One of the pirates stepped forward and sprang up the companion ladder to the poop deck so lithely that Chandagnac was surprised, when the man turned and tilted back his three-cornered hat, to see the deep lines in his dark cheeks and the quantity of gray in his tangled black hair. He scanned the men below him and grinned, narrowing his eyes and baring a lot of teeth.

"Captives," he said, his harshly good-humored voice undercutting the agitated babble, "I am Philip Davies, the new captain of this ship. Now I want you to gather around the mainmast there and let our lads search you for any ... concealed weapons, eh? Skank, you and 'Tholomew and a couple of others, trot below and fetch up any that're down there. Carefully, mind - there's been blood enough spilt today."

The eight surviving members of the conquered crew shuffled to the center of the deck; Chandagnac joined them, hurrying to the mast and then leaning against its solid bulk and hoping his unsteady gait would be attributed to the rocking of the deck rather than to fear. Looking past the pirate chief, Chandagnac saw the seagull, evidently reassured by the cessation of the gunfire, flap down and perch on one of the stern lanterns. It was difficult to believe that less than half an hour ago he and Hurwood's daughter had been idly tossing biscuits to the bird.

"Master Hurwood!" called Davies. After a moment he added, "I know you weren't killed, Hurwood - where are you?"

"No," came a gasping voice from behind a couple of corpses at the foot of the poop deck companion ladder. "I'm ... not killed." Hurwood sat up, his wig gone and his elegant clothes disordered. "But I wish ... I had had a charm ... against falling."

"You've got Mate Care-For to keep you from hurt," Davies said unsympathetically. "None of these lads did." He waved at the scattered corpses and wounded men. "I hope it was a hard fall."

"My daughter's below," said Hurwood, urgency coming into his voice as his head cleared. "She's guarded, but tell your men not to - "

"They won't hurt her." The pirate chief squinted around critically. "It's not too bad a ship you've brought," he said. "I guess you did pay attention to what we told you. Here, Payne, Rich! Get some lads aloft and cut away all bad wood and line and canvas, and get her jury-rigged well enough to get us across the Grand Bahama Bank."

"Right, Phil," called a couple of the pirates, scrambling to the shrouds.

Davies climbed back down the ladder to the quarterdeck, and for several seconds he just stared at the clump of disarmed men by the mast. He was still smiling. "Four of my men were killed during our approach and boarding," he remarked softly.

"Jesus," whispered the man next to Chandagnac, closing his eyes.

"But," Davies went on, "more than half of your own number have been slain, and I will consider that amends enough."

None of the sailors spoke, but Chandagnac heard several sharp exhalations, and shufflings of feet. Belatedly he realized that his death had come very close to being decreed.

"You're free to leave in the ship's boat," Davies continued. "Hispaniola's east, Cuba north, Jamaica southwest. You'll be given food, water, charts, sextant and compass. Or," he added cheerfully, "any of you that fancy it may stay and join us. It's an easier life than most on the sea, and every man has a share in the profits, and you're free to retire after every voyage."

No, thank you, thought Chandagnac. Once I finish my ... errand ... in Port-au-Prince and get home again, I never want to see another damned ocean in my whole life.

Old Chaworth had for several minutes been slowly looking around at the ship he'd been owner of so recently, and Chandagnac realized that though the captain had reconciled himself to the loss of his cargo, he hadn't until now imagined that he would lose his ship, too. Pirates, after all, were a shallow-water species, always eluding capture by skating over shoals, and seldom venturing out of sight of land. They should have had as little use for a deep-water ship like the Carmichael as a highwayman would have for a siege cannon.

The old man was ashen, and it occurred to Chandagnac that until this development Chaworth hadn't quite been ruined; if he hadn't lost the Carmichael herself, he could have sold her and perhaps, after paying off the stockholders or co-owners, cleared enough money to reimburse the cargo owners for their losses; the move would no doubt have left him broke, but would at least have kept concealed the secret he'd confided to Chandagnac one drunken evening - that since the price of insurance was now higher than the greatest profit margin he could plausibly try for, he had in desperation charged the cargo owners for insurance ... and then not bought any.

One of the pirates who'd gone below now stepped up from the after-companionway and, looking back the way he'd come, gestured upward with a pistol. Up the ladder and into the sunlight climbed the cook - who had obviously followed the time-honored custom of facing seagoing disaster by getting drunk as quickly and thoroughly as possible - and the two boys who ran all the errands on the ship, and Beth Hurwood.

Hurwood's daughter was pale, and walked a bit stiffly, but was outwardly calm until she saw her disheveled father. "Papa!" she yelled, running to him. "Did they hurt you?" Without waiting for an answer she whirled on Davies. "Your kind did enough to him last time," she said, her voice an odd mix of anger and pleading. Meeting Blackbeard cost him his arm! Whatever he's done to you people today was - "

"Was greatly appreciated, Miss," said Davies, grinning at her. "In keeping with the compact he and Thatch - or Blackbeard, if you like - agreed on last year, your daddy's delivered to me this fine ship."

"What are you - " began Beth, but she was interrupted by a shrill oath from Chaworth, who sprang on the nearest pirate wrenched the saber from the surprised man's hand, and theni shoved him away and rushed at Davies, cocking his arm back for a cleaving stroke.

"No!" yelled Chandagnac, started forward, "Chaworth, don't - "

Davies calmly hiked a pistol out of his garish paisley sash, cocked it and fired it into Chaworth's chest; the impact of the fifty-caliber ball stopped the captain's charge and punched him over backward with such force that he was nearly standing on his head for a moment before thumping and rattling down in the absolute limpness of death.

Chandagnac was dizzy, and couldn't take a deep breath. Time seemed to have slowed - no, it was just that each event was suddenly distinct, no longer part of a blended progression. Beth screamed. The burst of smoke from the pistol muzzle churned forward another yard. The sea gull squawked in renewed alarm and flapped upward. The dropped saber spun across the deck and the brass knuckle-guard of it whacked against Chandagnac's ankle. He bent down and picked up the weapon.

Then, without having consciously decided to, he was himself rushing at the pirate chief, and though his legs were pounding and his arm was keeping the heavy blade extended in front of him, in his mind he was deftly rocking the stick and crosspiece and making the Mercutio marionette which dangled from them spring toward the Tybalt marionette in the move his father had always called coupe-and-fleche.

Davies, startled and amused, tossed the spent pistol to a companion and, stepping back, drew his rapier and relaxed into the en garde crouch.

Taking the final stride, Chandagnac almost thought he could feel the upward yank of the marionette string as he quickly twitched his point over the other man's sword and extended it again in Davies' inside line; and he was so used to the Tybalt puppet's answering lateral parry that he was almost too quick in letting his saber drop under this real, unrehearsed one - but Davies had believed the feint and made the parry, and in the last instant the disengaged saber was pointed at the pirate chief's unguarded flank, and Chandagnac let the momentum of his rush drive it in, and yank the hilt out of his inexpert grip, as he ran past.

The saber clattered to the deck, and then for one long moment all motion did stop. Davies, still standing but twisted around by the thrust, was staring at Chandagnac in astonishment, and Chandagnac, empty-handed and tense with the expectation of a pistol ball at any moment and from any direction, held his breath and stared helplessly into the wounded pirate's eyes.

Finally Davies carefully sheathed his sword and, just as carefully, folded to his knees, and the silence was so absolute that Chandagnac actually heard the patter of blood drops hitting the deck.

"Kill him," said Davies distinctly.

Chandagnac had half turned toward the rail, intending to vault it and try to swim to Hispaniola, when a sarcastic voice said, "For excelling you in swordsmanship, Phil? Faith, that's one way to maintain your supremacy."

This statement was followed by a good deal of muttering among the pirates, and Chandagnac paused hopefully. He glanced back toward Davies and prayed that the man might bleed to death before repeating the order.

But Davies was looking at the pirate who'd spoken, and after a few seconds he smiled wolfishly and pointed at his own gashed side. "Ah, Venner, you think this will do? This cut?" Davies leaned forward, placed his hands flat on the deck, and strugglingly got one booted foot, and then the other, under him. He looked up at Venner again, still grinning, and then slowly stood up from the crouch. His grin never faltered, though he went pale under his tan and his face was slicked with sweat. "You're ... new, Venner," Davies said hoarsely. "You should ask Abbott or Gardner how dire a wound must be to slow me down." He inhaled deeply, then swayed and stared down at the deck. His breeches shone darkly with blood down to the calf, where they were tucked into his boot. After a moment he looked up. "Or," he went on, stepping back unsteadily and drawing his rapier again, "would you like to ... discover for yourself how much this has disabled me?"

Venner was short and stocky, with a ruddy, pockmarked face. Half-smiling, he stared at his captain with the speculative look one gives a card-game opponent whose drunkenness may be a sham, or at least exaggerated. Finally he spread his hands. "Damn me, Phil," he said easily, "you know I didn't mean nothing challenging."

Davies nodded and allowed himself to close his eyes for a moment. "Of course not." He thrust his sword away and turned to Chandagnac. "Venner's right, though," he grated, "and I'm glad ... that nobody killed you ... if only so I can learn that feint." He permitted himself to lean against the aftercabin bulkhead. "But God's blood, man," he burst out loudly, "how in hell is it that you know such a thefty move when you run like a duck and hold a sword the way a cook holds a pot handle?"

Chandagnac tried and failed to think of a good lie, and then hesitantly told the man the truth. "My father ran a marionette show," he faltered, "and I'm ... for most of my life I was a puppeteer. We ... performed all over Europe, and when the scripts called for sword fights - we did a lot of Shakespeare - he consulted fencing masters to make it absolutely realistic. So," he shrugged, "I've memorized any number of fencing moves, and performed each of them hundreds of times ... but only with puppets."

Davies, holding his side, stared at him. "Puppets," he said. "Well, I - goddamn. Puppets." Slowly he let himself slide down the bulkhead until he was sitting on the deck. "Where the devil's Hanson?"

"Here, Phil." One of the pirates hurried over to him, opening a small clasp knife. "You're gonna have to be lying down," he said.

Davies obediently lay back, but propped himself up on his elbows to look at Chandagnac while Hanson, who evidently served as the pirates' surgeon, began cutting away the blood-sopped shirttail. "Well!" Davies said. "Venner has suggested that I was too ... harsh, in ordering you killed, and we - ow, damn your soul, Hanson, be careful!" He closed his eyes for a moment, then took a deep breath and resumed. "And we do business on the understanding that all orders are open to discussion, except when we're in serious action. Nevertheless you did stab me, so I can't just ... let you leave in the boat." He looked around at his companions. "I propose giving him the choice."

There were satisfied nods and shouts of agreement.

Davies looked up at Chandagnac. "Join us, wholly adopt our goals as your own, or be killed right now where you stand."

Chandagnac turned to Beth Hurwood, but she was whispering to her father, who didn't even seem to be aware of her. Looking past the two of them he saw the broad figure of Leo Friend, who was scowling - possibly disappointed that Chandagnac was still alive. Chandagnac had never felt more friendless and unprotected. Suddenly, and terribly, he missed his father.

He turned back to Davies. "I'll join you."

Davies nodded thoughtfully. "That is the standard decision," he said. "I wasn't entirely sure it'd be yours."

Hanson stood up and stared dubiously at the bandage he'd belted to his chief. "That's all I can do for you, Phil," he said. "Get milord Hurwood to make sure it stops bleeding and don't mortify."

Chandagnac glanced at Hanson in surprise. Surely, he thought, you mean Leo Friend. Philosophy doesn't knit up wounds.

Hearing his name, Hurwood came out of his reverie and blinked around. "Where's Thatch?" he asked, too loudly. "He was supposed to be here."

"He's runnin' late this year," Davies said, not even bothering to try to twist his head around and face Hurwood. "Right now he's up in Charles Town getting the supplies you wanted. We'll meet him in Florida. Now come here and do something to make sure I don't die of this perforation."

Beth started to say something, but Hurwood waved her to silence. "He let you have the pointer?" he said, obviously not pleased. Copyright 2016 - 2023