She climbed down the trellis as far as she could, the thorns scratching at her and catching at her hair. Finally there was about ten feet left. She closed her eyes and took a leap.

Landing on the ground, she picked up her bags and quietly went down to the stables.

And there was the horse she had taken from the Order of St Bridgid.

A horse named Taliesin.

She wasn't stealing him.

Just borrowed with no intention of returning.

Ever.

She saddled and bridled him. Throwing the bags over the rear of the horse, she then whistled quietly for her wolf-dog Muir. Muir came out from under the hay and jumped on her.

"Hello, Muir. Looks like we are going on another adventure."

She climbed the gate of the stall and jumped on Taliesin's back. She then patted her leg and Muir took a leap. She caught him as he was in midair.

She put him in front of her and their mutual heat warmed each other. Their breaths fogged in the night air.

"Ready, Taliesin?"

She reined him towards the door. As he cleared it, she kicked in with her boots. Hard.

Taliesin reared slightly as if in agreement and cantered forward.

Her hair streamed behind her as she galloped towards the woods.

Anywhere...just away from Castlemaine Manor.

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"It's alright, Muir. Just curl up under my cloak."

The wolf-dog snuggled closer to Rhiannon. Taliesin, the steed she took from the convent, seemed to know that his rider needed to get away as far as she could and quickly.

Rhiannon's breath clouded in the damp, cold Welsh night.

'Have to get away....have to get away....have to....'

"Halt!"

Rhiannon drew the reins up short and Taliesin skidded to a stop, rearing up slightly.

"Wh--who is it?"

A dark cloaked figure came out from behind the trees, his coal black stallion blocking their way.

"Never mind the name," the stranger said. In the moonlight, Rhiannon could see that he was rough trade.

"Wh-wh-what do you want?"

He gave a low chuckle. "Yer valuables, fer one."

Her hand tightened on the saddle bag that contained all the Castlemaine jewels. Her duffel bags with her clothes and the money were thrown across Taliesin's back and tied down securely.

"I-I don't have any money."

"No? Then what is in the bags?"

"Just foodstuff. I--I'm on my way to see my sister. She's about a day's journey."

"And what is a nice girl like you doing riding at night instead of cozied in an inn?"

"It was too crowded so I decided to ride as long as I could and then set up in a cave...or something."

He laughed. "I think I can arrange the 'or something.' Now hop yer pretty self down from the horse and I'll show you how cozy it can be."

"WHAT?"

Taliesin pranced in place and Muir emitted a low growl.

"Ye got a dog there? Just tie him up near the tree, darling. Ye have no money and I haven't seen a woman in a week. I need something out of this."

Rhiannon shakily reached into the pouch and produced two pistols.

"And what will you do if I sh-shoot you?"

He laughed even harder. "Ye can't even hold onto them, ye're shaking so hard. Now come on and hand them over before you hurt yourself."

"I--I mean it. I--I'll shoot if I have to."

"No, ye won't. Ye ain't got it in ye. Now, hurry up and I'll show ye some right good lovin' under this here full moon and then--"

BAM!

A sharp yell of pain filled the night as the man clutched his knee.

"B*TCH!" he yelled.

Rhiannon fired another shot wildly and it missed the man's head by inches, sending his hat flying into the air. He dropped to the road and tried to staunch the blood. She pulled back on the hammer and squeezed the trigger but it just clicked. No spark, no fire. She hurled one of the pistols at the man, bonking him in the forehead with the butt of the pistol.

He fell face forward in the road, curiously silent.

Rhiannon wasted no time. She dug her boot heels into Taliesin. The horse reared back and bolted. As he dashed by, he brushed into the robber's horse and spooked him. The robber's horse took off down the road in the opposite direction.

About ten miles down the road, Rhiannon reined Taliesin. There was a fork in the road and Rhiannon did not know which way to go. Would one lead to a town? Does the other one drive her deeper into the forest?

Would there be more highwaymen?

And did she have any more shot for the pistols? As if she could load them herself...

The horse stopped and Rhiannon looked up at the stars that shining in the indigo night. It was becoming colder. Rhiannon watching her breath frost up, her fingers numb from holding the reins.

She gazed up at the heavens and searched them as if she would find the answer there.

'Mother? Mother? Pl-please! Please! I need your help!' she begged. She covered her face with her hands and sobbed. The last year had been a terror for her. Aside from the fact that she was told to leave the convent--the only home she had known for the past eleven years--her father had married her off to an old man. Even though Madoc was an old man of forty-seven, he was lively.

She wiped her tears with the corner of the cloak. Muir let out a whimper and licked her face. She hugged him fiercely.

'Where are we to go, Muir? What shall we do?'

She looked up to see her answer off in the distance.

A small stone church with a light in the stained glass window.

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Honour led the horse to the front door of the church and tied him to the rail.

Clutching her cloak tightly to her, she took Muir with her and timidly knocked on the door.

The door was answered by an old priest. He had a full beard and was tall and imperial in his bearing. Yet there was something else in his face.

Compassion.

"What can I do for you, my child?"

"Please, Father, can you hear a confession? Tonight?"

"But, child, you should be home with your family. What drives you out on a night like this? You must be chilled to the bone."

"A confession and absolution are of utmost importance, Father. Would you deny it?"

"Of course not."

"And sanctuary in a church? Where I will come to no harm nor arrest?"

The priest took a deep breath.

"My child, sanctuary and right to asylum was abolished by King James in 1623."

"But can you protect me?"

He said slowly, "I'll do what I can. But it is time for you to tell me what this is about."

"Only in a confession. Otherwise, I leave."

The priest led her to a small parlor where a fire was blazing.

He sat down in a chair and motioned for her to do likewise.

"Would you care for something to drink? Some tea?"

She shivered. "I would prefer something a bit stronger, if you don't mind."

The priest's eyes twinkled.

"I was hoping you would say that. Brandy it is, then."

The priest handed her a snifter.

"I made it myself last spring."

"You make strong spirits? Here?"

"Child, I am an herbalist and a healer and a distiller. Many of these ancient recipes were handed down by the Celts and the----" here he looked around--"the Druids."

Rhiannon's eyes went wide.

"Druids?"

The priest laughed, "Surely being Welsh, you know that a lot of the ancient practices had its roots in Druidism."

She took a sip of the blackberry brandy and it warmed her. Muir curled up at her feet, happy to be out of the cold.

The priest looked out at Taliesin, still tethered to the post.

"My child, if you seek---sanctuary--best I take your horse to the stable and let Brother Clement care for him. No need for you to get up, you just warm up. And then we shall talk."

The priest wrapped a wool scarf around his neck and closed the door.

Within fifteen minutes, he reappeared with an armload of firewood.

"Can't have you freezing. Your horse is stabled and being cared for."

He laid more wood on the fire, then sat down and lit his pipe.

"You--you smoke a pipe too?"

He smiled at her. "It calms me down. Now...let's talk. Might I ask your name?"

She hesitated and Muir looked up at her expectantly.

"Rhiannon Cas--Rhiannon Conaway."

"Pleased to meet you, Mistress Conaway. Why are you in need of a quick confession and absolution? You don't look wounded nor do you look like you are in need of last rites."

She looked down at the floor and said softly, "I committed an unforgivable sin."

"A young lady as yourself? Now, what could be so bad that you feel you cannot be forgiven?"

She looked up at him with pain-filled eyes.

"I killed my husband."

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The priest downed his brandy in one gulp and looked at her. His voice remained calm.

"I see."

"It was an accident, Father. I swear. It was self defense."

Perhaps you had better start at the beginning."

"Is this my confession?"

"It is."

Rhiannon took a deep drink of her brandy and said quietly, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been over a year since my last confession."

"Over a year? And to what do you owe the time lapse?"

"I--I was married off to an old man I didn't love! Oh, Father, he was horrible!"

"How did you come to be married off?"

She looked down. "I was sent away in disgrace. I met a man."

The priest said nothing.

She raised her head and said almost defiantly, "It wasn't like what you think! We were in love! He had to go away to sea--"

"He was a merchant sailor?"

"Not exactly."

"What do you mean, 'not exactly?'"

She said almost inaudibly, "He's a pirate."

The priest nodded. It wasn't unusual for an imaginative and romantic girl to lose her heart to a dashing figure. She took a deep breath and continued.

"He was supposed to come back for me but he was delayed out of a sense of loyalty to a friend and meanwhile Mother Superior found out about us. The damned--forgive me, Father--the novitiate turned me in. I was sent home. I thought Rhys--that is his name--had deserted me and my father didn't want me around so I had to marry Lo--my husband. But Rhys found me and we made plans for him to spirit me away. But--but then my husband came home. And he ran Rhys through with his saber."

"Rhys--and you..?"

She blurted out, "It is not a sin if you are in love, is it, Father? The sin would be love denied! And the sin was every time my husband touched me. THAT was not love!"

She fought for control of her emotions. The priest could see how fragile she was.

He gently prodded, "And so what happened to the husband?"

She could hardly find her voice. "He raised his saber to run me through also but I was quicker. I hurled my bodice dagger and pinned him against the wall."

Rhiannon burst into tears. The kindly priest took her in his arms and patted her on the back, making soothing sounds.

"My child, forgiveness has been granted. Go and sin no more."

She looked up at him with a tear-stained face.

"I--I'm forgiven?"

"Clearly not a sin you intend on repeating--although we are a bit foggy on the 'is it a sin or not?' but I am willing to make allowances for your youth. Now, do you have a place to stay?"

She shook her head no.

"Where do you intend to go, child?"

She sat there undecided.

"I thought so. You haven't thought that far in advance. There is a bed in the loft up these stairs. You shall be safe and no harm will come to you. You are under my protection. And tomorrow we shall talk about what you shall do and where you shall go."

She hugged him as if she were drowning and he was the only thing to cling to.

"How can I ever thank you, Father?"

"By entering a convent and becoming a nun."

She looked at him with a shocked expression until he laughed.

"No, I can see you are not cut out for taking the veil. Now get a good night's sleep and we shall talk on the morrow."

She started up the stairs, Muir trotting after her.

Rhiannon turned and politely asked, "Might I inquire of your name, Father?"

"Simon. Father Simon for all your spiritual needs, Miss Rhiannon."

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Father Simon was baking bread when Rhiannon and Muir came down from the loft. He smiled up at her.

"Would you like a few slices of sunflower seed bread? It was made fresh yesterday. And the butter is freshly churned."

She gave him a radiant smile in return. "I can't think of anything better, Father."

She dropped a few pieces of salt pork to Muir as she spread the butter on her bread. Father Simon continued to knead the bread as he asked her, "And have you decided on any plans, young Rhiannon?"

"Yes, I have. Rhys and I had talked about leaving Wales for a place called Barbados. It's in the Caribbean."

He nodded slowly, "Yes, I know. And that is where you intend to go?"

She took a bite and chewed slowly. "Yes. I think Rhys would have....."

Her voice trailed off. Tears welled up in her eyes and a look of sadness like Father Simon had never seen crossed her delicate features. Her eyes misted to a place far away, along with her thoughts.

And her heart.

"And what do you intend to do with that fine steed?"

She said, "He was the convent's horse. I took him because I refused to have Mother Superior arrange for me to go home in a carriage. With all the money my father donated to keep me there, I feel the horse belongs to me. When I married, my sister Dilys arranged with the groom to have him stabled there. My father really took no note that Taliesin was there and Madoc was pleased to have such a fine piece of horseflesh in his stables. But I cannot take him with me, Father. So I would like to give him to you. As a thank you for a confession well done."

"It's very generous of you, Rhiannon. But he's too fine a gift. Why not sell him?"

"Sell Taliesin to whom? I will not have him passed to strangers. And you would be kind and not work him. And then there is the factor of time."

"And what of your dog?"

She raised her head defiantly. "Muir has been with me since I was six years old. Where I go, he goes."

Father Simon laughed. "A deal, then. But I also have something for you."

He walked over to the mantle and opened a box of rosewood. In a soft cloth, he withdrew a dagger.

It was mother of pearl, inlaid with a ruby on the hilt. He sat down and pressed it into her hand.

"Take it. From me to you."

"Father, I can't..."

"Yes, you can. Let it be a lesson to you, Rhiannon."

He opened her palm and pointed to the ruby. "This represents the blood that has been spilled in the name of lust. But it is tempered with the pearl, the purity of white which represents the forgiveness of your sins. Never forget, Rhiannon, that which was shed. But what has now been absolved. Besides, I have blessed it and you may need it someday."

She took the dagger and slipped it into her bodice. Father Simon pretended not to notice where she kept it.

He said briskly, "And when did you intend to leave for Barbados?"

"As soon as I can book passage. Preferably today."

"But there may be no ships leaving for a few days."

She shrugged, "Then I shall wait till one does. I can procure a room for a few days."

"Are you sure? You are more than welcome to stay here until that time."

Rhiannon shook her head no. "It would be better that I leave. I shall miss Taliesin dearly but I know he will be in good hands. Will you take me to the harbor?"

"If that is what you want."

She said softly, almost to herself, "That is what Rhys would have wanted. He had a friend that would have helped us."

"Does this friend have a name so you can contact him?"

Her brow furrowed. "Fox. Captain Fox. I don't remember the name of his ship though. Rhys told me to go to him and he would help me."

Father Simon dusted flour off his hands and wiped it on his frock.

"I must say sending you off to a foreign land is not setting well with me, child."

"Father, my wolf-dog has been protecting me since I was a little girl. I shall be fine."

She looked off in the distance and said, "Yes, that is where he would want me to go."

"Barbados?"

"Barbados."

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St Lawrence, Barbados--March, 1653

Rhiannon hauled her duffel bag up to the tavern.

"I'd like a room, please."

The tavern owner sized her up. "For just yourself?"

"Yes."

"Just passing through?"

She shrugged. "I don't know yet. I am looking for someone."

"This someone have a name?"

"Captain Fox."

"Hadn't heard of him. What ship?"

She frowned. "I don't know."

"Well, that is gonna make it more difficult."

"Then I will have to try that much harder to look for him, won't I?"

He turned his journal around.

"Sign here."

She hesitated and then took pen in hand and wrote.

He turned it around and said, "Honour Bright. Unusual name."

"My mother said it was an oath of fidelity. To be true to oneself, she always said."

"Uh huh. Well, your room is the second one on the right."

"Thank you."

As she climbed the stairs, she asked, "Any other ports here in Barbados?"

"Bridgetown."

"I'll start here."

Rhiannon opened the door and her room consisted of a small bed and a chest of drawers. She opened the window, her nose wrinkling to the smells in the alley. Quickly she shut it.

The voyage had taken three months. Captain Weston was very solicitous. As a personal favor to his cousin, Father Simon and seeing as he was a God-fearing man, he made sure no harm had come to her. He made sure she dined in his cabin and the crew left her alone. Not a bad idea that Captain Weston told them that she was his niece. That made her off limits.

Three months had given her plenty of time to grieve over Rhys. And every time it was like a fresh wound. She would spend her hours staring out at the sea, praying that Rhys would forgive her for running out like she did. But what more could she have done? Madoc's sons would see that she would be brought to justice and she couldn't take the chance that they wouldn't dig deep in their pockets to see the justice would go the way they wanted. After all, Judas Iscariot got what he wanted.

For a price.

She drew the sheets back and laid down. Before she knew it, she was sound asleep in a bed that finally wasn't rocking.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Excuse me...I'm looking for a Captain Fox that ports in Barbados. Have you seen him?"

"What is the name of his ship?"

"I don't know."

"I'm sorry. Don't know any Captain Fox."

She walked outside, despair on her face. Tavern after tavern, it was the same story.

"No--ship's name?"

"I'm sorry. Never heard of him."

"Nope, little lady. But will I do?"

She looked up at the sign.

The Varlet and Vixen.

Her eyes adjusted to the darkness. A tavern keeper with a kindly face was polishing glasses.

"Can I help you, Miss?"

She nodded. "An ale, please."

He poured her a tankard and set it in front of her.

"I'm looking for someone. A Captain Fox. Does he port here?"

He shook his head. "Not that I know of."

She sighed and drank her ale.

A few minutes later, a scurvy man sidled up next to her.

"You looking for Fox?"

She turned to him and her face lit up.

"You know him?"

"Aye. He just ported this morning. Down at the dock right now. Fer a few shillings, I take ye to 'im."

She dug into her purse and gave it to him.

"You sure he isn't in a tavern? After all, it's getting dark."

"He's at the docks like I said. Takin' care o' is crew."

She looked over and the tavern keeper was nowhere in sight.

She sighed. "Alright."

They left the tavern.

"Down this alley. It's a shortcut to the dock."

She followed him around the back of the tavern. "Are you sure?"

Suddenly she was thrown against the bricks and the dissolute pirate was pressing her body into the bricks, his hands roaming all over her and tugging at her skirt and chemise. She tried to scream but he covered his mouth with hers.

"WHAT THE HELL?"

The tavern keeper was in the alley dumping his trash. He threw it down and grabbed a huge club.

The pirate turned around and ducked just as the cudgel swung and barely missed his head. He scrambled to his feet and ran off. Rhiannon slumped against the bricks, too shocked to cry out.

"Here now, Missy. Whatever possessed you to go in the alley with that scum?"

"He--he said he knew Captain Fox and would lead me to him."

Suddenly the enormity of what almost happened overcame her and she broke down in sobs. Her face to the bricks, she covered her face with her arm, her body wracked.

"Alright, young miss. You come with me."

He led her to the back room of the tavern and sat her down in a chair.

"Jared can take care of the tavern for a minute. Here's a warm wet cloth."

He wiped the tears off her face but they kept flowing.

"What you need is a hot meal. When was the last time you had one?"

Rhiannon shrugged. "I guess maybe a few days ago."

He looked at her sternly. "A few months is more like it. Look at you. Your clothes are hanging on you. You stay right here."

The tavern keep disappeared for a minute and came back with a bowl of stew and some brown bread.

"Made it myself and it's got meat in it to build you up. Now you eat and don't get out of that chair until every last drop is mopped up with that bread. And milk. Girl like you needs milk. Not ale."

He came back with a fresh glass.

Hungrily Rhiannon devoured the meal.

The tavern keeper turned his chair around and faced her.

Sternly, he said, "You can't keep looking in tavern after tavern asking for a captain, Missy. It's only going to land you in hot water. What if I hadn't been there to save you? These men have no qualms about using a woman and then maybe even killing them when they are finished."

Rhiannon's eyes grew wide.

He continued, "Yes, well, I can see that never crossed your mind. So why are you looking for this Captain Fox?"

She took a deep breath. "I was told by an old friend if I was ever in trouble, this captain would help me. Now I need his help."

"And what help would that be?"

She didn't answer.

"Yes, well, I figure we all have our secrets. So where are you staying?"

"Over at The King's Falcon."

He snorted. "A dump."

"You have a better idea?"

He looked at her thoughtfully. "Aye. I do. I happen to have a room upstairs. It was the tavern wench's that ran off with a sailor last week. Left me shorthanded. You interested in a deal?"

"What sort of deal?"

"I run a clean establishment. Nothing fancy but the food is good and the ale is cold. The rum isn't the best but it's not rotgut. If you are willing to help me out, I'll let you stay in that room. Mine is down the hall, Jared's is next to you. I promise you no harm will come to you. They would have to get through the both of us to get to you. In exchange, you can help lay spirits down. The men will leave you alone. Between Jared and Malcolm, we got you protected. The pay will be what you can wheedle out of these old salts. And I am willing to wager you will do fine.

So how does that sound?"

She looked around. The place was clean and lively. And it would afford her more time to find Captain Fox.

"And I can have whatever coins I sweep up off the floor?"

He broke out in laughter. "You drive a hard bargain, Missy. Sure as I am sitting here, what you can glean is also yours."

She extended her hand. "Honour Bright, tavern wench at your service."

He took her hand and instead of shaking it, he kissed it.

"Amos O'Reilly at your service, Miss Bright."

She smiled and asked, "When can I start?"

"How soon can you get your things?"

"If you lend me Jared, I can be back in an hour."

"Well, welcome to The Varlet and Vixen, Miss Bright!"

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St Lawrence, Barbados--March, 1653

Rhiannon hauled her duffel bag up to the tavern.

"I'd like a room, please."

The tavern owner sized her up. "For just yourself?"

"Yes."

"Just passing through?"

She shrugged. "I don't know yet. I am looking for someone."

"This someone have a name?"

"Captain Fox."

"Hadn't heard of him. What ship?"

She frowned. "I don't know."

"Well, that is gonna make it more difficult."

"Then I will have to try that much harder to look for him, won't I?"

He turned his journal around.

"Sign here."

She hesitated and then took pen in hand and wrote.

He turned it around and said, "Honour Bright. Unusual name."

"My mother said it was an oath of fidelity. To be true to oneself, she always said."

"Uh huh. Well, your room is the second one on the right."

"Thank you."

As she climbed the stairs, she asked, "Any other ports here in Barbados?"

"Bridgetown."

"I'll start here."

Rhiannon opened the door and her room consisted of a small bed and a chest of drawers. She opened the window, her nose wrinkling to the smells in the alley. Quickly she shut it.

The voyage had taken three months. Captain Weston was very solicitous. As a personal favor to his cousin, Father Simon and seeing as he was a God-fearing man, he made sure no harm had come to her. He made sure she dined in his cabin and the crew left her alone. Not a bad idea that Captain Weston told them that she was his niece. That made her off limits.

Three months had given her plenty of time to grieve over Rhys. And every time it was like a fresh wound. She would spend her hours staring out at the sea, praying that Rhys would forgive her for running out like she did. But what more could she have done? Madoc's sons would see that she would be brought to justice and she couldn't take the chance that they wouldn't dig deep in their pockets to see the justice would go the way they wanted. After all, Judas Iscariot got what he wanted.

For a price.

She drew the sheets back and laid down. Before she knew it, she was sound asleep in a bed that finally wasn't rocking.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Excuse me...I'm looking for a Captain Fox that ports in Barbados. Have you seen him?"

"What is the name of his ship?"

"I don't know."

"I'm sorry. Don't know any Captain Fox."

She walked outside, despair on her face. Tavern after tavern, it was the same story.

"No--ship's name?"

"I'm sorry. Never heard of him."

"Nope, little lady. But will I do?"

She looked up at the sign.

The Varlet and Vixen.

Her eyes adjusted to the darkness. A tavern keeper with a kindly face was polishing glasses.

"Can I help you, Miss?"

She nodded. "An ale, please."

He poured her a tankard and set it in front of her.

"I'm looking for someone. A Captain Fox. Does he port here?"

He shook his head. "Not that I know of."

She sighed and drank her ale.

A few minutes later, a scurvy man sidled up next to her.

"You looking for Fox?"

She turned to him and her face lit up.

"You know him?"

"Aye. He just ported this morning. Down at the dock right now. Fer a few shillings, I take ye to 'im."

She dug into her purse and gave it to him.

"You sure he isn't in a tavern? After all, it's getting dark."

"He's at the docks like I said. Takin' care o' is crew."

She looked over and the tavern keeper was nowhere in sight.

She sighed. "Alright."

They left the tavern.

"Down this alley. It's a shortcut to the dock."

She followed him around the back of the tavern. "Are you sure?"

Suddenly she was thrown against the bricks and the dissolute pirate was pressing her body into the bricks, his hands roaming all over her and tugging at her skirt and chemise. She tried to scream but he covered his mouth with hers.

"WHAT THE HELL?"

The tavern keeper was in the alley dumping his trash. He threw it down and grabbed a huge club.

The pirate turned around and ducked just as the cudgel swung and barely missed his head. He scrambled to his feet and ran off. Rhiannon slumped against the bricks, too shocked to cry out.

"Here now, Missy. Whatever possessed you to go in the alley with that scum?"

"He--he said he knew Captain Fox and would lead me to him."

Suddenly the enormity of what almost happened overcame her and she broke down in sobs. Her face to the bricks, she covered her face with her arm, her body wracked.

"Alright, young miss. You come with me."

He led her to the back room of the tavern and sat her down in a chair.

"Jared can take care of the tavern for a minute. Here's a warm wet cloth."

He wiped the tears off her face but they kept flowing.

"What you need is a hot meal. When was the last time you had one?"

Rhiannon shrugged. "I guess maybe a few days ago."

He looked at her sternly. "A few months is more like it. Look at you. Your clothes are hanging on you. You stay right here."

The tavern keep disappeared for a minute and came back with a bowl of stew and some brown bread.

"Made it myself and it's got meat in it to build you up. Now you eat and don't get out of that chair until every last drop is mopped up with that bread. And milk. Girl like you needs milk. Not ale."

He came back with a fresh glass.

Hungrily Rhiannon devoured the meal.

The tavern keeper turned his chair around and faced her.

Sternly, he said, "You can't keep looking in tavern after tavern asking for a captain, Missy. It's only going to land you in hot water. What if I hadn't been there to save you? These men have no qualms about using a woman and then maybe even killing them when they are finished."

Rhiannon's eyes grew wide.

He continued, "Yes, well, I can see that never crossed your mind. So why are you looking for this Captain Fox?"

She took a deep breath. "I was told by an old friend if I was ever in trouble, this captain would help me. Now I need his help."

"And what help would that be?"

She didn't answer.

"Yes, well, I figure we all have our secrets. So where are you staying?"

"Over at The King's Falcon."

He snorted. "A dump."

"You have a better idea?"

He looked at her thoughtfully. "Aye. I do. I happen to have a room upstairs. It was the tavern wench's that ran off with a sailor last week. Left me shorthanded. You interested in a deal?"

"What sort of deal?"

"I run a clean establishment. Nothing fancy but the food is good and the ale is cold. The rum isn't the best but it's not rotgut. If you are willing to help me out, I'll let you stay in that room. Mine is down the hall, Jared's is next to you. I promise you no harm will come to you. They would have to get through the both of us to get to you. In exchange, you can help lay spirits down. The men will leave you alone. Between Jared and Malcolm, we got you protected. The pay will be what you can wheedle out of these old salts. And I am willing to wager you will do fine.

So how does that sound?"

She looked around. The place was clean and lively. And it would afford her more time to find Captain Fox.

"And I can have whatever coins I sweep up off the floor?"

He broke out in laughter. "You drive a hard bargain, Missy. Sure as I am sitting here, what you can glean is also yours."

She extended her hand. "Honour Bright, tavern wench at your service."

He took her hand and instead of shaking it, he kissed it.

"Amos O'Reilly at your service, Miss Bright."

She smiled and asked, "When can I start?"

"How soon can you get your things?"

"If you lend me Jared, I can be back in an hour."

"Well, welcome to The Varlet and Vixen, Miss Bright!"

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July, 1653

Rhiannon ran back and forth between the tables. Once or twice she felt a pinch on her bum but as she turned around, the culprit must have been diverting his attention elsewhere.

"Hey! Tavern wench! More rum!"

She yelled back, "Hold your water, old man!"

To which the pirates' table broke out in raucous laughter.

She brushed her hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand. Someone smacked her on the behind and she wheeled around, gently grabbing the offending pirate by the lapels of his frock coat and pulled him close to her. She sensuously licked her lips.

"What's your name, pirate?" she breathed softly.

"Peyton," he winked to his fellow pirates.

Rhiannon sat on his lap. Peyton thought he was going to get lucky. She leaned over and whispered in his ear, "Peyton, darling--touch my arse once more and the dagger in my boot will be lodged in your chest. And believe me, it won't be Cupid shooting an arrow through your heart. Savvy?"

Peyton turned red with embarrassment combined with fury. She stood up and gave him a wink for the benefit of his friends.

"What? What did she say, Peyton?"

"Yeah, you meeting the lass later?"

"Don't hold out on us!"

But Peyton, embarrassed, went back to his ale. Still, he couldn't take his eyes off the lass' assets.

She looked over at the dissolute lot that frequented The Varlet and Vixen. Shaking her head, she sighed and murmured, 'I really need to find something else to do with my life.'

Clearing off a table and pocketing any coins carelessly left behind, she arched her back to stretch.

A nowhere job with nowhere people, all heading in the same direction.

Nowhere.

Amos yelled, "Honour! Those pirates at the table by the window be wanting more ale. So pick up these tankards and get your pretty self over there."

She sighed and headed over with a tray. As she turned around to put the tankards down, one of them grabbed her around the waist and drunkenly said, " I've got a place fer ye to rest yer assets, darlin'...."

She picked up a tankard and dumped the contents over his head, to the riotous laughter of his shipmates.

Walking over to Amos, she said furiously, "If you don't want a killing on the premises, then I would suggest you let me have a break."

Amos couldn't blame her. The afternoon crowd had been there since mid-morning and the later the afternoon, the drunker they became.

"Sure, darlin' . Go for a walk around the block and cool off."

She stood out back and looked towards the sea. 'If I can just find Captain Fox, maybe I can figure out what to do. I just can't believe that no one has heard of him. Maybe a few days down in Bridgetown will bring more results.'

She sighed, tied her hair back and walked back into the den of thieves.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rhiannon had only been working four months when a handsome captain came into the tavern. She walked up to him as he sat down at the corner table, his back to the wall.

"Something I can get for you?" she asked.

He looked up at her with deep brown eyes and grinned. "An ale...to start out with." He constantly looked out the window.

"Are you expecting company?" she asked.

"Company?" he laughed. "You are new here, are you not?"

She blushed and retorted, "Something amusing about that?"

He shook his head and said, "No. I never heard it put quite that way. But yes, I am expecting company."

"Shall I tell him you are here if and when I see this individual?"

He looked at her and blinked. "Such high-class words for a tavern wench."

She glared at him. "What makes you think a tavern wench has to speak in one-syllable words?"

He laughed and said, "Point well-taken. I am waiting for a Captain Wolfe but I don't see him. His ship has not ported."

She came back with his ale and he beckoned to her. "Not much business yet, and I'm in need of company."

She opened her mouth to retort a reply and he held up his hand.

"I am not taking you for a doxy. Just some intelligent conversation."

She suddenly smiled and held out her hand to him. "My name is Honour Bright."

He kissed her hand and said, "And I am Captain James Blake of the 'Dark Vexation', just ported this morning."

"Where are you from, Captain Blake?"

"Please, call me James. Ireland. Wicklow, to be precise. And you?"

"Originally from Wales. A town near Beaumaris."

"Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Bright...."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It lasted two weeks. She remembered their last night together. They had spent the night in her room above the tavern. He held her close and kissed her.

"If you're ever back in Barbados...." she whispered.

"Aye. I know..."

Before the morning dawned, he was gone.

She got up and wrapped the sheet around her. On the dresser was a package.

Upon opening, she found a beautiful bolt of sky blue silk. She smiled softly as her fingers touched the fabric. And then her eyes inexplicably filled with tears.

And the reason then dawned on her.

James Blake was the first man she had been with since....since him.

Tears traced down her face as she fought back the sobs.

And one thing became clear to her.

He was not Rhys Morgan.

She walked over to her casement window and opened it. Through her tears, she saw the sails of the Dark Vexation almost out of the harbour.

'Goodbye, James,' she whispered.

Rhiannon went back to bed and hugged her pillow, her tears wetting the case.

She cried until there were no more tears.

'Would it always be this way?' she wondered.

She felt disloyal to Rhys' memory. Ashamed that she let another man take his place, even temporarily. It wasn't James' fault. It was just the way it was.

She washed her face and looked in the mirror.

'At least he was a captain...'

And at that moment, she didn't feel ashamed anymore.

She just felt...nothing. For no one.

Not even herself.

'Love,' she thought. 'Love is just an excuse for...'

She didn't need an excuse anymore.

It would be captains or nothing.

And she wasn't going to settle for 'nothing'

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September, 1653

It had been a full two years, maybe more, since Jack had heard a pub tale about a certain ship. A ship said to carry the entire year's profits of the Dutch East India Company's operations in the New World back to Holland. She was fast by any country's standards, solidly built, and heavily armed so she wouldn't have to be slowed down by escorts. Other pirates had tried to chase her down, but found themselves outrun, or crippled for daring to engage, or both. Her name was the Stad Utrecht.

Jack originally dismissed the stories as just another sailor's yarn, because he saw no way the VOC could possibly be foolish enough to put all that treasure on one ship, no matter how fast or heavily gunned she was. Everything changed when he met a Dutch captain named Korteweg in a tiny pub on the island of Nevis. Korteweg was deep in his cups, bragging mightily about the wealth and power of the Dutch, and how they would one day rule the entire New World. Jack egged him on for laughs until the drunk Dutchman started boasting how no one had figured out that the Stad Utrecht took different routes at different times to a destination on one of the three islands of Aruba, Bonaire, or Curacao, known by mariners as the "ABC" Islands. All the silver and gold the Dutch accumulated during the year was melted down and re-minted into guilders and kroners. Less than two weeks before the Stad Utrecht was to arrive, a fast mail runner was dispatched to the islands, carrying letters to the three governors notifying them where the treasure would be picked up. The money would be quickly transported under heavy guard to the the appointed port, where the Stad Utrecht would swoop in like an eagle grabbing up its prey then head back out to sea.

Jack couldn't discount the man's story; it was far too detailed. He had learned over the years to trust words of a drunken fool above those of the most sober priest. Priests were used to keeping secrets, where a drunk fool never knew when to shut up. He continued to ply the Dutchman with drink until the man couldn't string two words together. Jack asked a tavern wench for some paper and a pen and ink. He wrote down the specifics of the Dutchman's story while they were still fresh in his mind. It became his habit to refresh his memory with those notes whenever they dropped anchor at a port that had dealings with the Dutch, friendly or hostile. Talk among the crew had him obsessed with with a phantom ship, almost as obsessed as he'd become with a mysterious sealed chest he'd discovered aboard a French ship. But with Jack Wolfe, obsession and determination could be virtually indistinguishable.

He came ever so close to finding out the Stad Utrecht's route when he was imprisoned by Diego Mendoza. One more thing added to the list of reasons to hate the vicious Spaniard. When he had regained his strength enough to return to the sea, he abandoned the lucrative hunting ground that had made him and his crew so wealthy to cruise waters Bonita "saw" were most likely to be taken by the Stad Utrecht. They took a ship here and there to put a few coins in the crew's pockets, but not so many as to dissuade the Dutch from continuing to use that road. The men were unhappy with with Jack's choices, but none dared part company and none dared complain too loudly for fear of drawing Bonita's evil eye. Jack's wild hunches and strangely inspired decisions had made them all rich men so far, so the crew grumbled in their bunks and hoped for the best.

Finally, Jack's determination paid off. El Lobo intercepted a fast little Dutch mail ship named the Windhond, en route to the ABC Islands near the time of year the Stad Utrecht made its run. The Windhond tried valiantly to run from the pirate ship, but a series of well placed volleys of chain shot through their sails from El Lobo's bow guns made escape impossible. The Dutch ship surrendered without a fight and her captain was brought aboard El Lobo for questioning. He was taken to a stark little room with only two chairs facing each other in it. After a long wait, he found himself face to face with the pirate who had taken his ship, and a most unusual woman.

"Are you comfortable enough, captain? I trust you weren't terribly mistreated whilst being escorted here?" asked Jack.

The Dutchman gave him an incredulous look, then without answering tried to find a place on the wall to stare at.

Jack smiled at Bonita, who sat on the floor with a small leather bag clutched in her hand. "I'll call it a yes," he said with a smirk. Bonita returned his smile, but went back to staring coldly at the Dutch captain.

"You don't remember me, do you? Jack Wolfe, from Nevis?" continued Jack. He fanned himself with a couple pieces of stained paper. "Me, I remember faces. And I remember yours quite well, Captain Korteweg."

Korteweg's eyes snapped back to Jack's. "How do you know me? I have never met you. I would remember meeting pirate scum like you."

"Well, of course you don't remember. How silly of me. You were blind drunk! Drunk, and running your mouth." Jack held up the papers, well out of the Dutchman's reach. "But I wrote it all down. Every last bit of what you had to say about the Stad Utrecht. Wasn't that thoughtful of me?"

Korteweg glared at him. "You are lying," he spat.

Jack held the papers off to the side and began to read aloud. "Stad Utrecht, treasure ship of the VOC. Makes an annual run to deliver the year's operating capital and pick up the year's profits. Always preceded by a mail runner – that would be you – to the ABC Islands... Sound familiar, my friend?"

The Hollander's face turned crimson with shame and anger, but he kept silent.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Now that your memory is jarred, when is the Stad Utrecht due to arrive?"

"You have my ship," growled Korteweg. "If you think the letters are aboard, go find them."

"Let me help you understand something, mate," said Jack calmly. "The more cooperative you are, the better things will go for you and your crew. So I'd like to hear the information from you, instead of trying to find the orange sealing wax to close those letters up again."

"And if I refuse?"

Jack shook his head. "That's where my lovely and talented friend Bonita comes in."

Bonita gave Korteweg a wholly unpleasant smile, more baring of her teeth than anything else. Her eyes stayed cold and flinty.

Korteweg snorted. "You would leave the, how do you say it? The dirty work, to a woman? You do not frighten me, Wolfe."

Bonita slowly got to her feet, never once taking her eyes off the Dutchman. His sneer evaporated when he saw the long bone-handled knife in her hand. She circled behind him, stalking him. Korteweg began to sweat.

"What-- what is she doing? Make her stop!"

Jack shook his head pityingly. "You reap what you sew, mate. It's out of my hands."

Bonita's knife flashed, and the Dutchman flinched as she came away with a hunk of reddish-blonde hair. She walked back to her original spot, casually turning the knife in her hand.

"Dis tell Bonita all she need to know about de little Dutch man," she said menacingly. In one motion, Bonita slipped the knife back into her clothes and sat down on the deck. Then she pulled a long chicken bone from her pouch and tied the lock of hair around it. Once she was satisfied the knot was tight, she held the bone to her lips and whispered something, then let it fall to the floor.

Korteweg watched her warily and crossed himself. "You did not say she was a witch!"

"You're the one who wanted to be stubborn," said Jack. "Now, I'm not going to pretend to know what it was she just did, but it can't spell good news for you."

"I bind him to de trut', so Bonita can tell if what he say be true, or lies," she intoned. "De bones reveal all, and bones no lie!"

"There you have it then," continued Jack. "You have an opportunity to better your situation and tell me the truth. Or you can be stubborn, and suffer the consequences. And to help you better decide, she is the consequences. Her and her knife."

Korteweg swallowed hard, and began talking freely. As the Dutchman spoke, Bonita rolled the bones over and over, announcing "Him telling de trut'" nearly every time. Only once did she shoot Korteweg a warning look, telling Jack, "Dere is much more him not telling." Korteweg sighed and divulged the information. He verified that the Stad Utrecht was indeed en route, scheduled to arrive in twenty days. She would be carrying money collected from some of the lesser outposts on St. Kitts and St. Eustasius, as well as the next year's operating capital. Her first stop was to be Curacao to collect the profits, then on to Aruba to deliver the operating money. The Dutch had become so secure with the speed and might of the Stad Utrecht and the safety of their own waters that they no longer felt the need for caution in handling such an incredible amount of treasure.

"Thank you, Captain Korteweg," said Jack. "You've been most helpful. I'll make certain you and your crew are treated fairly."

"You will let us go, yes?"

Jack gave him an amused look. "Of course not! I may be called mad, but I'm no fool. A little vocabulary lesson for you, Mijnheer: 'treated fairly' does not mean 'released'. It wouldn't do for you to run ahead and warn everyone about my presence in these waters, now would it? I need you out of the way for a while, at least twenty days. Continue to cooperate, and I'll make sure the island we make you governor of is an hospitable one."

Korteweg slouched in his chair, defeated. He had naively hoped in that his cooperation would buy the freedom of his men. To make matters worse, his first major assignment as a captain of the Dutch East India Company was a failure.

"Oh, don't look so dejected," said Jack. "You and your men get to stay alive. That's something to celebrate!"

"You are the Devil," said Korteweg bitterly.

Jack shook his head. "I prefer 'entrepreneur', but we're just splitting hairs now. Keep your seat, captain. My men will be round to escort you to the brig. And there will be a guard on the door, so no use trying anything heroic."

"Bonita will sit wit' our guest until de men come," she said quickly.

"What?" asked Jack. "You-- no. No, come along. I'll post a proper guard."

"De Dutchman, him already know him no match for Bonita," she countered, with a light in her eyes that made Jack uncomfortable. "Bonita too fast wit' de knife. And ot'er t'ings, too. If him know a man be outside de door, him will try to escape. De bones, dey show dis t'ing to me already."

Jack sighed, knowing all to well it was useless arguing with Bonita if her bones were involved.

"All right, all right! But you watch him, and that's all. Understand me? No mischief!"

Bonita put her hands behind her back and gave Jack a self-satisfied smile. "Bonita be a good girl for Jack Wolfe. Him de captain, and him word final!"

"Well, that was way too easy," Jack muttered to himself. "Whatever! I have plans to make. Captain Korteweg, it has been a pleasure. I'll see you later. Bonita, you stick to your promise!" He closed the door with a loud clack of its latch.

Bonita waited until the sound of Jack's bootheels faded completely. She turned to Korteweg with a malevolent smile. "Now, Bonita have some questions for de Dutchman. And him gonna answer dem all, wit' de trut', or wit' him blood..."

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"I must be out of my mind to leave Bonita alone with Korteweg," groused Jack as he spread out some charts of the southern Caribbean on the large table in his cabin. He scribbled down some hasty notes from the conversation with Korteweg, still muttering to himself. "If I had a farthing for every time I've let that woman talk me into something... never mind, I do. More like ten for every time. Still, I must remember to count his fingers next time I see him..."

He poured himself a large tankard of rum and began going over his notes, comparing them to the maps. The route the Stad Utrecht would take was indeed out of the way, but it wasn't a stretch to see her speed would make up for the extra distance. But an intercept in open waters was risky. One faulty manouever on Jack's part, and the prey could take the wind and run before he could correct his mistake. No, to catch this prey, he'd have to do the thing they'd never expect: attack in her own waters.

Jack went to the bookshelf and pulled out a large leather-bound book containing detailed maps, or rutters, of various islands, inlets, and estuaries. He selected the rutters for Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, carefully spreading them out on the table. Notations in the margins reminded him of perils in those waters beyond the natural hazards of shoals, reefs, and straits. The VOC ensured there were heavy patrols throughout the island chain thanks to their heavy influence with the monarchy. To make matters worse, the Dutch had adopted a policy of employing pirate hunters. They operated on the fringes, with small, fast, over-gunned sloops. They didn't care about making arrests. They got their pay for stopping pirates and their trade, no matter what. Taking a healthy swallow of rum, Jack began to plan his most ambitious, and dangerous, trap ever.

A knock came at the door, momentarily breaking Jack's concentration.

"Go away!" he snapped.

"Jack, it's Cade."

"Don't care! Busy!"

Jack didn't look up as the door creaked on its hinges. A handsome young man with light brown hair, tousled and sun-streaked with gold, and soulful green-grey eyes looked around the door. It was Cade Jennings, the young man Jack had rescued as a lad from the streets of New Providence years earlier and made his protege. Jack often jokingly referred to him as "the son he never wanted." But what a protege Cade had become! Piracy was second nature to him. He was especially adept at smuggling, both the mechanics and business side of things.

Jack looked up, and did a slight double take. He'd never noticed it before, but there were times Cade bore a resemblance to his old friend Rhys Morgan. Maybe it because Jack had received word just two weeks before that Rhys was dead, murdered in the home of a nobleman back in Wales last Winter. That explained why Rhys never showed up in Barbados with his lady love. Hard to start a new life when you're dead. Jack silently cursed his old friend and business partner for following his heart and getting killed for it, just as he had warned.

Jack shook his head and gave Cade a scowl.

"Which part of 'go away, I'm busy' didn't you understand?"

Cade laughed as he stepped into the cabin. "I'm here under orders of the good doctor. He says you need to take time out to eat something today."

"Who says I haven't?"

"Anyone who knows you. This is the third straight day I've had to remind you to take a meal."

"The fourth," Jack corrected. "You've become quite the nag, Cade. Keep it up! You'll make someone a fine wife."

"What can we say to get you to quit obsessing over that Dutch ship long enough to eat? You can't live off rum, you know."

Jack looked up from the charts and pointed out toward the sea. "Tell me the Stad Utretch is tied up along side with her crew under guard. Then I'll worry about eating. After we're bloody rich. I don't have time to go topside for food."

"I thought you'd say that," said Cade. He went to the door and retrieved from the floor a tray carrying a plate heaped with food. He put it down on the table in front of Jack, then stood back with his arms crossed. "Now you don't have to leave the cabin. Eat."

Jack picked up a bone with a hunk of meat attached. "What's this supposed to be?"

"Chicken, of course."

Jack sniffed it and dropped it back on the plate. "Albatross is more like it. He killed the last chicken a week ago."

Cade shrugged and took a seat across from Jack. He poured himself some rum and took a glance at the maps spread across the table.

"Things went well with our Dutch guest, I take it?"

"Better than I'd imagined," smiled Jack. He confirmed the route and timetable of the treasure ship, including her cargo and destinations. This is it, Cade. Finally, I will have her!"

"Then what?"

Jack gave Cade an uncomfortable look. "What do you mean?"

"You'll be richer than you ever dreamt. We all will. You'll have netted the biggest prize ever. What's left after that?"

"Retirement?!" snorted Jack. "Getting impatient for me to hand over the reins, Cade? How amitious of you."

"You know what I mean, Jack. Most people would want to go out on top. It's only fitting for the career you've had."

Jack took a sip of rum and thought a moment. "It's a tempting thought. But I still have a few scores to settle. A big pot of money would go a long way to that end."

"Mendoza?"

"For starters."

Cade nodded. Jack had told him of his imprisonment by the dangerous Spaniard, and Briggs provided details of the rescue. He knew Jack wouldn't rest until he had revenge on Diego Mendoza. He also knew better than to get Jack talking about it.

"I'm glad the Dutchman decided to cooperate," he said, to keep things on a more pleasant subject. "When do you want him and his crew released?"

"I don't," said Jack flatly.

"But, you said he gave you the information you wanted! Normally you take the best of their cargo and set them free."

"This time is different, Cade. If I let them go, they'll race straight back to whence they came and tell everyone we're lying in wait. They're loose ends, and I hate loose ends. I haven't worked this hard to throw it all away in a fit of kindness. I'll put a crew of our men aboard their ship so she can complete her mission and get the letters to the Dutch governors."

"Well, we can't keep their entire crew in our brig."

"We don't have to."

Cade gave his mentor a hard look. "You're not thinking of killing them, are you?"

Jack took the ruler in his hand and slapped it down onto the tabletop in exasperation. "No, Cade. I'm going to do something I rarely ever do. I'm marooning them." He pointed at one of the maps. "There's an island three days sail from here, well out of the normal shipping lanes. It's lush, with plenty of food and no inhabitants. None I know of, anyway. Someone will find them in a couple of weeks. They'll be fine."

Cade shook his head. "These are Dutch East India Company men. You honestly think they can survive on their own?"

"Not my problem. It's not like I'm asking them to swim for it. If they can't shift for themselves, they'd best be fast learners."

"I don't see a big difference between this and killing them outright."

Jack closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Though he loved Cade like a son, he was often infuriated by the young man's bouts of morality.

"I'm going to put this to you straight, Mister Jennings..."

Cade shifted uneasily at Jack's sudden shift in formality. He'd pushed too far. The captain's hat was on.

"You have a choice to make," continued Jack. "Either you're a pirate, capable of making the hard choices for your own benefit and your crew's that a pirate has to make, or you can be Saint Bloody Cade the Merciful and open up a bakery somewhere. You can't be both. Being a pirate means being selfish, being cut-throat. The quicker you lose this ridiculous conscience of yours, the better for everyone."

He leaned back in his chair and regarded the young man across from him.

"I thought I'd provided a better example for you, lad. This is very disappointing to me. I thought you were ready for bigger things. I thought this was the life you wanted."

Cade could feel the heat of shame rise in his face. Jack was right. He wasn't thinking like a pirate, but like an idealist. In any other world, this would have been a good thing. But not in this one. Compassion and conscience were a liability, and mercy a passing whim. Ever since Jack had taken him under his wing, Cade wanted to be just like him. Jack had been a saviour, mentor and father to him. To hear disappointment in Jack's voice cut Cade to the quick.

“This is the life I want, Jack,” he said, trying to keep his voice from wavering. “You've taught me how to be a good pirate, and I want to make you proud.”

“Then start acting like it, Mister Jennings,” Jack said, not letting up on the pressure. He picked up the chicken leg and waved it toward the door. “On your way, then. I have planning, and eating, to do.”

Cade closed the door to Jack's cabin and stood there in silence. Even though he was twenty years old, Jack knew just how to make him feel like an insecure little kid with the tone of his voice. He took a deep breath and began walking toward the weather deck. He kept hearing Jack's words over and over in his mind. And with every stride, his resolve became stronger. He did not want to be a pirate just like Jack Wolfe.

He wanted to be better than Jack Wolfe.

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December, 1653

"Honour? I'd like to speak to you in the back."

Honour tucked her towel into her waistband and pushed her hair out of her face with the heel of her hand.

'It had better not be about that slime Payton.'

Amos was sitting in his chair in his makeshift office where he kept his books and his supply of private rum. He lit a thin black cigar and leaned back, surveying her.

She touched her nose. "Do I have something on my face?"

He laughed and gestured for her to sit down.

"Rum?"

"Yes, please."

He poured her a small tankard and she held it to her nose.

"You keep the good stuff for yourself, don't you, Amos?"

He smiled. "I'd be a fool not to."

"Well, you didn't request my presence just to give me a drink. So what gives?"

He chuckled. "I was just thinking how pretty you are and what a stroke of genius it was on my part to hire you. This is the first stop most shipmates make when they port in St Lawrence. 'Like the scenery' they always say."

Honour felt herself blush.

"I wouldn't say that..."

"It's true, darling. You are a rare breed of brains, beauty and wit. And you have one other thing."

"What's that?"

"Class. You can't buy that. It is something you were born with."

She laughed to herself, 'if only the great Lord Rhodri Conaway could see his little girl laying down whiskey for pirates!'

She shrugged. "I just know what I want. And how to get it."

He took a deep drag on his cigarette and blew a smoke ring. " Captain of the month club does not qualify."

"I beg your pardon!"

He leaned forward and folded his hands. "I worry about you, Honour. Someday you are going to run into the wrong man."

She crossed her arms in front of her.

"You didn't call me in here to give me a lecture on morality, Amos. Come on...out with it!"

"No. No, I didn't. I have a proposition for you."

She raised her eyebrow and tried to stifle a smile. Amos caught it.

"Now, get that thought out of your head. I love you like a daughter, Honour. And me, Malcolm and Jared will always protect you. How would you like a bigger piece of the pie?"

She waved her arm. "Bigger than this tavern on the docks? What are you offering me, a percentage on the soup you sell?"

"Don't be cheeky. The owner was in here last week."

"The owner? But...but...YOU are the owner!"

He stubbed out his cigarette. "Only the tavern keeper, love. "

"Who is he? Have I ever seen him?"

He shook his head. "No, I don't think so. He stopped in here and you were on your way out."

"But you didn't introduce me."

"You had an armful of captain."

She felt her face blush. "Oh. Captain Faraday. "

"Yes, well, the owner saw you and wanted to meet you but he was only in port for a day and you seemed to be otherwise occupied."

She bristled at that. "It was my day off and what I do on my day off is my business, Amos."

"Aside from that, the owner wanted me to make you a deal. He wants to make you a dealer of cards. You ever play One-and-Thirty?"

Honour shook her head no.

"Object of the game is to deal cards as close to thirty-one as you can. The dealer goes around to each player, starting with eldest and ending with himself, and asks whether they want to 'stick' or 'have it'."

She burst out laughing.

"You actually want me to ask them THAT? The answer can be quite loaded, knowing this bawdy clientele, Amos."

He ignored that.

"If the player wishes to stick, the dealer goes to the next; if they will have it, they get another card. They may continue to get more cards until they decide to stick, or they go over thirty-one, in which case they are out. Lots of money to be made. Even more with Bone-Ace."

She propped her arms up, folding her hands under her chin.

"Sounds intriguing. What is it?"

"Same thing as One-and Thirty but the ace of hearts is the Bone-Ace. All other players pay a single stake to the holder of the highest card. Beats all over cards."

"And what do I get in this? Salary or percentage?"

"Percentage. It will give you more...incentive, shall we say? To keep the stakes high."

"How much percentage?"

"Fifteen percent."

"Twenty-five."

"Twenty."

She held her finger up. "And all the gold I can sweep up?"

"Deal."

"Deal!" She exclaimed.

She trailed her finger around the rim of her tankard. "So tell me about this owner. Have I seen him?"

Amos shook his head. "He doesn't get in very often. He has other.....interests that keep him occupied when he is in St Lawrence."

"What kind of business?"

"A cathouse."

"How nice! I've been thinking of getting myself a kitten. Think he may sell me one?"

"Honour, are you that naive, really? Let's just say it is the kind of business you and Faraday were most likely dallying in."

"AMOS!"

"Well, it's true. He owns at least one brothel. And he likes to go there to make sure his merchandise is in tiptop shape."

Honour's face coloured.

"So what is his name?"

"Never mind his name. He prefers to be anonymous."

"So why did he want me to deal cards here?"

"Your looks. And he may have other plans for you. He liked the way you look."

She tossed her hair. "I don't intend to spend time with a man like that."

"Don't be so sure, Missy--he's a captain."

"A captain?"

"Yes. So that alone should fit the bill."

She mused, "A captain......alright, Amos. Tell him I'm his."

Amos raised his eyebrow.

She shrugged. "I meant in an employment situation where my chemise stays on."

Amos laughed. "I'll relay the message."

Honour said mostly to herself, 'A captain....this could get interesting.'

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February, 1654

Honour opened her eyes. Her head felt heavy, pounding with the aftereffects of liquor.

Lots of liquor.

She sat up too quickly and held her head in her hands. Looking over with bleary eyes, she saw the reason why.

The handsome pirate from the night before.

Bits and pieces of the night flashed through her memory.

The rum.

The gambling.

The flirting.

The late hour.

And the loneliness.

Always the loneliness.

She slipped out of bed and looked at the pirate. Not just any pirate. A pirate captain.

Captain Jonas Corwin of the Golden Phoenix. Handsome, sardonic. And a streak of cruelty.

Just like Madoc Castlemaine.

The sun was starting to rise. Ships were coming and going out of the harbour. Honour walked over to the casement window to look out over the port of St Lawrence. She laid her head against the window and felt her eyes fill with tears.

'What has happened to me?'

But she knew the answer to that question.

What happened to her was Captain Rhys Morgan.

A sense of abandonment washed over her again. Only one man came remotely close to Rhys and he was also gone.

Captain James Blake of the Dark Vexation. Two weeks was all he stayed with her. And in the light of day, it was painfully clear.

He wasn't Rhys Morgan.

None of them were.

She knew she was looking for Rhys Morgan in every man she had made love with.

Made love?

Hardly.

Her mind drifted back to a conversation two weeks previous.

Amos called her over to sit at the table and share an ale with him after hours.

"Honour, we need to have a serious talk."

She took a deep drink of her ale.

"You aren't going to fire me, are you?"

"Far from it. You are a drawing card here. The day I hired you for the Varlet and Vixen was the day I took alot of business away from the Red Parrot. The men come here to see what you are going to do next. The way you handle yourself and the way you never let them get away with anything."

"So I am light on my feet."

Amos was visibly uncomfortable. He pulled at the collar of his shirt.

"Yes...well...you know I love you like a daughter. And this is why it is so hard to talk to you about this."

"Amos, you have never been one to hold back. Just tell me what is on your mind."

He reached over and took her hand. "I know, lass, that you have had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that your betrothed died when that horse threw him. But losing yourself in every man that comes your way..."

"I beg your pardon, Amos! I do not consort with every man who walks through that door."

He shook his head. "Let me amend that statement. Let's say with every captain that comes through that door."

"Again, you are wrong. Did I spend any time with the captain of the Ebony Heart? Or the Lelystad."

"Honour, the captain of the Ebony Heart had a wooden leg and the captain of the Lelystad was Dutch."

She crossed her arms. "So, see? I do have standards!"

He sighed. "I just don't want to see you hurt. Some of these men..well, they aren't the nicest in the world."

She touched his arm. "Amos, you worry too much. I can take care of myself."

"Aye, I know that, lass. But I don't want to see you come down with...well, I don't want to see you with the pox or a báibín."

"Amos, don't worry. Please. As I said, I can take care of myself."

The resentment for each of these men welled up in her.

Used.

She felt used.

She looked at Jonas Corwin again and then quickly rifled through his pockets, taking all the gold coin and currency. Honour opened up the casement window and glanced below. Yes, there he was. In the alley picking through the refuse as usual. Picking up Corwin's clothes and his cavalier hat, she yelled from the window, "Gibson! Head's up! Here's a new set of clothes for you!"

And with one toss, Honour had donated to the poor.

Honour hastily put on her clothes to go to work downstairs. From the bed, Jonas mumbled something in his sleep. With her hand on the doorknob, she turned to his sleeping form.

"Good-bye, Jonas. I hope you had a good time. Because I didn't."

She left him his boots.

As she walked down the hall, she felt bad about what she had done. In a moment of remorse, she headed back to the room. She whispered, "'Tis a terrible thing I even thought of doing to you, darling...." She put his sword in the corner. "I would hate for you to be left defenseless."

She closed the door and left Captain Jonas Corwin with his dreams.

And with one satisfying thought.

She finally got even with one of them.

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Honour scooped the loose coins she found on the floor into her apron. Not hard to find when the sailors and pirates were deep in their cups. Even more careless when they waved their sovereigns around, freely spending to impress a young tavern wench.

"I'd say you were done for the night, Honour."

She turned to Amos. "We've been busy. It's been a long day---and night."

"Always is when a ship or two ports. Especially if they had a successful run. By the way....I heard some commotion coming from your room. Any ideas what the pounding may have been?"

Quickly she said, "It may have been the casement window banging open. I think I forgot to latch it and there has been a breeze."

She opened the door to her room. There was the source of the pounding.

Three holes had been punched in her wall.

And the bedclothes were missing.

She couldn't help but smile at the image that came to her mind.

'Looks like someone got up on the wrong side of bed this morning.'

She rubbed her arm where a bruise was turning black and blue. Jonas had grabbed her roughly when they made it back to her room. No tenderness. No gentleness. Jonas had treated her like a common trollop.

'Serves you right,' she thought. 'Next time maybe you won't take advantage of someone's loneliness.'

The moonlight shone through the casement window. She opened it up to let in the sea breeze, inhaling the salt air. The restless feeling let her know that sleep would elude her.

Slipping on her boots, she grabbed her new cloak.

Over in the corner to one side was her sword. She smiled wistfully as she recalled the day she had purchased it. As she picked it up, something didn't seem quite right to her. I wish I could tell what it is, she thought. She slipped her favorite bodice dagger into its proper place, along with her rapier and went down the back door.

As she walked down the lane, a voice slurred, "Miz Honour--thank 'ee kindly fer the new duds!"

She looked up and there was Gibson standing with a flask of rum.

"Hello, Gibson. I must say you look dashing. I love that hat on you."

Gibson handed her the flask. " 'ere, Miss, take a sip!"

She tried to appear gracious. "No, thank you, Gibson. I've had plenty tonight but thank you just the same."

The wind had picked up, whipping her hair around her face. Should have bound it up, she thought. Ah well, it feels good. As she walked down to the harbor, she stood on the dock and surveyed the ships that were in port.

Let's see...there's Poseidon's Revenge....Charles Elliot, I saw him earlier. The Black Rock. I thought I saw Blue flying around...The Lady Barbara. Nice! Samuel is back in port....The Ebony Blade ...oh dear, Captain Faraday is still here. I thought he'd be gone by now......The Golden Phoenix...Wait! The Golden Phoenix? Wasn't Captain Corwin supposed to be gone by now?

She felt an arm around her neck. Cold steel against her throat. A rum-soaked voice said rasply, "You're going to pay for that."

She knew the voice.

Captain Jonas Corwin.

And this time he was dressed.

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"I must say, Jonas, that is a nice sword."

"Yeah. Nice indeed. Since that was all you left me with. And where are my clothes?"

"I have no idea where you put them."

"Don't mess with me, trollop. I'll run you through. What is one less strumpet to this place?"

Honour thought quickly. He was holding her arm that she normally used to draw her rapier.

"Jonas, please. I have no idea what you are talking about."

"NO? I had to walk through this town wrapped in your sheets."

"Really? I found it odd, yes, that they disappeared."

The blade moved across her chest, leaving a faint red mark. Blood began to seep slowly out of the razor-fine cut.

"Jonas, please, there is no need to get testy."

"Testy? Try outraged. When the crew saw me in my boots and YOUR sheets, I would say they lost a bit of respect for me."

"Well, it's not my fault you were so eager. You must have thrown the clothes and they went flying out the window."

"Yeah. Right. How stupid do you think I am?"

Honour gathered all her wits and flung back at him, "I don't know, Jonas, how stupid ARE you? OW!"

She flinched. Another thin line began to trickle blood.

He's serious now,' she thought. 'I think he is beyond reasoning.' Blood began to trickle into her chemise and stain.

She remembered she was wearing new boots with really good heels. She moved quickly and ground her heel into his shin.

Jonas Corwin let out a yell. At that opportunity, Honour spun around and drew her rapier out. She faced her attacker. He had his sword in position.

Honour knew now that he meant business.

She tried to remember everything that James Blake had taught her in those two weeks.

Keep the sword out in front of your body. 'On point' he had said.

She kept repeating to herself, 'Win by not losing. Concentrate on staying alive.' Like a mantra.

She could feel adrenaline pumping through her veins.

Jonas sneered, "You think I am to be bested by a woman?"

They stood there on the docks in the moonlight. Somehow her cloak had slipped off.

She whispered with all her strength and a confidence she did not feel, "I'm not just any woman, Jonas. I thought you of all people would have realized that."

They cautiously circled as he attempted a thrust. She parried it. Something did not feel right. Jonas's sword glanced off her arm. Blood was drawn.

This is not going well, she thought. I'll deal with it later. Something just doesn't feel right with this sword. Something not...balanced. How can that be? It was just replaced. Jonas thrust again but this time she was ready for it. She blocked it and the blade felt like it had a 'give' to it. She remembered Blake had told her to keep her opponent as far away as possible. She thrust her sword toward Jonas but he blocked it. Her blade twisted ever so slightly.

'Something is dreadfully wrong with this sword. Could it be...? No! Impossible!'

She thrust again and Jonas parried. Then he swung at her sword and it caught her hilt, barely missing her hand. The blade twisted even more.

Her sense of preservation was at full steam. He thrust and she parried, and the blade was giving way.

She thrust once more and the blade was giving way from the hilt.

At that moment, Jonas backed up.

And stepped on one of the cats that lived on the wharfs.

The cat screeched and sunk his claws into Jonas' leg. Jonas let out a scream and Honour saw her chance. She drew her foot back and kicked.

Hard.

Jonas never saw it coming. As he dropped to his knees, Honour drew her foot back once more and kicked him squarely on the chin. He fell to the ground, unconscious.

She stood there gasping for breath, blood streaming down her chest and she took a cloth and tried to stem the flow of blood that was starting to gush from her arm wound. She thought fast of what to do. Reaching towards Jonas, she took his sword and pitched it into the water. She walked over and ground her heel into his hand once for good measure, hearing the bones break. He never uttered a word.

He was totally knocked out.

She dragged herself over to a shed, took some rope and expertly tied his hands to the dock, throwing canvas over him. She stuffed a rag in his mouth, gagging him.

'Let his crew find him. I've had enough killing in my life.'

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Her eyes filled with tears and she hastily wiped them away. As she stood there trying to get herself together, a crew member from the Black Rock walked by.

"Honour? You alright, Miss?"

She nodded. "Hello, Jenkins." She tried to get her breathing under control. "Jenkins, I'm sorry. I was attacked and he got away."

"Miss! You alright? You're bleeding!"

She picked up her sword or what was left of it. "Jenkins? Could you please tell me what is wrong with my sword?"

Jenkins looked at it. "Miss, dinna take a swordsmith to tell me what is wrong wit' yer sword. This 'ere blade is brass. Soft metal. Never to be used for a blade."

"I see. Thank you."

"Miss, you want me to see you back to the tavern?"

"No, Jenkins, thank you. I'll be alright."

She took her bodice dagger out and ripped her cloak into strips, wrapping them around her arm and using the pieces to wipe the blood up. Jenkins stood there doubtfully. Honour managed a wan smile.

"I shall be fine. Please, enjoy your night."

"If yer sure, Miss.."

"I am."

She watched him walk away, looking back once. She gave him a self-confident wave she did not feel. She picked up the two pieces that used to be her rapier and looked at the blade. And her mind went back to the day she spent the day with Captain Faraday.

Captain Adam Faraday.

The captain whose credit she had ruined.

Adam had stood her up one night. He claimed he had been arranging supplies for his ship but he had been seen on the arm of Molly Easley.

'Easy' Easley.

A cut-rate strumpet.

The next day, Honour had pretended to believe his excuse about having to take care of the ship's supplies. She allowed him to keep her company the next day. Adam had taken her to the shops on the northern side of town. A new dress, a new pair of boots....guilty compensation for taking his affections elsewhere.

They had stopped at Master Campbell's while Adam had picked up his sword that was being sharpened.

"Oh, Adam! I like this one!"

Honour had picked up a French rapier.

"But I want the brass on the blade and the steel on the hilt. To match my grommets."

Adam had laughed. 'Brass is never used in a blade. Too soft. But yes, my dear, I shall order you a sword. One sword for the little lady, Master Campbell."

The swordsmith grinned, "Aye....just need to size it to her petite stature. Be ready in two days."

Honour gave Adam a beatific smile.

The night came and Adam had expected he would be spending the night with Honour but she claimed she was indisposed that night. Adam had kissed her hand and said he would see her the next day.

And the next day is when she got her revenge. She told the bootmaker she and Captain Faraday were betrothed and as a wedding gift, she could pick out any pair of boots she wanted. And what she wanted was white kid boots with a high heel. But it was to be a secret as Captain Faraday had to untangle a bit of a problem.

The problem being a shrewish wife in Bristol.

The story was repeated throughout the shops until Honour felt she had compensated herself for Adam's slight.

Adam had spent the next night with her but she remembered him being a bit quiet in the tavern. It now became all too clear to her.

Adam Faraday got even with her too.

She sat down on the deck, bewildered. And she burst into tears.

Was he that upset to put my life into jeopardy? She looked out and saw the Ebony Blade.

She took ragged breaths and then she slowly got to her feet. She wiped the tears off her face with the cloth from her cloak. Walking down to his ship, she stealthily climbed on board. The crew must be out on the town. A light glowed in the Captain's cabin.

She got out her bodice dagger and walked over to each sail.

And carved her initials, HB, in each one.

Quietly, she walked over to the cabin door. She stood there for a minute. Then she carved her initials in the fine wood. And dropped the two pieces of her sword in front of it.

Honour climbed off the ship and walked back to the tavern. As she entered, she saw the barkeep sitting there with an ale.

She stood there and said, "Amos? I think..I think I need a doctor."

And fainted.

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Amos had carried her to her room and summoned the doctor. The blade Jonas Corwin had used was contaminated. Between Doctor Benson and Honour's best friend Kate, they continued their ministrations on Honour.

Honour stirred in her unconsciousness. She had been vaguely aware of someone holding her down and a burning sensation in her arm that felt like fire. The smell of bourbon wafted near her nose. In her delirium, she heard the clash of swords that brought back memories she thought she had pushed far down and blocked. Jonas brought those memories back.

The dreams were always the same. The door banging open. The shadow in the candlelight. The angry voices, the accusations.

And then....

She sat up and screamed. Kate jumped a mile. She came over to her. Honour was shaking.

Kate gathered her into her arms and rocked her gently.

All Honour could do was whisper, 'Oh God. The blood! All the blood! And there was not a thing I could do..'

Kate made soothing noises to try to calm her down but to no avail.

'I tried! I really tried but he wouldn't listen....'

She cried like her heart was breaking.

Kate never left her side. Honour was shaking with the fever and talking of things she ought not. None of it made any sense.

She tried to get her to calm down but Honour's skin was like fire.

She looked at Kate and whispered to her, "Am I going to die?"

She said, "Honour, you are feisty. I would hate to see the damage you inflicted on the person who did this to you."

She murmured, "I need to make a confession."

"Hush! There is time for that later."

She whispered, "Two men died because of me, Kate. I never meant for it to happen. It just did. And now I shall burn in hell for it!"

Kate tried not to smile. "Then I pity the devil when you arrive as he shall have his work cut out for him!"

She shook her head. "If he is there, then I shall truly be in hell!"

"Who? The devil?"

"My husband."

Kate tried to figure out what she was talking about. "You were married before? I did not know this. You are a widow?"

She shook her head again. "No. I am a murderess."

Kate was taken back by it. "I can see you doing alot of things, Honour, but murder? What did you do, love him to death?"

She laid back on the pillows, still burning up. Kate continued with the cool cloths.

"It wasn't my fault. He was never to find out."

"Honour, you aren't making much sense."

She took a deep breath and whispered, "I've totally screwed up my life. I have always loved foolishly. For all the wrong reasons. And the wrong men. And I had a man die in my bed."

She tried to gather her strength. makine no sense as the fever was taking its toll.

"All the blood. It was so awful."

She looked at her hands and it was as if she could still see the blood there.

"I held him. He drew his last breath in my arms. Oh, Kate! It was the worst thing to happen to me."

"Honour, maybe you need to be quiet for a while.."

"No! I need to tell someone! What if I die and no one here ever knew who I was. I never told a soul what really happened that night! Except Father Simon."

Kate sat next to her and held her hands. "And you feel the time is right?"

She took a deep breath and continued, still in fever. She whispered, "Have you ever heard the name Rhys Morgan?"

Kate nodded. "The captain of the Neptune Rising. Henry Morgan's nephew. Dashing man. I met him once. Well-educated, smart and savvy. Makes berth in Tortuga."

Honour's eyes filled with tears and she could barely speak. "Not any more. He's dead."

"Dead? You were married to him?"

She shook her head. "He's dead because he knew me."

Kate listened to the gut-wrenching story of what had happened that fateful night in Beaumaris. When dawn approached, Honour's fever had broken. And she was going to live.

Kate awoke from the bed she slept in next to Honour's to find her staring out the window. Softly she said, "I want to thank you, Kate. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have made it."

Kate reached over and smoothed the hair back from her face and smiled.

"You would have done the same for me."

Honour looked down.

"I did some soul-searching last night, Kate. And I came to a decision."

"And what is that?"

She looked up with a look of determination on her face.

"The next time I bed a man, I'll demand a wedding ring first."

Kate laughed. "You can say that now. But what happens when the next handsome captain walks through that door?"

Honour smiled softly, "I can add Mrs. Captain to my name."

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The two ships rode at anchor scarcely two hundred yards from one another in the shallower waters off a tiny uninhabited island, their sleek black hulls glistening in the sunlight where the gentle swells of the sea touched them. There was no mistaking these vessels for merchantmen, though their holds were spacious; they were not military ships, though they bristled with weapons. These were ships that belonged to the wolves of the seas. They belonged to pirates.

A longboat was lowered to the water from the three-masted brigantine. Her crew clambered down the side of the ship and began rowing toward the other vessel. One man near the front of the boat sang a lewd shanty to set the pace for rowing and ensure all the men with oars pulled in unison, and they would answer back during the choruses. One man sat quietly in the middle of the boat, watching as each stoke took them closer to their destination. In ten minutes time, they were alongside the swift black frigate with a rampant wolf as its figurehead, El Lobo del Mar.

A sharp knock on the great cabin's door brought Jack's attention back from the book he was reading. He looked up as Briggs opened the door and stepped inside.

“Our guest is aboard and waitin' to see ye as ye asked, Jack.”

“Ah, good!” said Jack. “I was beginning to wonder if he was going to accept my invitation. He runs on his own schedule, anyway.”

“Why shouldn't I?” asked James Blake as stepped through the door. “I sailed three days out of my way to meet you here in the middle of nowhere. It's a good thing you sent a map. No one else has ever heard of Sand Crab Spit.”

“That's because I made it up,” smiled Jack. He filled a glass with rum pushed it to Blake before refilling his own. “I didn't want unexpected company.”

“Not a terribly imaginative name,” said Blake.

Jack shrugged. “How many islands have you run across named Tortuga this or Tortuga that?”

“Too damned many, and almost none shaped like a turtle. Briggs, you joining us?”

“Aye, for supper,”the quartermaster said. “Right now I got repair work to key an eye on. I'll leave ye to business, Cap'ns,” he said as he closed the door behind him.

“That Briggs is all work and no play,” Blake said.

“He's got plenty of play once he spies a redhead. Like bloody catnip to him. The ship could be on fire and his arse with it, and he'd never notice.”

Blake couldn't help thinking back to the blond tavern wench he'd met in the port of St Lawrence and how she almost – almost – could make a man forget about the sea. “Depending on the woman,” he said, “I can see how he'd be distracted.”

“Blimey,” exhaled Jack. “Fess up. What's her name?”

Blake picked up one of the books on Jack's desk. “Socrates. Still reading this long-haired stuff, eh?”

“Halfway down to me bum. Now give. Who is she?”

“What makes you think there's anyone?”

“That mysterious smile of yours, James. The one you always get when you're keeping something secret.”

“I smile a lot.”

“You keep a lot of secrets.”

Blake put the book back down. “You wouldn't care for her. Not your type.”

“I like all kinds of women. Try me.”

“She's got class, and a lot of it. And she's not married.”

Jack burst out laughing. “You're right! Where's the excitement in that?”

Blake's enigmatic smile grew a bit. “See? Told you she's not one you'd fancy.”

He found himself thinking again of how the golden cascade of her hair smelled, and the delicate passion of her kiss. Honour Bright was proving to be a delightfully lingering memory. Blake took a sip of rum as he pushed thoughts of her aside for the moment. He knew from experience how underhandedly Jack could manipulate a distracted man.

“You didn't bring me all this way to talk about my love life, Jack,” he said, regaining a businesslike demeanour. “What's the mystery?”

Jack swirled his glass and watched the dark amber liquid travel round and round. “What do you know about the Stad Utrecht?”

“The Dutch treasure ship? I know she's fast and heavily armed. Only a fool would try to engage her in open water, if they could catch her at all.”

Jack's answer was a coy smile.

“Oh, no,” said Blake. “No, no, no. Not even you are crazy.”

“I'm taking her, James. And right in their own waters. I want you to join me.”

“You've really gone round the bend this time, Jack. It's suicide! Unlike you, I'm in no hurry to die.”

“Will you at least hear me out before dismissing the notion altogether?”

“All right,” sighed Blake. “Entertain me.”

Unfazed, Jack spread out a map of the Dutch islands Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao.

“I have it on good authority and confirmed that the treasure ship will come in through here, bringing with it the year's operating capital for the VOC. They'll port here,” he pointed at Curaçao, “at Willemstad, where they'll pick up the past year's profits. Then they will travel to Oranjestad on Aruba to leave the operating monies.”

“Wait, just wait a moment,” said Blake. “That can't be right. You have to have been lied to. There is no way they'd do things in that order. It's completely backwards from the way anyone sane would think.”

“Exactly,” grinned Jack. “They rotate the pick up and drop off ports so no one can easily plan a raid. It's worked well for them for years. Why should they worry, then? They've gotten arrogant.”

“They have the advantage of home waters. Not to mention the constant patrols of VOC and pirate hunter ships, and I'm sure that ship will be escorted.”

“Ah, but they aren't! No one has been able to catch or successfully engage her, so they feel she has no need for escort. Unnecessary expenditures. You know the Dutch.”

Blake shook his head. “How can you be so sure this will work?”

“We're--”

“I haven't said yes, Jack.”

“Fine. I intend to lie in wait here,” Jack said, pointing to a spot between Aruba and Bonaire, “and ambush them when they make the turn for Oranjestad. They'll have to slow to make the approach. Then I'll have them.”

Blake looked long an hard at the map, mulling over Jack's plan. It was risky. Hell, it was insane. But Jack had a way of making insane plans work. There was one more piece of the puzzle he needed to know.

“Is that the only reason you believe this can work?”

Jack shook his head. “Of course not. Bonita has seen that it will work. She read the bones for me again before I left her and Cade at Castara to get things ready there. That's all the guarantee I need.”

Blake put his glass down and stood up. “I hope she's right, Jack. I really do. But you know I refuse to put my trust in her ways. It's unnatural, and I'll be no part of witchcraft.”

“Oh, James, please. This is no time to be provincial. It's as good as ours!”

“I'm sorry. But I can't.” He turned and walked for the door. “Good luck, Jack. I hope, for your sake, she's right.”

“Where the hell are you going?” Jack demanded. “You're passing up the opportunity of a lifetime!”

Blake's enigmatic smile returned. “Back to Barbados. I have some unfinished business there.”

Jack rolled his eyes. “Fine then. Leave! And give my regards to Miss Classy Arse!”

“Oh, I shall, my friend. Once we've gotten... sufficiently reacquainted. Good luck, Jack.”

Blake closed the door behind him and began the walk topside. He knew he would potentially be missing out on a tremendous haul, one that could make him incredibly rich for the rest of his life. But the risks were too great for such a cautious soul as he. Add to it the involvement of the witch Bonita, and it became an endeavour too dirty even for his hands. To be honest, there was only one prize on his mind. One that he could not help but think of to the point of distraction.

A golden-haired beauty named Honour Bright.

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"Gentlemen? We have three days in port. That includes nights. So I would recommend that you make the most of them. I know I shall!"

The cheer went up from his crew.

"And anyone not back here at 6 AM when we sail off will be left behind with no compensation. You may find your belongings on the deck. If they are still there."

The men filed off down the gangplank. The quartermaster turned to the captain.

"And are ye staying on the ship, Captain? Or in town?"

James Blake gave him a broad smile. "It seems I have a place to stay, Sanders."

Sanders tipped his hat to the captain. "Blonde, brunette or redhead this time?"

Blake thought back to the tavern wench with a smart mouth who intrigued him.

"It doesn't really matter, Sanders. As Captain Wolfe says, 'All cats look alike in the dark.' "

Sanders chuckled, "That Wolfe--it doesn't matter what they are as long as they are halfway decent, female...."

"..and dusky," said Blake.

"You would have thought that business with Mendoza's wife would have cured him of that."

"Some habits die hard, Sanders. And if you want me, check in with Amos the barkeep. He most likely will know where to find me."

Sanders grinned and wagged a finger at him. "The mystery is becoming clearer, Captain Blake."

James took his hat and ran his finger over the feathers in his cavalier hat.

"No, Sanders. It's not Maeve. Now, I'll see you back here Wedneday night."

He whistled a tune as he walked down the gangplank and into the spring night.

The Varlet and Vixen was hopping that night. Blake came into the tavern and his eyes skimmed over the crowd. The brunette with the snapping brown eyes was there, handing over an ale to a group of pirates. The redhead with the big...heart. She was scooping money off a table and wiping it down.

But Honour was nowhere in sight. Possibly her night off?

Honour's friend Kate was over by the barkeep Amos talking quietly. James looked her over appreciatively. He made his way over to where they were. Immediately they stopped talking.

"Excuse me...Amos, is it?"

He nodded. "Aye."

"I was wondering---is Honour Bright here?"

Kate shot Amos a look and Amos shrugged. "Why do you want to know?"

Blake sensed he was an intruder in the inner circle but he pressed on.

"I was just wondering. I wondered how she was doing. And wanting to pay my respects."

Amos looked over at the tables in the corner.

"Kate, your customers are waiting."

"But, Amos...."

"Now, lambchop. Go take care of your customers and things will be alright. I'll see to it."

She looked from Blake to Amos. "Alrigh, Amos. I'm trusting you, though."

He idly polished a tankard. "I know you are, Kate, darlin'. Don't fret."

She gave a backward glance and walked over to her customers.

Blake sat at the tavernkeep's bar. "I am not meaning any harm, Amos."

He looked over. "She's away for a bit. Needed to see her kin. Mother took ill. She will be back. Just can't say when."

"Her mother? I thought her mother was dead."

"Maybe it was her father."

"Father is dead, too."

Amos said exasperatingly, "Well, then, it was somebody. Why are you so hot to see her? This is more than paying some respects to a tavern wench."

He looked over at James Blake's fresh clothes and the tilt of his hat. This was no man looking for an easy time with any strumpet. This was a man who had come courting...or as close to courting as you could get in this backwater port.

James found himself blushing. "I just wanted to see how she was doing. We....alright, so we spent a bit of time together."

Amos grinned, "And you want to see if lightning strikes twice, is it?"

James leaned over and looked Amos in the eye. "Is she here or not?"

"Not."

"Will she be back?"

"In a few weeks. And you will be back at sea, won't you?"

He nodded.

"Care to give me your name, Captain? So's I can tell her when she gets back who was asking for her."

"Blake. Captain James Blake of the Dark Vexation."

Amos nodded, "Aye. I'll tell her you were asking for her. You seem like a decent sort."

He slid a coin onto the table towards Amos. "I like to think so."

And walked out of the tavern.

Kate came back to Amos.

"And what did he want with her?"

"My guess is he wanted to take up where he left off with her. She was with him a few months ago."

"He seems a decent sort of man. Not like that Corwin bastard. I swear, if I ever get my hands on him..."

"Now, Kate. Karma will come back to him."

"Yes, but Honour told me what happened to her in her room."

Amos raised his eyebrow. She shook her head.

"Don't ask. He's not a nice man. But believe me, she got even with him."

"Should I have told that Blake guy where to find Honour?"

Kate shook her head.

"No. He can see her the next time he is in port. Right now she needs to rest. The sword cuts in themselves were not that bad. It will leave some slight scarring but the real danger was in the contamination. And I wouldn't be surprised if Corwin poisoned his sword on purpose. Because even if the cuts wouldn't kill, the sepsis would."

Amos looked at her kindly. "You are a good friend to Honour."

Kate smiled, "She's my best friend. And she would do the same for me."

"Take the rest of the night off, Kate. Tend to your patient. There is soup in the kitchen. Take a bowl up to Honour."

She gave him a hug. "And that is from Honour too. Don't worry, Amos. Together we will keep her safe and let her heal. And Corwin is safely out of the harbour. We saw his ship sail off two days ago."

"Then I can rest easy."

Kate left to go to the kitchen and take the back steps.

Amos thought about James Blake. He almost felt sorry for the man. He had seen the effect that Honour had on quite a few of the men but he knew she wouldn't settle for just any man. Had to be a captain.

'The girl is running from something more than her redcoat fiance getting thrown from a horse. More to it. Men of the sea. Captains, no less. She's hiding something.'

He thought of James Blake again.

'Aye, man. A taste of honey is worse than none at all....'

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Smoke swirled in the air, carrying with it the smell of burnt oak and pitch. Jack Wolfe walked along the weather deck of his ship and took the sight that lay before him: the hopelessly crippled Stad Utrecht. Shattered, smouldering wood littered her weather deck. The mainmast was gone, having been smashed down by chainshot by El Lobo's gunners. The broken foremast lay across the deck, hanging halfway over the starboard side when the mainmast fell and pulled it down as well. The sails of the mizzen were little more than tattered shreds flailing uselessly in the wind. Jack couldn't help but smile with pride. The mighty treasure ship, the pride of the Dutch East India Company, was a useless hulk.

And it was his doing.

His trap had worked perfectly. El Lobo lay patiently in the strait between Aruba and Bonaire, waiting for the Stad Utrecht. Once the treasure ship was full into the strait, the only easily navigable route between the two islands, she had nowhere else to go but into the teeth of El Lobo del Mar. Jack's attack was systematic; stay out of the reach of the Dutchman's guns as much as possible, and take her apart piece by piece. Gunners concentrated their fire of grape and chain on the treasure ship's sails, robbing her of canvas to catch the wind. Once she was hobbled, they focussed on the main deck, using grape and bar shot to clear the deck of personnel. The demoralising effect this had was evident as the Dutchman's return fire became sporadic and disorganised. El Lobo's gun crews then poured fire into the sides of their prey, disabling her guns and her gun crews. Finally, Jack ordered the taking of her mainmast, and took with it any hope the VOC ship had for escape.

Still, the Dutch captain would not surrender. Their remaining guns still hurled iron at the pirate ship. El Lobo managed to evade most of the shots as she worked ever closer to the crippled Dutchman, returning her own withering fire. The Dutch captain commanded his crew to fight to the last before he himself was carried away by a cannonball. And fight they did. Even after the pirate ship pulled along side and the marauders boarded, the men fought. But the pirates were too many, too determined for them to resist for long.

"Look at that, would you, Josiah? Isn't that beautiful?"

"Aye," the quartermaster said quietly. "Ye took a hell of a gamble, Jack. And God blind me if ye didn't win once again."

Jack looked at his friend. "You sound almost like you were hoping this wouldn't work."

Briggs shook his head. "No, I'd never wish failure on ye, Jack. Ye know me better than that. But if ye be right, as ye usually be... this could change everythin'."

"What, money?" scoffed Jack. "Money changes nothing and no one. If anything, it reveals who they really are."

"There's my point. Ye can trust the starvin' man. The man what wants not... who is he beholden to? Bestow that manner of wealth on these black-hearted tars, Jack, and what can ye do with a crew what don't need ye for their next meal?"

Jack bit his lip as he watched his men aboard the Dutch ship blasting or hacking open every box, every chest, and going through the pockets of the dead for anything they could find. "It would upset the order of things," he mused.

"Them wheels in yer head be turnin', I can tell."

"Just weighing options. We don't even know if there's an ounce of treasure aboard her. Time to go aboard and see, eh? Then I'll worry about how rich anyone will become. Including myself."

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Together, Briggs and Jack boarded the captive Dutch ship. With their captain aboard, Jack’s men began to focus more on securing the ship and a little less on lining their pockets. Even though the ship’s articles strictly stated that not even a shilling of the spoils would be concealed from the rest of the crew by any man, he allowed some latitude for personal gain. A gunshot was heard from the forecastle, probably one of his men rounding up the last of the Dutch crew taking refuge in the forward crew spaces. One less prisoner to worry about, thought Jack.

“You there!” yelled Briggs at three men gathered round a chest trying to pry off its lock. “There be plenty of time for that later! Make yerselves useful and put out them fires, quick like! Damn fools,” he groused. “They’d let this whole ship blow to hell under their feet tryin’ to get one coin out of a lockbox.”

“Now, now, Josiah,” said Jack. “It wasn’t long ago that we were the ones scraping for that last bit of shine before Harkness could set his hobnail boots on deck.”

“Well, ain’t we all philosophical, now that ye’ve taken the mother of all prizes?”

Jack’s jaw tightened as they walked toward the large cargo hatch that led down to the main hold.

“All we’ve got so far is a wrecked ship and the promise she’s carrying a king’s ransom,” he said. Though taking the Stad Utrecht was a noteworthy accomplishment in itself, he would consider the entire enterprise a failure if the wealth of the VOC wasn’t nestled in her belly. He threw a leg over the lip of the hatch and stepped on to the ladder. “Shall we? The suspense is killing me.”

“Right behind ye, Jack,” smiled Briggs reassuringly. Where Jack was filled with the trepidation that he could have been misled, Josiah was brimming with faith in his friend.

They descended the ladder, passing through the main gun deck as they went. Jack regarded the broken guns and dead bodies that littered the deck in quiet dispassion. Damage and casualties aboard El Lobo had been surprisingly light. Not so for the Utrecht. Jack tried to find an ounce of pity for the fallen men. But there was none in him to be had.

Briggs let out a low whistle. “What a mess,” he said as he surveyed the damage. “They went down fightin’, I’ll give ‘em that.”

“For king and country. Or king and Company, is more like it. A poor career choice in the end.”

“They probably said the same of us when the fight started. But they’re dead and we ain’t. That’s what matters most,” said Briggs.

Jack made a non-committal noise and continued down the ladder. Briggs closed his eyes and said a silent prayer for the dead before following his captain down.

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They arrived in the belly of the vessel to find half a dozen men standing guard over the contents of the main hold. Every trick known and a few Jack had never seen before had gone into making sure the Utrecht could hold as much cargo as possible without sinking. That a ship its size could carry so much and still be nimble was amazing to him. The lower gun deck, which typically ate up a good portion of the hold’s vertical space, had been reduced to little more than enclosed catwalks on either side of the ship, scarcely wide enough to contain a recoiling gun. Jack marvelled at the engineering that had gone into the construction of the mighty Dutch ship. Suddenly, he wasn’t the pirate victorious surveying his prize, but the son of a shipwright in awe.

“I’m sorry I had to kill you,” Jack thought to himself. But any further remorse would have to wait. Treasure first, introspection later.

“Clear the hold,” he ordered his men.

They climbed the ladder in turn, leaving Jack and Briggs by themselves. In the centre of the hold amid boxes of coffee and wine and bundles of linen and calico were six large crates, the four biggest lashed together and covered in tarpaulins. The two smaller ones had “Bezit van de Schatkist van het Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie”, “Property of the Treasury of the Dutch East India Company”, stencilled on the side. Jack patted one of them like one would a horse being considered for purchase.

“Safe bet these are the treasure destined for the voyage back to Holland,” Jack said quietly. “But these...” He walked around to the shrouded crates. “These are what we are really interested in. Give me your knife.”

Briggs retrieved a formidable looking blade from his belt and handed it to Jack.

“Well, ye can rest sure that I’m interested in them first two as well,” laughed Briggs. Gold and silver be gold and silver to me. I ain’t particular.”

Jack ignored him. Instead, he kept looking at the covered crates as he turned the knife over and over in his hand. Would it be what he hoped and dreamt of? Years of work had gone into this moment. It had to be the payoff of those efforts. It just had to! He took a deep breath and slashed the ropes holding the the corner of one of the tarpaulins in place. Jack grabbed the heavy canvas and pulled it back from the crate it concealed.

“No....” he whispered.

He stared, dumbstruck, at the single word stencilled on the crate’s side. The knife slipped from his fingers to clatter against the ballast stones.

“Drupkers,” it read in bold lettering.

“Ye be better at languages and such than I. But whatever it says, I’m guessin’ it ain’t ‘more treasure than what ye know what to do with’,” said Briggs.

Jack continued to stare in disbelief. “Printing presses,” he managed to say, but it came out as a mumble.

Briggs stepped closer to his distraught friend. “I couldn’t hear ye, Jack...”

“PRINTING PRESSES!!” exploded Jack. Briggs flinched as Jacks’ crushing disappointment flashed to rage. “Printing god-damned presses?? You have to be kidding me! Years of work and planning, and for WHAT?! So I can print bloody pamphlets in bloody Dutch??!!” He picked up a ballast stone and hammered it against the side of a crate, starting low and working his way up. Every strike returned a solid thud as one would expect from a container of heavy equipment. The Dutch commonly parcelled monetary shipments into sacks containing a certain amount of gold or silver, which would have left a void near the top of the crate. There was no such hollow space to be found. He kicked a crate hard in his anger, but the crate did not yield. Something in his foot, however, did.

“OW! Damn it!” he yelped. Jack paused long enough to regain a little composure before turning to Briggs. His face was red with fury and humiliation.

“Finish securing the ship,” he ordered through gritted teeth and ragged breaths. “Then strip it of anything of value. Cargo, personal belongings, food, I don’t care. Then I want the two treasure crates shared out with the crew. Every last bit of it. I owe the men that much for taking them on this wild goose chase.” Jack walked to the ladder, trying hard not to limp.

“Aye, it’ll be done. She’ll be stripped of her name and ship’s bell before we rig for towin’,” said Briggs.

“No. I want her burned.”

“She may be a derelict now, but she’s still worth somethin’ once we have her condemned in St. Lawrence...”

“No!” snapped Jack. “She burns. No debate this time, Josiah. And the damned presses burn with her.” He began to climb the ladder.

“Where are ye goin’?” asked Briggs. “Don’t ye want to inspect the rest of the cargo?”

Jack stood on the ladder, a beaten look on his face. “I’ve seen enough. You take it from here. I need to go back to El Lobo.”

Josiah shook his head. “So they got one over on us. Fat lot of good that did ‘em! We’ve got their best ship! It ain’t the end of the world.”

“It’s not that,” said Jack as he began climbing again.

“Well, if it ain’t yer wounded pride, what in the name of mother’s milk is it?”

Jack clenched his teeth. “I think I broke my bloody foot, if you must know!”

Briggs tried to stifle a laugh, and partially succeeded. “All right, Jack. I’ll take care of things here whilst Duckie gets ye fixed up.”

Without another word, Jack began climbing again.

The quartermaster waited until his captain was well out of sight before allowing himself to chuckle. “With that Wolfe temper, it’s a wonder he ain’t broke every bone in his body,” he said quietly. He looked around the hold and began a rough inventory of the items there, marking each box, crate, bundle, and cask with a piece of chalk to indicate what was to be transferred to El Lobo.

Including the printing presses.

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"I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry," whispered Doctor Drake Gander to a young man who had just fallen asleep from too much pain and a healthy dose of laudanum mixed with thinned molasses. Duckie stood and looked with pity on the lad, from who he'd just taken what was left of the young man's arm and leg. "Two extra shares and a life as a cripple. I don't call that fair at all," he muttered.

The surgery door banged open. Duckie's eyes screwed shut with the thought of more wounded being brought in for attention. Attention! More like selective butchering, he thought. He found himself wishing once again that medicine would one day advance from taking to giving in order to save lives.

Without looking to see who came in, he ordered, "Just put them somewhere clear on the floor. There aren't any beds left. Thank your captain for that."

"And would you have me lying face up or down?" said Jack.

Duckie whirled around. "Oh, heavens! I'm sorry, Jack! I didn't mean..."

"Oh yes you did. And you're right. But it is the nature of this business."

"Still, I shouldn't-"

"Save it, would you?" Jack limped to the chair by Duckie's writing desk and sat heavily.

"Oh, what did you do to yourself? Get shot in the arse?" asked Duckie with a tinge of sarcasm.

"And bleed all over your favourite chair? I know better. No, it's... more mundane that that."

Duckie crossed his arms. "Do tell? By your limp, you hurt your foot."

Jack's face coloured a bit. "I... I kicked something."

"Something bigger than you?"

"Yes."

"Something more unyielding than you?"

"Yes," said Jack through gritted teeth.

"Something you didn't like finding?"

"Yes. Can we dispense with playing twenty questions, doctor? And what makes you think I found something I didn't like?"

"For starters, Jack, you're stone sober. If it had been what you were after, I'd find out about this in two or three days. You're not drunk, you're not happy, and you're complaining about a sore foot. One does not have to be a deductive genius to see this engagement went sour. Let's get that boot off."

"Damn you and your Oxford intellect," groused Jack has he gingerly pulled off his boot.

"Don't give me that," said Duckie. "You could have matriculated half a dozen times before you quit. But no, you needed more. Now, what did you do?"

"I kicked a crate."

"A crate of what?

"Printing presses," Jack muttered.

"Come again?"

"You heard me! Printing presses!"

Duckie sat down on the floor and dissolved into laughter. "You mean to tell me the grand treasure the Dutch were hurrying in was a way to print books locally?"

"Beats the hell out of me..."

"It did your foot."

"Oh, shut it!" Jack extended his leg so Duckie could examine him. "Ducks, printing is expensive. Very expensive. The Dutch aren't so prosperous every citizen of a far-flung colony could afford books."

Duckie took hold of Jack's foot and manipulated the ankle. "No, they're barely scraping by. The VOC see to that through heavy taxation."

"So there has to be another purpose for those presses."

Duckie moved on the the broader area of the foot. "Like what, do you think? You don't put something like printing presses aboard your most formidable ship, do you? It doesn't make sense."

"Unless..." Jack paused for a moment. "What? Do you think they may be making a move toward paper money? No, that would be-- YEOUCH!!"

"I think the word you wanted was 'insane', but I could be mistaken," said Duckie. He kept his head turned to keep Jack from seeing his smirk.

"All right, you found what hurts. What is it?"

Duckie bent Jack's toes one by one, eliciting no response. But when he pulled on one of the middle toes...

"Damn it!" yelped Jack. "Which one is broken?"

"None of them," said Duckie. "You merely dislocated one of them, and I set that to rights.

Now, what do you intend to do with those printing presses?"

"I'm of a mind to burn them with the Utrecht. What use are they to me?"

"Well, I don't know... you could stash them at Castara and wait for the Dutch to replace what they think is lost to the depths. Then flood their economy with useless script. How better to bring an entire government to its knees than collapsing their economy?"

Jack thought for a moment. "You mean, counterfeiting?"

"No, I meant wallpaper. Yes, counterfeiting! Far less risky to life and limb of these young men than outright piracy."

"Why, good doctor," snickered Jack. "You're beginning to sound like a proper pirate!"

"A hazard of the company I keep. Foul and dissolute lot they are, let me tell you!" He handed Jack his boot. "Put this back on. My surgery smells bad enough as it is."

Jack looked around the surgery as he pulled his boot back on. His foot was still sore, but the stabbing pain was gone. He gave a heavy sigh as he looked upon the wounded.

"How many this time?"

Duckie stood up and smoothed his clothes. "Sixteen. One of your less bloody actions, I have to say."

"Thank you for pointing that out. You know I care about these men, Ducks."

"Really? Answer me this, then." Duckie went to the bunk of the man he'd just sedated, who had lost his right arm and leg. He lifted the young man's head. "What's his name?"

Jack's face clouded as he thought. An answer was not forthcoming.

"See what I mean?" said Duckie. "You don't even--"

"FRANKS!" said Jack. "Jeremy Franks. He's from Bristol. Aged twenty-two. Has a sister named Marjory. A girl he fancies named Stephanie. Oh dear God, will she even want him now?"

Duckie's face drained. "I'm sorry, Jack, I didn't..."

"Didn't think I care? Didn't think I give a damn?" Jack stared at the young man lying there. "Four shares. No! Five! I can't make him whole again, but I can make him rich,"

he spat.

"Jack, just cool down a moment..."

Jack shook his head. "No. No, not this time. I did this. This is a product of my ambition. And it failed. I owe him that much." He gave his friend a forlorned look. "I'm losing my taste for this game, Drake. Right now, it's ashes in my mouth. I don't like this."

Duckie shook his head slowly. "I don't know what to tell you, Jack. But if it pains you that much, why continue on that course?"

Jack laughed bitterly. "What, and give all this up?"

"You could."

"And put you out of a job? No."

"It wouldn't break my heart, you know."

"Yeah, but then you'd be back working for Renee." Jack straightened his waistcoat and sniffed. "There's work yet to be done, and I need you. Carry on, doctor."

Jack closed the surgery door behind him. Duckie shook his head mournfully.

"It doesn't take a genius to see it's not in you any more, Jack," he whispered. "May God grant you the wisdom to see it for yourself."

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That evening, Jack was sitting at the table in his cabin, looking over the preliminary inventory of cargo and booty taken from the Dutch ship. It was a more than respectable haul by any standards. The treasure, ranging from raw, mined nuggets of gold and silver to smelted bars to luxurious finery to various artefacts no doubt offered up by (or outright stolen from) the natives. A large cache of coins had been recovered from the ship as well. Add to it the expected proceeds from the sale of the calico, coffee, and spices, Jack was beginning to feel somewhat better about how this action had gone. He didn’t factor in the wine and beer the Dutchman was carrying. That would be long gone before they saw the shores of Barbados again. He toyed with the pieces of roasted chicken on his plate. The disappointment of not finding the promised riches aboard the Utrecht still weighed on him. He picked up a drumstick and examined it.

“Duckie would tell me to eat you and quit brooding,” said Jack.

“Eatin’ it’s a damn sight less unnervin’ to me than seein’ ye talk to it,” Briggs said.

Jack blinked and looked up at Briggs standing in the doorway. Briggs was regarding his captain warily.

“I didn’t hear you knock, Josiah.” He let the piece of chicken fall back to the plate. “Do come in. I’m sure you have more to say than my dinner does.”

Briggs closed the door and took a chair across from Jack. He pushed a ledger sheet over to Jack’s side. As Jack reached to pick it up, he noticed his friend eyeing the meat he’d left uneaten.

“Oh, have it. I was going to give it to the cat anyway.”

“There’s times ye think more of that cat than ye do yourself.”

“To be honest, there’s times I envy that cat’s life.”

“Do ye now?” asked Briggs around a mouthful of chicken. “A life of lyin’ about, nothin’ to call yer own...”

“No responsibility, a warm place to sleep, plenty to hunt, free run of the place, not to mention all the rum you want...”

“All right, I see yer point. The little beggar’s got it good, a-piratin’ off pirates. But before ye start sleepin’ in the rafters, take a look at that final inventory. The men are already haulin’ the contents of the hold over to ours. Told ‘em they can’t touch a drop ‘til we’re under way. That seemed to motivate ‘em!”

Jack picked up the ledger sheet and read it over as Briggs finished off the plate of food. His men had managed to find five more small chests heavy with coins, bales of tobacco, and some small casks of cognac.

“Well,” smiled Jack, “Duckie will be pleased with the cognac. Well done with everything they found. Each man will go into St. Lawrence richer than they’ve ever been in their lives.”

“And be just as poor as before after a couple days,” chuckled Josiah. “Ye still plan to share all of it out?”

“Every last penny of it, Josiah. And I’m sweetening the pot by foregoing my shares. I owe the men that much.”

Briggs frowned a little. “By all rights, they ain’t entitled to any more than what the articles say they get. Now, I know this action fell short of what ye thought it’d be, but ye needn’t cut yerself off to... never mind. Ye be the captain, and thy will be done.”

“Go on,” said Jack as he poured them both some rum. “Let me hear your theory, Philosopher Briggs.”

Josiah took his cup of rum and shifted uneasily in his chair. “It ain’t my place to say--”

“Which has never stopped you in the past.”

“All right, then. Jack, ye know the nature of this life. So do the men. How many times have we taken a fat merchantman only to find half a cask of rum and a hold full of ballast stones, or a Bermuda sloop heavy with swag when all we was after was sailcloth and nails? Sometimes fortune smiles on our scurvy hides, and most times it don’t. Why are ye puttin’ your thumb on the scales this time?”

Jack sighed heavily and swallowed a healthy mouthful of rum. “Because, my old friend, those instances you mention were pure chance. Prey of opportunity. This is different. I hunted this one. Like a careful hunter stalking the proverbial white hart, I hunted this one down. I learnt her habits, her paths... Everything there was to know about her, I sorted the facts from fiction. So I thought, anyway. Now that I have her in my hand, what did I gain, really?”

“A fine haul, by any standards.”

“By normal standards. Will all that was promised, this is damned pathetic. If she’d carried a quarter of what was promoted as fact, I’d be set for life. I could have....” Jack’s voice trailed off. He drowned the rest of the though with another mouthful of rum.

“Ye could have quit this life?” asked Josiah. He sighed and took a drink himself. “Well, hell, who wouldn’t, if ye had the riches of the Grand Mogul himself? That’s the lesson ol’ Will Harkness taught us, wasn’t it? Quit whilst ye be ahead?”

Jack raised his cup. “To Iron Will. Wherever he is, I hope he’s happy.”

Briggs raised his cup in kind. “To Iron Will. Ye know, there was another sayin’ he was fond of, right before runnin’ down prey. Can’t for the life of me recall what is was, though.”

Jack put his cup down and folded his arms across his chest. “There are old pirates and bold pirates,” he intoned dramatically. ‘But there are no old, bold pirates.”

“Aye, that’s the one!” laughed Josiah. “Ye even sounded a bit like the old man himself!”

“Well, seeing as neither of us is going to join him in retirement, we should decide how to sell off this cargo.” Jack looked over the inventory again, and this time his mouth fell open when he read the final items. “The printing presses? You brought aboard the printing presses?!”

Briggs looked into his cup. “I’m runnin’ a bit dry, here...”

“Damn the rum! I told you I wanted those presses scuttled with the ship!”

“That ye did. And, well, I figured ye were just blowin’ off steam and would change yer mind eventually. Didn’t want ye feelin’ regret for a decision made in anger and all.” Briggs glanced up to see his captain glaring at him, and he quickly looked back down again.

“Mister Briggs,” said Jack slowly through gritted teeth.

“Captain?” he replied, still not wanting to look up.

“I have one thing to say about this blatant disregard for my direct orders.”

“Now, Jack, ye needn't be pullin' rank on me--”

“Thank you.”

“Uh... come again?”

Jack chuckled a little. “You anticipated – again – my imminent change of heart about those presses. I was going to ask you to transfer them if you hadn't already done it.”

Briggs shook his head and began to laugh himself. “Ye were so mad ye couldn't see straight! I knew ye would come to your senses after Duckie got through with ye.”

“Well, my friend, I hope I didn't disappoint!”

“Nay, ye never do! But next time ye come across cargo ye don't care much for, hit it with a stick next time! Was anythin' broke?”

“Just my pride. And I”ll take your advice, believe me!”

“I'll believe that when I see it,” said Briggs. He took a sip of rum and settled back in his chair. “And just what have ye got planned for them presses? Openin' a book store? Printin' political pamplets? Or cookbooks, maybe?”

Jack shrugged. “Haven't a clue. We don't even know it they're for books or VOC company script. I'm hoping books. Undermining governments by flooding their economy with useless money isn't my style. I prefer them rich and fat, because that's when they get lazy and we get rich. We'll worry about that when we get to St. Lawrence. But I do know what we're going to do right this very moment.”

“Aye? What's that?”

Jack reached under the table and brought up an oversized bottle of rum.

“Tonight, my dear Josiah, we celebrate!”

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Briggs squinted uneasily into the Caribbean sun as he tried to collect his thoughts. The ship was docked in St. Lawrence, and the crew were anxious to go ashore and start spending their money. But before they could, they had to endure the requisite liberty speech. Normally it would be Jack delivering the speech, but no one had seen him since El Lobo had nestled securely into her quay two hours before. All eyes were on the quartermaster. Exactly where Briggs didn’t want them. The men were anxious to get off the ship and were becoming vocal about the delay. Finally, Briggs cleared his throat and hoped he could remember all the points. Jack could rattle them off blind drunk, and often times did.

“All right, ye tarry jackals, listen up! First off, has anyone seen the captain?”

The men muttered among themselves. One crewman decided to offer up a theory.

“I’m bettin’ ‘e went ashore early as to get first crack at th’ best girls!” he yelled.

“Ha, aye!” said another. “’Cause ‘e knows we’ll be keepin’ ‘em busy enough!”

“All right, that’s enough!” said Briggs. “Then it’s down to me.” He drew himself up and took a deep breath. “We’ll be in port three days, and three days only!”

The men began to grumble at this restriction on their time.

“Aw, quit yer bellyachin’! Not a one of ye will have two shillin’s to rub together after the second day. So if ye ain’t here for any reason when this ship sets stern to this here port, ye be out of luck. We come back for no man, and any effects ye leave behind will be auctioned before the mast. If ye land in the gaol house, ye best have money for bail or a soft-headed mate that does. If ye managed to up and get yerself killed or press-ganged, well, it’s been a pleasure sailin’ with ye!”

The men chuckled, some a little more nervously than others. All these things were a distinct possibility, and no man wanted to be left behind with only the shirt on his back. Or dead.

“Any man wantin’ to part company, see me after this and we’ll get ye squared away. Now remember, ye have three days! Make the most of it, lads. I’m sure the women will be happy to see ye.”

A raucous cheer went up from the crew, and Briggs signalled for the gangway to be lowered. The men swarmed off the ship and into the town with pockets, bags, hats, and anything else they could use bursting with swag. They knew Briggs was right. In two days or less, they’d all be penniless once again. But they didn’t care. Why save money for tomorrow when there may not be one?

Briggs watched the men file off the ship, and grunted with satisfaction when he saw there were no stragglers. It’s not that he particularly cared if a man wanted to leave the ship. That was a normal part of life at sea. But for every man they lost, it meant recruiting work for the quartermaster. He already had to find replacement for the men who died or became crippled when they took the Utrecht. That there would be no additional burden was a welcome relief.

He pulled a rag from his pocket and mopped his brow. It was going to be a steamy tropical day. The kind of day that was better spent in a tavern with pleasurable company. Briggs walked down the steps to the weather deck and began to make his way to his quarters. A tangle of ropes that hadn’t been properly stowed caught his eye. He cursed under his breath and went to coil the ropes. As he passed the hatch to the main hold, something else caught his attention.

“PSSSTT!!”

“Eh? What?” said Briggs, looking for the source of the sound.

“PSSST! Briggs! Down here!” The loud rasp was from none other than Jack.

“Jack! I looked all over hell and gone for ye! What are ye doin’ down there?”

“SHHHHH!!” replied Jack. “Keep your voice down! Are all the men gone?”

“Aye, except for the watch on the quarterdeck.”

“Good! Then get down here, just as fast as you can go!”

“What for? What’s got ye so excited?”

Jack help up his hand. It was full of silver and gold coins. “This!”

Briggs’ eyes bugged. “Sweet blessed mother... on my way!”

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Briggs scampered down the ladder like a powder monkey. He stumbled over the ballast stones in his haste to see what his captain had discovered. The quartermaster’s mouth fell open at what he saw. Jack had pried the side off one of the printing press crates. Inside were smaller crates, stacked three high and two across. Each crate was roughly two feet high and slightly more that than deep. One of the crates was resting on a smaller crate of coffee. It was about three feet long. Its lid was cast off to the side. Briggs stared at the contents. Dozens of white cloth bags were neatly stacked within, each labelled with accounting marks. Jack had split open one of the bags, revealing the silver and gold coins it contained.

“Yeah, that's about the way I looked when I opened the crate,” said Jack.

“But.... but how did you know?” Briggs stammered.

“That's just it! I didn't. Curiosity got the better of me.” He leaned against a support beam. “I decided to take a look before turning the crew loose on the poor citizenry, in case I wanted to keep a few of them aboard to help move these things. When I cracked the big crate open, I was puzzled about what kind of printing press could be broken down into smaller piece. It's just not possible. Then I found these lovely, lovely coins.”

Briggs picked up some of the coins and admired them in the light. “Guilders,” he said, just above a whisper. “How many crates, do ye reckon? Is this the only one?”

Jack shook his head and picked up a pry bar. “Let's find out, shall we?”

Together, Jack and Briggs partially pried open the three remaining large crates. Packed inside each one were six identical smaller crates, just like they had found in the first one. The two men looked at one another, and together they burst out laughing.

“Well, souse me for a gurnet!” swore Briggs between bouts of joyous laughter. “It was right here under our noses the whole stinkin' time! Those Dutch bastards told us true! And here ye wanted to scuttle the lot!”

“Aye, my friend! Thanks for once again saving me from myself.” Jack stroked the side of one of the crates. “It's all here. Everything we'd heard, and more.”

“How many chests does that make it? Twenty-four? Hell, one would suffice for a simple man.”

Jack nodded. “Twenty-four. Twenty-four chests of gold and silver, right in our hands!”

“The men will think they're gettin' all their birthdays and Christmases all at once when they hear about this.”

“No!” said Jack sharply.

Briggs gave him a puzzled look. “Eh? What do ye mean, no? What of the articles?”

“Damn the articles. They got their shares and more, including ours. No, Josiah. This is ours. The men think this is nothing but a lot of worthless machinery. Let them keep on thinking that.”

A deeply troubled look came over Briggs' face. “I don't rightly know...”

“Oh, come on, Josiah! Don't go and develop a sense of fair play on me! We're pirates, not ministers. We don't run a charity. Look, the men are happy. They're richer than they've ever been before. And now, so are we. Balance in the universe has been restored.”

“All right, all right! Not a word to the men. I swear Jack, ye could talk a parson's wife out of her best pearls.”

“Don't think I haven't! The dress, too. It was a good day.” He fetched a hammer and nails from a small toolbox hanging from the bulkhead. “Now, let's fill our pockets so we can nail these shut again. And remember, not a word to a soul. Not even Duckie yet.”

“Not even to me own blessed Mum,” swore Briggs as he sought to fill anything in his clothing that could serve as a pocket. “And don't you let some tavern wench get ye to yappin, neither!”

“Funny man,” said Jack. “ Here, hold this nail steady, would you?”

A dishevelled man begging on the docks near El Lobo looked round at the ship in confusion when he heard a howl of pain an cursing emanate from deep within her.

“Ye did that on purpose!” yelped Briggs.

“Did not! It slipped.”

“Slipped, me arse.”

“Oh, enough with the frowny face. Come on, let's get his squared away.”

Briggs gingerly held the nail in place and watched the hammer intently. Eventually he relaxed by the time they got to the last crate.

“Well, I don't know about you, Josiah, but I feel like celebrating!” said Jack as he tossed the hammer somewhere in the vicinity of the toolbox it came from.

“I know!” said Briggs. “Let's go to the Dog and Doublet. I do fancy that place.”

“You fancy that redhead who slips you extra drinks and the occasional peep down her bodice. No, I had a different place in mind.”

“Where's that?”

“The Varlet and Vixen,” said Jack with a gleam in his eye. “They have gaming at cards, and I'm feeling particularly lucky today!”

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