Chapter 1: Chase the Lightning from the Sky
Briefly, it occurs to Miranda to feel sympathy for Billy Bones and his daemon, who look very much as if they would rather be anywhere but here. Billy is acting quartermaster until such time as John Silver wakes up, though, so he hasn’t really got a choice.
“Anne Bonny is an exception, and they think you’re a witch, Miranda, they’re not going to agree and I don’t need another mutiny on my hands!” James insists, and Miranda forgets Billy to glare at James.
“I am not going to rot away on a farm again, James, so if I’m not going to be here with you then something else will have to be figured out.”
“I want you safe - I promised - ”
“No, you weren’t there!” It’s cruel, and reckless too, for them to be talking even vaguely about Thomas in front of one of James’ men, but neither of them care, their daemons tense and ready for a fight. “I was there, and I did promise. We were to take care of each other. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I stood by too long! I will not go back to that, James.”
“Uh, actually, after she was involved in making the deal with Rackham for the gold, most of the crew’s thinking that, if she’s got magic, they’d rather have it on their side than not. The rest… Well…” Billy stops talking even as they both turn to stare hard at him, looking uncomfortable with whatever else the crew is thinking. His wolfhound huffs, and finishes for him.
“The rest think the captain here might be less of a grouchy bastard with you aboard,” she tells Miranda as her human’s ears and neck flush red.
Miranda, who can guess exactly why they think her presence would improve James’ mood, has to laugh, Arete chirping his own laughter. James doesn’t seem to find it funny, but Mona huffs in that way she has when she doesn’t want to be amused but is in spite of herself.
“Well, you usually are in a better mood right after coming back from inland,” Billy says defensively, fingers curled in his daemon’s ruff as if that will stop her from speaking out of turn again.
“What would you do?” Mona asks.
“Desdemona!” James snaps, and the use of his daemon’s full name is a warning that the wolfdog chooses to ignore, as she ignores the wolfhound’s startled yip.
“She’s not taking no for an answer, James, so we might as well think it all through.”
“ We are right here,” Arete says, though he’s calmer now, settling on the floor near the sleeping Irial.
“I don’t know for sure,” Miranda is forced to admit. “I imagine negotiations with fellow captains, however much use I might come to be in such a thing, isn’t common enough to use as a reason. I see no reason I can’t learn a useful skill, though.”
“You can’t fight,” James argues.
“My, how quickly we forget. I seem to remember you teaching me to shoot and use a sword, which I still have stashed away in the farmhouse. Just in case, you said. I admit to being out of practice, but that can be remedied.”
“You’re educated, yes?” The wolfhound again, and Billy scowls at his daemon and hisses for her to shut up, which she ignores.
“Of course we are,” Arete says, his voice amused and insulted all at once.
“We need a new accountant,” the wolfhound says lightly.
“For fuck’s sake, Morgaine -” Billy snaps.
“No, she’s right,” Mona admits. “Billy, you could plausibly do it as part of your duties, so could Silver, probably, but there’s reasons we separate the jobs as we do for anything beyond the short-term. And Miranda’s fair, so it’ll earn the crew’s trust to see that regularly - which can’t hurt her and Arete, and might help James and I.”
“Help us how, exactly?” James asks, still scowling.
“Well, you’re married, aren’t you?” Morgaine asks. “So if the crew likes her and the cat, they’ll come back ‘round to liking you and the hellhound there.”
Miranda is vaguely aware of Mona insisting she is not a hellhound, but mostly - It’s ridiculous to be blindsided by the fact that people think she is married to James. They’ve even discussed it, from time to time, that it would be practical if something happens to him. But Pastor Lambrick would never have done it, Mr. Gates would have but that would have meant crewmen as witnesses, which James said might have put her at risk. He’d claimed not to know of anyone in Nassau who could do it.
And these were excuses to avoid the fact that she still wears her wedding ring, and James wears a signet ring that was made for Thomas, and the idea of marrying each other feels like a final death for him that they cannot - that they haven’t -
“Not exactly, not in the official sense, but we might as well be,” she hears herself tell Morgaine, her voice easy and calm despite her thoughts.
“Best to tell the crew you are, even so,” Billy says, having given up on keeping his daemon quiet. “It’ll simplify things like shares and all.”
“I haven’t agreed to you staying,” James finds his voice again.
“Well, do you have another idea that doesn’t involve me going back to the interior?” Miranda fires back, Arete coming to stand beside her with his teeth bared. Mona, at James’ side, whines with her ears going flat and her tail drooping, before she goes to curl around Irial as her way of backing out of this fight.
Billy and his wolfhound slip out before James says anything, and he drops heavily into the captain’s chair. “You don’t know what this life is, day in and day out. Miranda, it’s not… Most of it is horrible.”
“Charles Town was horrible,” Miranda points out, sitting across from him. “Finding out Peter betrayed us was horrible, setting you on Alfred and regretting only that I wasn’t there to see it is horrible. Arete isn’t a housecat, and I haven’t been a lady in a long time, James. It was our blow that killed Peter - yours would have but we were faster. I told you I won’t go back, and I can’t see a better way forward. So, again, unless you have a better idea…”
There’s a long silence, broken only by the sounds of ship and sea, and a brief murmur of something not English from the still-unconscious Silver, silenced when Mona licks Irial’s ears. Finally, James sighs. “We won’t be going back out for a while. Silver will need a chance to heal enough to handle ship life again, and God knows it’ll take time to settle a council with Eleanor gone. I’ll need to be part of that. And we’ll need to work on your weapons skills. But… If I can’t talk you out of it, I’ll make sure you can survive it.”
“It’s settled then. I’ll go back for a little while, bring him with me,” Miranda says, nodding to Silver. “It’s best if we both get ourselves together out of everyone’s sight.” She gets up, and so does he, closing the distance and just… holding onto each other for a little while. That is what they’ve been for ten years when you come right down to it, someone to cling to in the dark. They have always needed this.
She ought to have insisted on standing together a long time ago.
If he’d been more coherent, he wouldn’t have ended up here. John is reasonably certain of that much. Where he would have ended up he can’t say, but at Miranda Barlow’s house in the middle of nowhere on New Providence is absolutely not it. Maybe nowhere, because if he’d been left alone he might well have simply decided to end it.
Maybe he still will.
The trouble is, there’s nothing within reach worth anything as a weapon. “I suppose you could tear my throat out,” he says to Irial, studying her new form. She doesn’t think it’s final, says it doesn’t feel quite right, and the last time she slept John woke to find her in the form of a spotted cat, like a tiny leopard. She’s always liked to sleep in cat forms, and sometimes he’s seen her fall asleep in some other form and shift without waking.
But the golden jackal has jaws strong enough to kill him with. If she would. “You know I won’t do that,” she tells him, laying her head on what’s left of his left leg, careful to rest high on his thigh, away from the wound. “I admit, I half-thought Flint would do it for us, when I told Mona what we’d done.”
“And that’s another thing,” John starts, trying to be angry but too worn down to manage it. The truth is they’d begun regretting their plan almost as soon as they’d set it in motion, as soon as they saw how right Flint had been about the men. Men who gave a shit about what John said, who trusted him. Which makes him think of Vincent again, and then he has to swallow hard against the nauseating lurch of his stomach, remembering as the axe -
Irial’s soft yip of greeting pulls John back to the present again. Mona settles by the bed, huge in comparison to Iri. She usually is, of course, but somehow now that both of their forms are canine, it’s painfully obvious. “I promise, you don’t have to watch us all the time,” John says with a wry grin that feels sickeningly empty.
Mona huffs her disbelief. “I’ll be the judge of that. Your door was open, if you didn’t notice.” Suddenly she snarls, leaping onto the bed, and Irial is knocked down with a careless swipe of a paw when she leaps to defend her human. “Do you really want your throat torn out, John? Is that how you want this to end?”
“You won’t do it,” Irial says. John’s pulse may be racing, and he’s scrambling back as much as the bed and his single leg will allow, but Irial’s voice is icy calm, and she is on her feet again, watching steadily. “You won’t hurt us,” she tells Mona with all the confidence John cannot feel.
Mona is only not touching John because blankets cover his skin, and he can feel her breath - like all daemons, curiously cool - against his face as he fights to calm his own breathing. She leans forward, growling low in his face. “Don’t,” he says, hating how small and shaken he sounds.
“Good,” she says, jumping down again. “I will not leave you alone, because I don’t want to find that you’ve worked out how to hang yourself with the bedclothes.”
“Why do you care?!” John snaps, rage more than replacing the terror of a moment ago. “Why the fuck do you care?!” There’s a book on the small table by the bed; he picks it up and flings it at the black wolf, even knowing she’ll dodge it. “I don’t want this! I told them I didn’t want this! They should have listened to me, it was my fucking choice!”
“And once you’ve calmed down, you’ll realize someone as focused on survival as you doesn’t really want to be dead. This isn’t the end of everything you seem to think it is, John.”
“I’m a cripple! I might as well be in prison, I can’t even cross this room on my own unless I crawl!”
“That’s what the crutches are for. You don’t have to crawl, you’re simply refusing to relearn how to function,” says a new voice, and John supposes that as soon as Mona showed up, he should have expected Flint.
“I think I need to remind you you’re in my house.”
John glares at him, and Flint glares right back. “I didn’t ask to be moved here. You should have just tossed me in the sea like Billy.” It’s a low blow and he sees the flash of rage in those green eyes. It gives him a bitter sort of satisfaction.
“Suicidal self-pity does you no favors, Silver,” Flint says. “My crew wants you for quartermaster, and I -”
“Need someone who can spin tales to keep people loyal, instead of the ones you have that only fire them up for a little while?” John spits. “Find someone else. Like your wife, or witch, or whatever she is. Wasn’t she part of the negotiation with Rackham? Just leave me alone. I don’t want help.”
“What makes you think I care what you want?”
“Oh, fuck you.”
“You’re going to learn how to live again, Silver,” Flint says flatly, and in the sunlight slanting through the window his eyes are the same shade of green as a river not far from home, that they said belonged to the Fair Folk. If you went swimming there, they might steal you away. John meets Flint’s gaze and thinks he’s already been stolen, he just didn’t notice till now.
Flint shakes his head and the moment is lost. “And if you still want to die then, well… It would be a waste, but your choice. But you don’t get to make it till you’re in your right mind again, and I am happy to drag you back to life kicking and screaming, you hear me?”
She can’t touch her own daemon.
At first, Miranda hadn’t had the chance to notice anything was wrong. The blade had shattered even as it came slicing down, hit by stray debris from the cannon shots. Miranda hadn’t even thought about the jagged pieces still cutting through the air between her and Arete, or the shards that sliced her daemon’s skin and her own despite their best attempts to cover themselves. Too much had been happening. The physical injuries of the shards were easily fixed, in the end.
But the rest…
She finds herself thinking of the men who’d put her in the stocks, their blank eyes, their docile daemons trotting along beside them. She doesn’t want to remember their hands on Arete, the dizzy nauseating wrongness of it, like someone had reached inside her ribcage and grasped her heart, crushed her lungs. But they were the only ones unafraid of the structure they were locking her into. Even Peter had eyed it with fear, and though he hadn’t given the order, it had been his decision to put her there.
Were those men unafraid because whatever it usually did had already been done to them? Was that emptiness her sentence from Peter, as death had been for James?
And what had those broken pieces done to her? Why does it feel like an icy blade to the heart every time she touches Arete? And it’s the same for him, he’s told her, curling up miserably just out of reach.
They haven’t told James and Mona. They don’t know how. Arete has never been the most physically affectionate of daemons, so it hasn’t been hard to avoid touching each other in an unobtrusive way. And the only visible difference is that there’s a streak of golden specks like dust running along Arete’s belly, so he just has to stand a certain way and it’s invisible. Anyway, James and Mona are distracted by their worry for her houseguest. Not that Miranda blames them. She, after all, had been the one to catch John Silver on the floor with a smashed rum bottle in hand the day after he woke up, the sharp edge just an inch from his wrist. And he’s been barely eating or drinking since his arrival, as if he’s trying to starve himself but can’t quite commit to it.
Three days in, James goes back down to Nassau proper, after finally confronting Silver. Miranda had been out in the garden to offer some degree of privacy, and doesn’t know what was said, only that James and Mona left in a frustrated huff. She’s brewing tea when the thunk of wood on wood makes her look up.
Silver is pale and gaunt, the stubble thick on his jaw now, his lips pressed tightly together as he maneuvers on the crutches. His Irial - he’d called out for a Kevay in his fever, and his daemon had responded, but Miranda’s decided to pretend she never heard it - is beside him, murmuring soft encouragement in what must be their native language. It reminds her of the Scots some of the Hamilton servants spoke amongst themselves, but it’s not quite the same. Welsh or Irish, she thinks, because James said it wasn’t Cornish either when he’d heard it as feverish babble.
“You’ve decided to rejoin the living, I see.” Some people respond well to kindness, and some take it as pity. Miranda suspects that Silver is the latter.
“I’m considering it, anyway,” Silver replies, his voice rough with disuse and lack of water. “Sorry to be such an inconvenience.”
“You’re not the first injured man James has left on my doorstep. It’s almost like a cat leaving dead mice. He must think I need company, but I must say, you’re not very useful in that capacity.”
For a moment, anger flares in bright blue eyes, but then it fades as Silver manages a short, harsh laugh. “Again, I can only apologize and say that I will strive to do better, my lady.”
Miranda’s eyes narrow. “I’m not a lady.” Not anymore, anyway, not since she became a widow if not before.
“You were, though. It’s in your voice.”
“Hmm.” Miranda pushes him into one of the chairs, setting a cup of tea in front of him. “And the fact that you’ve been refusing food and drink is in yours. If you’re going to be better company, the first step is taking better care of yourself, Mr. Silver.”
He still isn’t entirely sure that he wants to live. He has the crutches now, it’s true, and Howell stopped in to check on him and said that once the wound is healed they can resize Randall’s peg for him. But even so, John still wonders if maybe he should have just given up.
The worst part is needing help. He’s taught himself to rely on no one but himself and his daemon, and letting himself accept support anyone else is terrifying. “We’ll take care of you,” he remembers Muldoon saying as he’d struggled on the table. It makes his hands shake with fear. He cannot lean on anyone, no one stays, they never stay. Even when they might want to, life takes them away. Out here, though, it’s just him and Mrs. Barlow - Miranda, she’d reminded him on the second day he’d been up and about - and it’s…
She doesn’t hover, for which he’s grateful. But he still has to grit his teeth every time she needs to steady him. Right now, he’s trying to wean himself down to a single crutch, which means he’s prone to falling as he makes his way back and forth through the house. One afternoon, he slips and feeling her hand on his elbow to steady him is just - too much.
“Leave it! I have to learn this!”
Miranda lets him go, and he does fall, going down on his whole knee. He grits his teeth and uses the crutch to pull himself upright, to find Miranda giving him a sharp look. “It’s not pity to want to keep you from splitting your head open on my floor. I just cleaned it.”
“Afraid if I die here I’ll become a ghost and never leave?”
“I don’t want to see the look on James’ face if you die from being an idiot, actually.”
“Said the pot to the kettle,” John says abruptly, and he hadn’t meant to say it, had meant to let Miranda keep her secrets, but now he can’t. Because he’d seen human and daemon flinch when Miranda’s Arete had brushed her ankle, and Iri’s seen the gold streak on his belly. They know what that means.
John takes a deep breath. “Ashe put you in the Device, didn’t he?” He doesn’t get any satisfaction from the way she goes pale at the memory. He remembers staring up at an amber blade in fear himself. Remembers the wall of amber stone in the box he’d been put in, for a different test, the pain deep in the center of him as the box had been wheeled away.
There had been many devices at St. Edward’s (the story of an orphanage was real, but John had changed the name when he told Flint), but only the worst of them had a capital letter in it, and he heard Vane describe the one in Charles Town. When it works properly… when it works properly, there is no going back. When it doesn’t, there can be.
Miranda isn’t looking at him anymore. She’s turned away, studying her bookshelf as if it holds answers they both know won’t be there. “You know what that blade was.”
“More than I’d like. The stone, they call it amber obsidian. Don’t know where they find it. But something about it… There’s old folktales of Druids, how one of their rites of passage was a stone circle, a very specific circle, that daemons could not enter. How if the Druid entered it, forever after his or her daemon could wander far away, as a messenger, a spy, or a lookout. I don’t know if it’s true, there are other stories like it in other places I’ve been to. But the amber obsidian… hurts your bond, it doesn’t stretch it. Did the blade break?”
“It was shattered by debris, in the very moment it was coming down.”
“It wasn’t aligned properly, when I saw it. It has to come down just right to do its worst. But they said, after, that it was a sharp pain, every time they touched their daemons. Is that what you feel?”
She’s helped him, let him stay in her house to recover. Maybe he can return the favor, and feel less indebted. That’s the worst part of it, after the expectation of trust that he cannot give. The feeling that he owes a debt every time someone helps him makes him uneasy. He can repay the crew, even Flint, in time, by doing his best as quartermaster, however mad they must have been to vote him into the role. But Miranda is harder, and he owes her more for having put up with him more regularly.
“Cold and sharp, like a knife made of ice,” Arete says when Miranda is silent. Irial hesitates, then carefully licks the wild cat’s ears the way she’s seen Mona do, trying to be comforting. Arete startles, but lets her do it, and after a moment he even purrs a little.
“It burned, for us, but then, they did a different thing to us,” Irial confides, because it is easier for her than it is for John, and her golden scar is visible so they can’t really hide that they’ve been damaged now that Arete has his own mark. “But we’ve seen the cutting gone wrong. Or, gone right, in my opinion, because wrong by their standards can heal.”
“Cutting,” Miranda says slowly. “You can’t possibly mean -”
“Cutting away a daemon? Severing that bond permanently? Yeah, I can. I do mean that,” John tells her, meeting her eyes squarely when she turns to face him. He doesn’t tell her about the days spent in the box, in the same room as the Device, watching. That last day, when the Device had gone wrong with Sol and Lizzie and they’d taken their chance, and pulled him out to run with them. Three hurting children and their daemons, on the streets of Belfast. Only John was a native, and that knowledge had been invaluable in their escape.
“You have to touch him,” he says quietly. He remembers the uncertain press of Sol’s chapped lips, how small Lizzie’s hand had been in his own. “Arete. It hurts like hell, but you’ve got to.”
“Why?” Miranda asks, sitting at her table. John grits his teeth and makes his way over, using his free hand to brace himself on various objects along the way. He sits across from her, Irial and Arete curled up near them, taking comfort as daemons will.
He thinks of Sol’s wide eyes, his sudden sharp gasp, how one moment he’d been bright and alive, hopeful even in the chill of Dublin in November, and then the next moment toppling over, his eyes glazed in death as Aliza vanished into golden dust. He remembers how Lizzie had screamed his name and Oberon had shrieked, how he and Irial couldn’t make a sound.
“It’s like a tear in fabric,” he says carefully. “If you let it go, it will split wider, until - your bond will sever one day, and the shock of it... It often kills even with the Device, but not always. Like that, though, out of nowhere, it will. But, when you touch your daemon in spite of the pain, hold on as long as you can, at least once a day… It fades, eventually. Like how relocating a joint hurts, only you have to do it regularly for it to take. You’ll never be the same , but you’ll heal.”
Lizzie had been healing, the day the man had -
“How are you not the same?” Miranda’s voice is quiet, steady, and her eyes are piercing as she studies John’s face, as if she can see all the memories he hasn’t spoken of directly. Her eyes are the same shade of brown as Lizzie’s, he realizes abruptly, and it makes his head spin. But he’s reached the limit of what he can talk about without memories overwhelming him.
John shrugs. “Nothing serious. She can go apart from me, and it might be why Iri can’t settle. Just - I’m not an honest man, but on this I won’t lie. Partly because I’ve seen it happen, and partly, if you think that’s a lie, because if I told you something that made things worse, Flint would kill me.”
“Until recently you wanted to die.”
“Still kind of do. But he’d make it slow, if I hurt you intentionally. That I don’t want.”
Miranda considers him over her tea cup. “Very well, I trust you - on one condition.”
“I’ll follow your advice to heal - if you follow mine.”
John blinks, caught off guard, but then he nods, lips twitching in something not quite a smile. He probably should have predicted that, but since he walked right into it, what else is there but to give it a try?
Arete is leaning against Miranda’s leg while she sits on the porch, breathing deeply with her hands clenched into fists in her lap. The pain seems to get worse with every passing moment, a wave that doesn’t want to crest. In front of her, Silver is trying to walk a circle round her house with both crutches, working to regain his balance on even ground.
She cries out at last, Arete darting away, at the same moment Silver tips sideways, crashing down into the dirt. “That’s the longest any of us have lasted,” Arete calls, his voice hoarse with the aftermath of their shared pain.
Silver, struggling to get upright again, gives Arete a dark look, but his Irial laughs. “Are you the optimist around here now, Arete?”
“Not really, but someone has to try,” Arete says easily, as Silver manages to get up and heads for the porch, Irial scampering ahead to meet Miranda’s daemon on the stairs. She shakes dirt off her fur onto his, and he yowls, swiping at her. But his claws are sheathed; it’s mostly in fun.
Silver doesn’t bother to find a chair; he sinks down right on the steps, tilting his head back to rest against the porch rail. “Feeling any better?” he asks.
“Well, the pain is less sharp today, but still bad.” Now that she isn’t experiencing it, it’s easier for Miranda to compare today to yesterday, and the days before, and she can see that it was a duller ache today, but still a fierce one.
“I only fell once, so we’re both improving,” Silver offers, closing his eyes as a wry smile curls his lips. He’s letting his beard grow in and his hair grow out; soon Miranda will have to tell James to take his new quartermaster aside for some grooming tricks before his beard turns into a bush.
“Don’t go to sleep there, Silver, it won’t help your aches any,” Miranda informs him, poking his arm with her foot. Silver opens one eye, shrugging.
“Not planning on it, but it’s nice to relax for a bit. Also, you really should call me John by now, it’s only fair.”
“John then,” Miranda says with a nod of agreement. After a few moments, she’s fairly sure that he’s changed his mind about falling asleep there, so she opens the book and starts to read. It’s one she took from the warship - they took a majority of the books, Vane shrugging and saying he didn’t want them. There were a few in English that his jaguar insisted on taking, saying something Miranda didn’t fully catch about Caelia , which if Miranda remembers right is the name of Jack Rackham’s mongoose.
“You could share, Miranda,” Arete says. Rolling her eyes, Miranda starts reading aloud, in a low voice. Her spoken Spanish is a bit rusty, but she isn’t expecting the lazy, half-asleep correction from the man on her steps.
“It’s a good story, better in Spanish than English,” John says without opening his eyes.
“You read Spanish?” She knows he’s literate and can speak Spanish from James’ stories, but still, to be bilingual in both speaking and writing usually assumes a degree of education she wouldn’t have expected from John Silver.
“Mm. I’ve better written Spanish than English, actually,” John says, sitting straighter and seeming to blink awake.
“But it isn’t Spanish you and Irial speak when you’re alone.”
John’s eyes go blank. “No. It isn’t. But Spanish is much more useful.”
“You don’t like to talk about your past, do you?” Miranda asks, setting down her book.
“No more do you or Flint.”
“Actually, that’s more James.” It isn’t that Miranda would freely discuss everything on a whim, but - it had been good, after so long a time, to speak of her past, to speak of Thomas, to share things that are still good, even if they are bittersweet with hindsight. The trouble is that Pastor Lambrick had been part of her world - sort of - and Richard Guthrie adjacent to both respectability and the pirate world James inhabits. John, though, is a member of James’ crew, second only to him in power there. In some ways he has more power; he has the trust of the men in a way James does not, and he’s clever enough to keep up with his captain.
And, of course, he stole the Urca from under James’ nose, even if his daemon gave it back.
Now, she intends to join James on his ship, she intends to fully inhabit his world and John Silver will be with them there. Miranda doesn’t doubt this decision, but it does make her question what she can say to John.
“So what would you talk about, if you could?” John asks, as if he can read her mind.
“I don’t know, actually,” Miranda admits, and then she goes back to reading aloud, because it’s easier than trying to figure out how honest either of them are willing to be.
Flint is here. It’s the first he’s been back in the nearly two weeks since their argument, the one that had shaken John from his semi-suicidal daze. He hasn’t decided if he’s grateful or resentful for that yet, and so for now he’s avoiding his captain. It’s easy enough to do; Flint and Mona are outside with Miranda and Arete, so all John has to do is not go outside.
But he’s bored, and so is Irial, which means they’re poking about in places they probably shouldn’t. Which is how they find the painting.
“That is not a good likeness of Miranda,” Irial declares, and John has to agree. She looks wooden , blank and oddly stern, nothing like the wry, sharp-tongued woman he’s come to know. Even Arete doesn’t look quite right - the painter tried to make him look like just a big housecat.
“I wonder who the man is,” John murmurs. He assumes that, whoever he is, the likeness of him and his owl are as inaccurate a rendering as Miranda and Arete are.
“ Mr . Barlow, maybe?” Irial says.
“I assumed that was Flint,” John says honestly. Up till now that had made the most sense, that Flint and Miranda are married and Barlow is Flint’s legal surname. Although, this doesn’t look very much like a Mr. and Mrs. Barlow, more like a Lord and Lady Something, so he might still be right. A second marriage, maybe?
Dimly, he remembers Miranda and Flint talking, when he’d been only semi-coherent in the days after losing his leg. They’d mentioned someone named Thomas, so maybe this is him. Either way, he supposes it isn’t really his business. He’d like to know, of course, but…
Well. He doubts either of them would tell him even if he asked, and since he’s likely to be just as unwilling to answer similar questions, he supposes he can’t really complain.
The sound of clashing metal draws him outside, where Flint and Miranda are -
Huh. Somehow, even knowing that Miranda plans to join them on the Walrus when they set sail again, John’s surprised to find them swordfighting. He’s even more surprised to find that Miranda seems to have some idea of what she’s doing, but it makes sense once he’s close enough to hear their talk.
“I wouldn’t be rusty if you hadn’t stopped practicing with me,” Miranda is saying.
“Yes, as you’ve said already - keep your point up!”
Miranda’s sword goes flying a moment later and John yelps as it lands a bit closer to him than he would have liked. He looks back to find them both watching him, with almost identical amused expressions on their faces. It’s Mona who laughs, coming over to greet Irial with licks to her face.
“Be careful, he’ll have you at it next,” Miranda says as she draws up a dipper of water from her well bucket, drinking it down and pouring the next one over her head. She wrings out her hair, frowning at it. “I’ll need to do something with this,” she mutters.
“Braid it?” Flint asks.
“You know very well I never could get the hang of braiding my own,” Miranda says.
John isn’t sure whether to be angry or not. “He can’t have me at it next,” he says, voice a little too harsh, and he gets two startled looks in return. “One fucking leg, remember?”
“Don’t be stupid, you’re not the first or last who still has to defend himself with only one leg,” Flint says briskly. “But we’ll work on your shooting first. Both of yours, actually.”
“I can shoot,” John says at the same time as Miranda does. He blinks in surprise, and she grins.
“That, I think I’m a little less rusty with, if only because aim is aim,” she adds, pushing loose strands of hair off her face. “I’ll probably just end up cutting this short, should be easiest. I can’t ask you for help every time I need to braid it, James, and I just don’t think the pins are up to it.”
“I could always help,” John offers without thinking. He refuses to look embarrassed, even if he can’t help how his ears burn at Flint’s expression and the way those green eyes bore into his face. Miranda, for her part, only shakes her head, a little smile on her face.
“No, I’d rather just do the simple thing and lop it off. Since even after ten years I cannot get the hang of braiding my own hair, though I can do someone else easily.”
Flint sighs, but doesn’t argue the point. He’s watching John, and his face is unreadable. “I’ve brought spare pistols. I want to see how you both do with a target to shoot.”
John remembers, suddenly, being almost thirteen, and Uncle Declan showing him how to make a bow and arrows. “Archery’s outdated, my lad, but you aim an arrow right, it’ll kill sure as a bullet, and it’s easier to get than a gun. I’ll teach you to throw knives next - arrows and knives can be used again, not like bullets.”
His fingers itch for a bow, or knives, if he must have weapons, but archery and throwing knives aren’t much use at sea and knives used any other way are too close-range for him now. And anyway, he doesn’t think he should be any more Sean Teagan than he can help. John Silver will use pistols, and supposedly a sword one day, though John is still skeptical about that .
“All right,” he says at last. “What’s the target?”
Chapter 2: Rushing Headlong In The Wind
In which everyone goes back to Nassau and the war begins picking up.
They relocate to Nassau proper a week after the shooting practice. It’s Miranda’s idea - she tells James flat-out that if she doesn’t start to integrate herself with the crew, they’ll never really be accepting of her presence. Silver, grimacing, agrees, saying that he’s got to start his new job sometime (they all know he means learn to tolerate the way people will stare at his stump, learn to deal with his own limitations). For now, that means she and Silver spend a great deal of time with Billy, learning the ins and outs of the Walrus’ crew and books.
Meanwhile, James and Mona have to deal with the council.
They’ve never had much to do with Jack Rackham and his mongoose daemon Caelia before facing them over the Urca gold. Rackham had always been Vane’s quartermaster; Hal and Igraine had been the usual point of contact on the rare occasions the Walrus and Ranger crews had made attempts to work together. But now Rackham’s a captain in his own right, with as much place on a council as anyone.
He’s fucking irritating. He talks more than Silver, if that’s even possible; half of it’s inane and half is him trying to sound more cultured than he is. But he’s not stupid, James will give him that, and he seems sincere enough about wanting to get the fort repaired. He assumes there must be something to the man, because no one gets loyalty like Anne Bonny has to him without somehow earning it. James will admit he turns out to have some surprisingly clever ideas when the talk turns to strategy.
Vane is still Vane, even if he annoys James less than he used to do. An excellent tactician and a terrible strategist, because Vane is a man who thinks in the moment. If he has any sense of long-term plans, it’s not showing in their discussions.
If James didn't know better, he'd think Rackham and Vane had settled all their unfinished business. They fake it well.
Their daemons, on the other hand…
During their first meeting, a few days after they all returned to Nassau, the jaguar paces behind Vane’s chair while the mongoose stays on Rackham’s shoulder. James’ mind isn’t really on the discussion, he’s thinking about Miranda and the odd distance between her and Arete these days, he’s thinking about Silver trying to curl up and die.
It’s Mona who notices that the mongoose is watching the jaguar almost fixedly.
Two meetings in, and the mongoose is sitting on Rackham’s leg, while the jaguar is standing by Vane’s chair. Halfway through, the mongoose reaches out to pet the lashing tail which is the only part she can reach, and the jaguar goes completely still. Neither Vane nor Rackham seem to be aware of the situation, though James is certain that’s a pretense.
He is forcibly reminded of the first time Arete twined around Mona’s legs, the first time Eucleia landed on Mona’s back and preened her fur. Long before either Hamilton had taken him to bed, their daemons had begun to reach out.
After that, Caelia spends the meetings curled against Tani’s side or sitting on her back. One memorable time, she tried to get a better look at the map they’d had spread out on the table by climbing up to sit on Tani’s head.
It’s none of James’ business, not at all, but watching two grown men try to pretend their daemons aren’t flirting like a pair of coquettes is certainly amusing.
Silver, meanwhile, contrary to prior behavior, seems to have decided to be as unamusing as possible.
James and Miranda have taken a set of rooms over one of the businesses whose owner sold his interest to the brothel madam. James is vaguely aware that she now holds much of the commercial interest Eleanor had in the town, but that’s not something that has much to do with him. Silver isn’t technically living with them anymore. He is, however, renting another ground-floor room out of the building next door.
James would go to him, to discuss their plans, but Silver is stubborn, which is why one day he hears heavy thumps on the stairs, and a few muffled curses. He opens the door with Mona at his heels to find Silver slumped against the wall, gritting his teeth against obvious pain, but there’s no crutch because -
“You absolute idiot, what the fuck are you trying to do?” James snarls, catching Silver up under the armpits and bodily hauling him into the apartment, the iron peg leg dangling heavy as an anchor. He deposits him in a chair, Silver looking up with startled eyes.
“Practice, Captain. It’s only a short walk from my room to here, and it seemed the best way to test myself now that I can manage circuits of my room.”
“You shouldn’t even be on that yet,” James snaps, Mona growling low.
Irial huffs. “I tried to tell him.”
Silver glares at them all. “Look,” he says in the strained voice of someone trying to be reasonable when he thinks everyone else is being dense. (James knows such a voice well, given how many times it’s come out of his own mouth.) “Look, the crutches aren’t going to be worth shit on the ship. Even the one crutch I’m down to won’t be good enough. I have to move as fast as is still possible, which means I need the peg.”
“What you have to do is heal properly, or you never will!”
“Why, Captain, I didn’t know you cared.”
Suddenly, James remembers that this is the man who stole the Urca from him, even if his daemon then gave it back. “I need a quartermaster, not an invalid,” he says coldly, Mona looking at him in surprise. Irial goes stiff and Silver’s face goes empty, blank.
They don’t discuss anything but potential targets after that.
Having an unsettled daemon has always been one of the things that’s made John such a good con artist. Irial can take any shape to fit any persona they choose to develop, and the usual giveaways inherent in a daemon’s form can’t hurt them.
Until now. “You aren’t settled, and now everyone knows it, so what’s this about?” John asks Irial. She’s been cycling between two forms lately. The jackal during the day, and to sleep at night an exotic cat John saw for sale once called a clouded leopard. But only those two shapes, as if she can’t turn into anything else.
“I like them,” Irial says flatly. “Even more than the fox shapes, or other cats. I can still change -” she turns briefly into a hawk to demonstrate “- but I don’t really want to. It’s harder now, but these two forms I can flick between as easily as ever. Though the jackal needs adjusting yet…” she adds as she turns back into a jackal.
The change from jackal to hawk had been slow, alarmingly so; Irial has never had such a problem before, and as far as John knows none of her current behavior is common. Most daemons just… settle. Yes, they often show a marked preference for certain kinds of forms as their humans grow up, but he’s never heard of it happening like this. Then again, he and Irial are the only pair he knows of unsettled at thirty-one.
If she is settling, well, John will regret the loss of an advantage. But he knows she wants to settle, so he’s not as upset about it as he would be anything else. Also, given his recent loss of the advantage of two legs, his daemon’s slowing transformative powers barely seem worth a fuss. “Adjusting how, exactly?”
“I’m not sure of the color,” Iri says with a sigh. “If this is going to work, us as quartermaster, well… we can’t risk pity, can we? People are going to stare, so we need to look like surviving this just made us tougher, harder.”
She isn’t wrong - it’s why John is growing his hair and beard out, it’s why he’s scrounged up new clothing for himself, jacket and heavy leather belt, a solid boot for his remaining leg, even more bits of jewelry. He’s even wearing his rosary now, tucked under his shirt so all anyone sees are the black beads around his neck. And if he’s modeling himself at least a little on Flint, well.
He doesn’t think it’s blatant enough for anyone to notice. Irial, on the other hand…
John looks up to find that his daemon’s pelt is now jet-black, and she looks almost like Mona in miniature, though lacking that indefinable something that makes it impossible to be sure if Mona is a dog or a wolf. “No. Absolutely not,” he says flatly, and Irial huffs but her fur ripples again, the color gradually lightening.
“Shall I go with silver then?” she asks, ears twitching with her amusement, and John huffs a soft laugh.
In the end, the coloring she picks is almost designed to match the cat form she sleeps as. Most of her fur is a soft grey, shading to grey-brown on her back and ears. She looks up at him with eyes the same amber as Mona’s, though, and he doesn’t know how to object to that.
It’s hardly the first time they’ve designed her form like this. Lizzie was the first one to think about it, when they’d been in Dublin, and her Oberon could do things like give himself a duck’s waterproof feathers when he was in the shape of a hawk. John and Irial have never been that good, but Iri’s often had fun with color variants like this.
Often, the right shape and the right color for his daemon has been the thing that kept John alive under whatever name he’d happened to have at the moment.
So there’s no reason for it to feel different as he watches Irial shift on her paws, rolling her shoulders and growing just a little bigger, a tad oversized for her shape. No reason at all, and yet -
Until now, she has slipped forms and he has cast aside names with careless ease, the two of them entirely fluid, completely adaptable. But now Iri can barely shift and John has a new title and a missing leg. They’re tied down here, they’re becoming solid in a way they haven’t been since they were thirteen, and he -
The only thing that frightens him more than the simple fact of this is that a part of him isn’t scared at all, is in fact more fiercely happy with it all the time.
“What if we lose this too?” John asks without meaning to, his thoughts an ocean away, on a different island, a night eighteen years in the past yet never really over. “Iri, if we get attached and we lose -”
“We’ll just have to try not to. Anywhere else, your leg would be the only thing that matters. Here, people like us, they trust us. We’re not thirteen anymore, we’ll just have to fight for it if we have to.”
That, John thinks, is easier said than done, but Iri’s right, too. There really isn’t a better option at this point. “We could leave,” he says weakly as they make their way out of the room they’re renting. They both know that won’t be happening at this point, but he says it anyway. Maybe because he still needs to believe he can run if he has to.
After the incident with the peg on Flint’s stairs, John’s given in for the moment. The fall he took reopened the wound and Howell said in no uncertain terms that wearing the iron leg again before it heals over will cause a probably fatal infection. John was going to risk it anyway, but Irial took to nipping at his hands every time he went to put the thing on until he gave up.
At least he’s down to a single crutch now.
He finds Flint and Miranda just outside of town, in a clearing mostly hidden behing a clump of palm trees. It’s the place where their fighting practice has moved to - it’s still Miranda alone doing the swordfighting, though John imagines he’ll be put to it any day now.
Today, by a bit of luck, he arrives without them noticing, caught up as they are in a practice bout. John watches them, even his untrained eye able to see that Miranda’s improving. Nearby but out of their humans’ way, Mona and Arete are curled together, their dark fur blending together so it’s hard to tell where one of them ends and another begins.
Suddenly, a sword goes flying - and it’sFlint’s. He and Miranda both look stunned, before Miranda starts laughing and after a moment, so does Flint. John doesn’t think he’s ever seen either of them laughing like that before, and it makes something in his chest go tight. As angry as he still is with Flint over the invalid comment, as little as he sees Miranda lately except when they meet with Billy, he likes seeing it, he -
Oh. Oh shit. Oh fuck.
He’s in even more trouble than he’d thought.
The thing that’s most surprising about the first time she kills a man (the first time it is she who deals the blow, and not Arete) is how messy it is.
For a moment Miranda just stares, freeing her sword instinctively as the man she’s just run through crumples to the deck. Then there’s someone else coming her way and she moves to block his blade, and the blood on her only matters because it makes her fingers slippery where they grasp her sword.
The second man drops and then a third, one she didn’t even see, and there is so much golden dust swirling in the air with the scent of blood as men fight and die, as their daemons dissolve. She looks, and finds John with a smoking pistol in hand, bracing himself against the hull to keep his balance. He gives her a grim twist of a smile and then the brief pause is over, and in truth the rest of it is a blur of motion until their opponents are all dead on the deck. Now Miranda is truly aware of the blood slicking her hands, the spray of it on her face and body. The strangeness of it as it cools, growing tacky on her skin.
She expects to feel ill. She thinks she should probably want to scream. But all there is, is a curious sort of numb calm, and then she’s back in the cabin she and James now share, without any clear memory of making her way there. Arete is beside her, frantically grooming himself, and Miranda has a wet rag in hand, already reddened by the blood she’s wiping off herself.
Miranda finishes cleaning herself as best she can while her hands start to shake, and when she’s done she flings the rag away, dropping to her knees and wrapping her arms around Arete, hiding her face in his fur as if she were still a child. It hurts still to touch him, the sharpness now dulled to a bone-deep ache, but in this moment she’s oddly grateful for it. It reminds her she can feel something.
Because thinking of the men she fought, she still doesn’t feel much. “We would be dead if not them,” Arete says in her ear, and that’s it really. There’s none of the bitter pleasure of James telling her Alfred was dead, none of the sense of justice that had come when Arete tore out Ismene’s throat, just that simple truth.
“I suppose we’re lucky it took three hunts before we had to fight, but James did say this one would be more dangerous,” Miranda says, sitting back but still stroking her daemon’s soft fur. It hurts but there’s still nothing more settling than petting your own daemon. By the time James and Mona find them, Miranda and Arete have left the cabin and are down in the hold with John, Billy, and their daemons, going through the haul. Miranda writes in her ledger even more carefully than usual, because there’s still a tremor to her fingers. If Billy or John notices, they say nothing.
John and Billy also get out of the hold quickly once James arrives. “Are you all right?” he asks, studying her like he expects to see her more upset. “You were good out there, but I couldn’t find you after. I was worried about you.”
“How did you feel, the first battle you were in?” Miranda asks instead of answering, because she’s not quite sure she can explain it anyway.
“Fucking terrified,” James says honestly, sitting on a crate. “You -”
“I wish it was so simple a word. It’s… you enjoy it now, at least sometimes, don’t you?”
James looks down, fiddling with his rings. Miranda notices that he doesn’t touch Thomas’ signet, and wonders why. “Sometimes, yes,” he admits. “Not always. Sometimes it just is, sometimes I lose myself in it at the time and after I’m disgusted. But, yes, sometimes I do simply enjoy it. Or enjoy the rush of being the victor. I’m not certain there’s much difference.”
Now he does look up. “But if you don’t enjoy it, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Far from it.”
“I didn’t seem to feel much of anything at all about it. It was a blur while it happened, and after… If it wasn’t my blade through them it would have been theirs through me. I didn’t expect it to feel so… matter-of-fact.”
“It’s… normal, to feel like that. You can still change your mind, if you -”
“No. No. It was bad enough to imagine what you might face, what might take you from me. Now that I’ve seen it? No, James. It would be even worse, now. Could you do it?”
“No,” James says. “No, I couldn’t.”
“Well then. Let’s stop having this debate once and for all, shall we?”
James doesn’t answer, but Mona does. Not in words, not even by cuddling Arete as she’s gone back to doing with increasing regularity lately. She comes to stand by Miranda, and when Miranda doesn’t edge away, she carefully lays her head in Miranda’s lap. Arete, for his part, silently goes to James and leans against his leg, so that they are both touching each other’s daemons for the first time in years. It should feel invasive after so long, or at least strange, but it feels like coming home, it feels like the haven they thought lost is only battered, not broken, and had been waiting all this time.
It’s after the third hunt, the first that turned into a fight, that the rumors really begin to spread. That Nassau is not only ignoring England but outright rejecting it. John, not being as easily overlooked now that his fucking stump practically announces who he is - Iri says the curls also have something to do with it, their men are such damn gossips and the men’s daemons are worse - isn’t involved like he was when he was winning support for Flint over Hornigold. But, as already noted, the Walrus is full of absolute gossips and that includes the handful of Vane’s men who didn’t actively involve themselves in the late quartermaster’s scheme, which means the tale of Charles Town was all over the island before John was able to walk the length of Miranda’s house on crutches.
But that still didn’t immediately translate to the whisperers knowing how much things had changed. That took their third hunt, the one where the fight spread to the Walrus, because their target had been a pirate hunter. Specifically, one whose captain had declared he’d be the one to take down Captain Flint, right after Charles Town.
Which ended with said captain feeding the fishes, or so John heard one very drunk crewmember declaring in a Tortuga tavern when they stopped there on the way back to Nassau.
That part was John’s idea. “You took this ship so people would start to take this seriously,” he’d told Flint, “and the survivors will help that, sure, but we need the word to go out too. You let your reputation as Flint grow naturally, with each hunt, but we can’t afford that now. We go to Tortuga, it’s not all pirates there, some of it’s just tax dodgers, it was the closest port in an emergency, so on and so forth. Let the men wander and brag there, it’ll spread.” People always talk, he thinks, and remembers a door crashing open in a Belfast tavern. Someone always talks, and there are ways to make use of that.
And it works. The word goes out: pirate hunters will see Flint’s ship bearing down on them. Harbor towns that hang pirates will see Flint’s colors in their waters, his men on their docks, in their streets.
So, really, John probably shouldn’t be surprised that even Conor knows about the new plans, but he is. Maybe it’s just Conor seeking him out, at his rented room, that unnerves him so.
He hobbles to the door when he hears a knock, opening it to find Conor and Edana on the other side. “Can we come in?” Conor asks, his eyes darting to John’s leg, Edana staring at Irial’s new form in open shock. Irial growls low, but John only sighs.
“Why the hell not?” he grumbles, and waves them in. He drops onto his cot, while Conor settles in the room’s one spindly chair. They can’t stop staring, and Irial snarls, which at least makes Edana look away and take to frantically grooming herself. “What do you want, Conor?” John asks when the silence grows too heavy.
“I - you said you were going to leave.”
“I said a lot of things. Plans change. What do you want?”
“Can I ask why your plans changed?” Conor asks, and there’s a strange look in his eyes, something almost like hope, and John -
What is he supposed to do with this? He’s tired of being haunted by that night eighteen years ago, that night and what came after. He tries again and again to tell himself the past is gone, it’s irrelevant, but there’s always another nightmare to prove him wrong, and now there’s Conor, living proof that the past won’t allow itself to be forgotten. He wants to let it go, but if letting it go means forgiving the man in front of him, he doesn’t know if he’s capable of that.
He thinks, suddenly, of Flint and Miranda, and how little he knows of the betrayals that sent them here. That there were betrayals he doesn’t doubt - a highborn lady and a man with Navy-trained behavior don’t end up in a place like this without someone stabbing them in the back - but what would they do, in his shoes?
“I lost my leg, for loyalty to my crew,” he says finally. “They voted me quartermaster for it, and anywhere else I’d be an invalid. So staying seemed like the right choice.” It’s true but it’s not all the truth, and though John was kind enough not to tell Conor, I was loyal because I wanted to be a better brother than you ever were, he still sees Edana’s ears droop.
What do you want from me?! he wants to scream, but he doesn’t. “Conor, why are you here?”
“I heard you were hurt,” Conor says, accent thicker than ever with emotion that John refuses to try and identify. “I wanted to make sure you were all right. But also… Your captain is planning a rebellion, isn’t he?”
“Come to warn me off repeating history?” John asks, a bitter smile twisting his lips as his own accent shifts to match Conor’s. With only that question, it’s almost as if the two of them are no longer in a shabby room on Nassau but in equally shabby rooms over a tavern in Belfast, listening to their uncle and father talk by the hearth. It’s almost as if Sibeal and Mairin are shades beside them, as they had been solid and real then.
It isn’t fair. John came to the New World to forget, in hopes that the past could finally be as irrelevant as he has tried to make it. But now here is Conor, ensuring that will never happen.
“It’s different here,” he says, trying to pretend he isn’t remembering Ireland, even as he speaks of Nassau. “England never had a strong hold on New Providence Island, and the pirates do. I can’t see why you’d care, though.”
“If we’re repeating history, may we have better luck this time,” Conor says. “I’d be too much of a hypocrite if I gave you such a warning. But your captain, has he considered reaching out to the rest of the island?”
“The colonists? I’m sure we’ll have to find accord with them eventually, but it hasn’t come up yet.” This is not strictly speaking true - Miranda’s mentioned it once or twice, and Rackham thinks she should talk to Max about long-term plans regarding the colonists and how to come to some arrangement. But John sees no reason to tell his brother everything.
“That’s not exactly what I meant. You do remember that I said the farm I’m bound to is a penal farm, right?”
“Yes, but -” Oh. Oh, isn’t that potentially interesting. “What, are you planning a rebellion of your own?”
“My friend is the driving force behind it. His name’s Christopher McGraw, I’ve known him for years. We were at the main plantation outside Savannah together, before being moved out to this one. They’re run by cousins, you see. They have some idea that criminals can be redeemed by hard work. Anyway, Christopher’s had this scheme to topple the plantation owners for a while now. Half of it’s ridiculous, or it was in Savannah, but here… Here it might work.”
“Well, if you were hoping for certainty, I haven’t got any.”
“Truthfully, Conor, I don’t think we have any plans to cause trouble here on the island. Unless, of course, you don’t think Tyrell is likely to cooperate with an independent Nassau.” They could always choose to make an example of one plantation, if need be, after all.
“I don’t know what he’ll do. But you can’t help us?”
John shrugs. “I don’t know. We haven’t discussed the future of the island beyond it not being controlled by England or Spain or anyone else. But we’ll need farms and goods the same as anyone else. I truly don’t know, and that’s all I can say to you right now. But I’ll talk to Flint and Mrs. Barlow, see what they have to say on the matter, all right?”
Conor storms out without another word, and John rolls his eyes. “That went well,” he tells Irial, and he’s just about to take off his leg, give his stump a rest, when someone bangs on the door, hard.
Probably Conor again. Wonderful.
James doesn’t recognize the man who storms out of Silver’s rented room, a lynx daemon at his side. He’s dressed in the rough clothes of a laborer, and James watches him cross the road and climb into a farmer’s cart. A farmhand then. What the fuck is Silver getting visits from a farmhand for?
“The brothel doesn’t have any men,” Mona says, “But I don’t think that’s it.”
“I don’t care if he bought a whore, male or female,” James snaps, though there’s an inexplicable twist in his gut at the thought that he ignores. “I care if he’s making another deal to screw us over.”
“James, I don’t think -”
But James is ignoring his daemon and storming toward Silver’s door, banging on it. Inside, he hears Silver call, “What the fuck, Conor, I said I -”
James storms past him the moment the door opens, almost knocking Silver over in the process. He isn’t about to apologize, though. “Who was your friend, and why was he here?”
“What the - are you spying on me now, Captain?”
“Are you honestly going to try and claim I have no reason to?” James doesn’t remember deciding to crowd Silver up against his pitiful excuse for a table, but that’s what’s happened, the two of them glaring at each other with almost no space between them. Furious as he is, James is suddenly all too aware of their closeness, aware of Silver giving off too much warmth, his breathing harsh and eyes blazing in anger.
“If you think I’m sharpening the knife to put in your back, why the fuck didn’t you smother me while I was still unconscious in your damned cabin? Why did you make me live again?” Silver demands.
The words are enough for James to be able to picture what it would have been like if he had, because he knows how even an unconscious man would have - and no. No. He can’t say why the fury turns to sickness in his stomach at the way Silver throws this at him like a challenge, like he thinks it would be simple for James to have killed him. He only knows that it does, and that it makes him even angrier once he’s sure he won’t be sick.
“You did it already, didn’t you?” he says, the words half a hiss. “Or have you forgotten selling the gold to Jack Rackham?”
“I gave it back -”
“Your daemon told us, because you got hurt and changed your mind.”
“I ‘got hurt’ - you fucking bastard. Don’t you dare act like I had no reason. I was up front with you, Flint. I told you we would work together as long as our interests aligned, and that if they didn’t, I’d cross you to serve myself. I told you that.”
“What the fuck has that to do with anything? You stole the gold we were supposedly going to claim
“You didn’t want it anymore! You wanted to go to Charles Town and return Abigail Ashe and make your little peace treaty with the governor. So yes. I made a move to still get the gold, and I stuck around to help you get what you wanted too.”
“Oh, is that why you did it, or were you just enjoying pulling one over on me while you swanned around right under my nose?”
“I seem to recall you practically begging me to stay, Captain. I don’t think this is really about what I did. I think it’s about the fact that I was able to do it,” Silver says.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” James asks, some of his anger fading into confusion. Silver’s accusing him of something, that much is clear from the tone of his voice, but what? He steps back a little from the younger man, trying to clear his head. Something about being so close makes it hard to focus, too aware even in his fury of Silver’s harsh breathing, the warmth coming off him.
“It means that you love to talk about the crew like none of them can keep up with you, like most of them aren’t as smart as you. And you know what, maybe that’s true. But I had you. Completely. If Irial hadn’t told you what we did, you wouldn’t have figured it out till you got back to Nassau to find Rackham had the gold.”
“Are you trying to prove how I shouldn’t trust you?” James scoffs.
“No. Because I stayed. I turned back. You don’t have to trust me but you can’t deny that I had every opportunity to leave, and I stayed. What I’m saying is, that you can act like no one on the crew but Miranda can keep up with you, but don’t you let yourself believe I fit that description. We would be far better working together than fighting, and if I need to earn trust I never had from you, fine, but trust needs to be earned on both sides, Flint.”
“I didn’t lie to you,” James says. “That was all in your head.”
“Was it? Can you honestly tell me with complete certainty that if I’d gone to you with the truth, that the gold was unattended and ours for the taking, that you would have gone for it instead of sticking to the Charles Town plan?”
James’ instinct is to say that of course he would have gone for the gold, and yet… Mona butts her head against his hand, encouraging him to be honest. “I don’t know. It was a conflict, one I was trying to resolve. Your move interrupted that. I don’t know what conclusions I would have come to, if I’d known what really happened.” He’s thought about it, a little. He’d been committed to the Charles Town plan by then, but with the Spanish gone and the gold so easily collected, he might have postponed going there, gotten the gold first.
For all James knows, that could have resulted in Ashe might have used his power as governor to come to Nassau and take his daughter back. There really is no way to know, now.
Silver nods, studying James for a long moment, before glancing at his daemon. Irial cocks her head, and that must be some kind of signal between them. “His name is Conor,” Silver says, and Irial crosses over to her human, nudging at his thigh until he drops into the rickety chair by the table. Honestly, couldn’t the man have found a sturdier place to live?
Silver curls his fingers in his daemon’s ruff, as if needing the anchor. Mona is a soothing weight against James’ leg, so he can relate. “We knew him years ago,” Silver explains, “He works on one of the plantations inland, it’s a penal farm rather than running on slave labor. They want to overthrow the owner, wanted to know if we’d help.”
“Why would we do that?” Mona asks blankly. “And why would he ask you?”
“Like I said, he knows us,” Silver says, sounding tired. Tired, and… something else. His voice is different, a hint of some other accent in it. Irish, James thinks, but something else too. “It was a long time ago, but in his place I’d probably reach out to anyone I could.”
“How did you know him?” James asks.
“I’d rather not go into that right now. Suffice to say the history is long and uncomfortable, but neither of us were grown men at the time, and I’m trying to be an adult about it all now. If it’s any comfort to you, I have more reason to trust you than I do him, so he’s not someone I’d choose over you if it came to it.”
Given their mutual history, James can’t help but find that a bit alarming - for Silver’s sake if not for his. If they weren’t ‘grown men’, if they were still children then, what could this Conor possibly have done that makes him less trustworthy than James? He might never know, James realizes, and he tells himself he shouldn’t care. Fiddling with the signet ring on his pinky finger, he says, “All right. But Silver, if we are to move forward from here, I need to know why you stayed. You said yourself, you could have left anytime.”
“I thought you might ask that. Anywhere else in the world I’d be an invalid. You all but predicted it when you said where else would I wake up and matter? So, yeah, I stayed. And before you ask, as for Iri confessing… She was against the scheme the whole time, actually, as much as a daemon can be against their human. So she took the first chance she had to undo it.” Silver pauses, fingers brushing over that odd gold mark on Irial’s side. “Why did you and Mona want to make sure I didn’t die? If it was by my own hand, it wouldn’t cause trouble for you with the crew. Billy’s willing to work with you, and he’d likely have been the new quartermaster.”
Silver looks up at him then, and the only thing James can see in those clear blue eyes is curiosity. Curiosity, like it doesn’t matter that he’s talking about his own possible suicide. James could say that Silver was in his house, he didn’t want to deal with the body, didn’t want Miranda to deal with the body. He could say that the crew would probably have thought James killed him anyway. He could say that Billy is inevitably going to remember why he began to turn last time, is going to remember Gates, and when that day comes James will no longer have him as an ally. If Billy is quartermaster when that day comes, he will not have a crew for long either.
They forgave him for Gates because he could still do the job of captain better than any of them, and he proved it. But they won’t forgive him for Billy - or Silver, he suspects, if it ever came to that - for any reason.
He could say any of those things, and he wouldn’t have to admit that the thought of finding Silver dead by his own hand makes something in James run cold. Yet somehow the words don’t come, and then a knock on the door ensures that the words won’t come.
It’s Billy, Morgaine bristling at his side. “Word just came of pirates hanged in Martinique. If anyone’s going to take that threat seriously, we need to get ready to sail.”
James isn’t sure if he’s angry or relieved at the interruption, and either way it doesn’t matter, because Billy is right. They have a job to do now.
“How far does your captain intend to push this?”
Miranda leans back a little in her chair, surveying the woman across from her. Max is roughly of an age with Eleanor Guthrie, whose role she has all but taken over - in fact, the office where they sit used to be Eleanor’s. They’re both damned young to be all but queens, especially in a place like this.
The old queen is in prison, long live the new queen, Miranda thinks. “It’s been clear from the beginning that our goal is an independent Nassau,” she says mildly, one hand resting on Arete’s head. It barely hurts now, less every day.
Max’s daemon is a tiny spotted wildcat that sits on her shoulder, and he should look harmless, but something about the way those yellow eyes catch the light give the lie to that impression. Even tamed cats are efficient, deadly hunters, that’s why people keep them as mousers, and whatever that cat is, he is not tame.
He’s just far more subtle than Eleanor’s jaguar had been.
“That is not the question,” Max says. “It was understood that there would be fighting to make the point. That is not my concern until and unless it comes to the island, that was also understood. But Captain Flint has now raided five ports for pirate killing. I don’t care if he does, as a rule. If people are afraid of him, they may leave Nassau alone. What concerns me is his timing. He is provoking people before this island’s defenses are prepared, in the event that someone decides the solution is to attack Nassau.”
Miranda raises an eyebrow, stroking a hand down Arete’s neck. It’s almost like being back in London. “The defense of Nassau - the fort, especially - is supposed to be the main concern of Captain Rackham, is it not? And aren’t you closely aligned with him?”
“I am taking care of that situation. Even so, it is a risk to draw too much attention to Nassau before the fort is repaired. I was fortunate enough not to be on Nassau when the Spanish raided, but I have heard many stories. Eleanor Guthrie lost her mother to them, and Mr. Scott his wife and young daughter, to name just two. And we have their gold, which is a very good reason for the Spanish to return. Not to mention whatever the English may intend.”
Miranda rather likes Mr. Scott. He’d chosen to leave James’ crew shortly after joining it, when John had been voted in as quartermaster. Being back on land to help run things seemed to suit him, and James was of the opinion that he was responsible for a significant portion of both Guthries’ success. Perhaps now he could get some credit for his efforts. “I’m aware of what happened here when the Spanish came. But there is no stopping this now. The stories have spread, which leaves us with only one option. Make them afraid to try an attack.”
Max’s eyes narrow. “In that case, you had best hope it works. We all need to hope so. Now, you said that you had some ideas of who among the settlers in the interior might be open to business arrangements?”
After the meeting, Miranda goes back to her and James’ rooms to find him with John, their heads bent over a map. Mona is curled around Irial, gently nuzzling her ears. Arete lopes over to join them, easy and relaxed. John steps away as Miranda comes over to join them, though it’s not because of it. She can tell by the way he notices her a moment later, as he digs around in a bag by his chair for something. “Oh! How did the talk with Max go?”
Miranda shrugs, slipping out of the jacket she’s taken to wearing, a short knitted jacket with leather sleeves. She had dresses that she’d worn in the countryside or to travel, made of sturdier cloth than the silks and velvets and satins of her London clothes, but still not ideal for the farm - that could be cut up and refashioned as shirts and trousers, but they didn’t exactly match the look of the men. The jacket she’d found before they’d left the warship, and it helped. John had laughed the first time he’d seen her in it, because apparently he’d worn it when he and James first took the warship.
Miranda had considered setting it aside then, but the look in John’s eyes when the amusement had faded changed her mind. He looked very like James had when she’d appeared in a blue shirt and black trousers made from old dresses left in her trunk - the way he’d looked at her when he was a lieutenant and she was a lady, the looks that had guided her to show up at his door one day.
So, she’s kept it.
Now, she crosses over to where James is still poring over the map. “Well enough,” she says lightly. “There are a few settlers we might approach to set up mutually beneficial agreements with, but it’s all hypothetical at this stage. Oh, she thinks we’re moving too fast with the attacks on harbor towns.”
James snorts, and rather than drag over another chair, Miranda settles on the arm of his. That gets her a raised eyebrow, and she smiles back innocently. I know you’re up to something, his expression says. But out loud, he says, “What does she expect, that we’ll just wait?”
“She wants us to wait for the fort to be repaired, yes.”
“There’s no word that anyone is targeting us yet,” John says. “Anyway, that's on Rackham, can't she and Bonny get him to focus on his job? Not that it's surprising, I hear the crews are raising their price every week.” John looks up then – and goes still, looking at Miranda and James, who looks back at his maps unaware.
But Miranda's watching, and sees the look on John's face; an almost wistful longing, but then he realizes she's watching and his eyes flash, his expression goes blank. He's caught, and he knows it – but he also knows she was trying to catch him.
“What was that about?” James asks after John's gone for the night.
“What are you talking about?” Miranda asks, letting a smile play across her lips. It feels good, in the middle of so much that has changed, to find something familiar. Almost too familiar, because she can recall a conversation not so very unlike this ten years ago, when James was the subject of said discussion rather than the person she's talking to, yet there is something good in that as well. Something that tells Miranda that although she has spent ten years as a Puritan farmwoman, although she is now a budding pirate with blood on her hands, some part of her is at least familiar.
“Miranda. You don't sit on my chair, that was a show. Reminded me a lot of you trying not to look disapproving of a poor lieutenant's chilly rooms in a rough part of London, inviting him to play escort for a day. So what were you playing at?”
“He's interested. In both of us. I thought so, but I admit I was trying to confirm it. Now I'm more certain, as much as I can be without a direct confession from him.”
“If you want him as a lover, you know I'd not stop you, but that could be a mess later if it ends badly, we all have to be on a ship together.”
“If I did take him to bed, who would you be more jealous of?”
“I don't know what you're talking about.” James asks, and she knows he mostly means that, but the flush creeping up his neck tells her he only means it because he hasn't let himself consider things he really should.
“Of course you don't,” Miranda agrees mildly, Arete chirping his amusement. Mona huffs, even as James twists the signet ring on his little finger.
“Miranda – ”
“We like them,” Mona says before her human can. “More than we should, perhaps, but there's no reason to think they'd be interested in such a proposition even if we wanted to make it. And James and I... it's hard enough to know we can't protect you and Arete anymore. John and Irial would just be someone else we can't protect, if we let ourselves care as much as we could.”
“That's just foolish,” Arete says. “If we care, it will hurt anyway. It will still mean someone else we could lose.”
“Don't we have enough to think about?” James asks, looking tired. Miranda leaves it at that, because he has a point, and because she has to think about this herself. She likes John well enough, and now that he's well again he's attractive – in spite of the beard he really needs to learn to trim – and to see that fire in his eyes had been a thrill.
It had felt strangely right, once they got used to each other, to have him at her house, the two of them healing together. And she's seen him with James, seen how their thoughts match so well. Miranda lies awake that night, James' arm around her waist, and wonders just how far this can go. Just how far she wants it to go.
It isn't until the next morning, when she feels the effects of not getting to sleep for hours, that she realizes James had been too quiet in the dark, that he probably didn't get any more sleep than she did. When she sees John that day, he looks as tired as she feels, but he avoids even catching her eye, and Irial keeps close to her human's side.
For two days, she lets him keep his distance. On the third day, she would have made some move, but word comes of another pirate hanging, and they're off again. Whatever move is next in this game, the Walrus mid-hunt is not the place to make it, so for now Miranda decides to bide her time.
They'll be back in Nassau soon enough. She can figure out how to handle her two men, one stubborn and one skittish, once they're back.
Chapter 3: Burning Both Ends of the Night
The trio gets their act together... and then the Walrus heads into a trap.
Why is this the final chapter, you may ask? Well, for my adaptation of season 3, I want to branch out in my POVs, and the cleanest way to do that seemed to be to end this particular story here.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The raid on Nevis is easy - the locals were arrogant, caught unawares. After, Miranda and John are settled in the storeroom to look over the updated ledgers, see what they still need. John keeps his head bent low over the book where before he’d have joked more, and Miranda finds that she has nothing to say to change the awkward quiet.
She doesn’t regret tweaking John. Not for a moment. She wanted to know, and now she does. But she does wish - she’s never begun this game with the stakes so high. Even James hadn’t seemed as important as he would turn out to be, not at first. Not the day she walked into Thomas’ study and set about teasing them both, or the day she appeared unannounced at James’ door.
But they are fighting a war now. If she handles this wrong, if these two stubborn men don’t learn to relax, their unity could crumble and that is a very real problem. So for now, she keeps her talk to business. Their daemons, meanwhile, curl together on the floor as if nothing has happened, the silvery color of Irial’s fur bright against Arete’s black.
Miranda’s gaze falls on them more than she means it to, and that’s why she notices. It must be the lantern light but next to Arete Irial looks somehow less solid. Not because she’s paler, but there’s something almost translucent about her fur where it’s ruffled enough to stick up and catch the light. But surely she would have noticed such a thing before, in the bright sunlit days outside the farmhouse. It’s a trick of the light in here, that’s all. That’s all it can be, and yet…
And yet it makes the back of her neck prickle, as if it were some kind of warning.
John sets aside the ledger and reaches down to pet his daemon. His fingers just miss brushing Arete’s ears, and Miranda stills, expecting her daemon to move. Arete doesn’t, and John pulls his hand away.
“Careful,” she says, voice low.
“Did Flint get that subtle threat tone from you, or you from him? I promise, I knew where my hand was,” John says, and his eyes are dark when he looks up, dark and glittering with something very like a challenge. “It’s the next move, isn’t it, playing with that taboo?”
“It’s not the one I would have made.” They are doing this now after all, it seems, and though she hadn’t predicted it exactly, Miranda doesn’t feel surprised. Only wary.
“No, the one you made was demonstrating to me just how fucked I am, wanting things I’m not allowed to want. And you knew it. So why would you do it, Miranda? Flint didn’t know, but you did. You watched for my reactions, did you get what you wanted?” There’s an edge of some other accent in John’s voice, that lilt she remembers from his delirium, but it’s the hurt that matters. He’s looking at her like he thinks she was taunting him, not testing the waters.
Wanting things I’m not allowed to want.
She thinks of James, who had cared more about being seen to follow the rules than actually following them - and then had ceased to care at all. She thinks even of Pastor Lambrick, coming by with weak excuses on his tongue. A need to explain, to hide, and yet still… There hadn’t been talk of not allowed .
Miranda wouldn’t have thought there was anything John Silver thought he couldn’t have, if he played his cards right. She wouldn’t have thought being allowed meant anything to him at all.
“Whoever said you weren’t allowed?”
“Don’t. Don’t - play with me. Not like this.”
He’s watching her, and despite the scruffy beard, the curls spilling past his shoulders now, for a moment John Silver looks almost impossibly young, a boy expecting a strike across the face but hoping he might get a hug instead. It’s even more disconcerting than when he’d said he wasn’t allowed.
“I’m not playing with you,” Miranda says, and Arete nuzzles Irial’s neck, gently like he does with Mona. John stops dead, looking between Miranda and their daemons still cuddled together as if nothing at all is wrong.
“Then what are you doing?”
“I was testing you. I needed to know if you were interested, John,” Miranda says, stepping closer. She and John are very nearly of a height - he is a bit taller than her but not by much. “ Allowed does not enter into this. Not here, not now. It’s only what we want that matters.”
He doesn’t believe her. Miranda can see that, and after a moment, she shakes her head. She isn’t going to force this issue, not further than she already has. And if he cannot trust her or James, then any attraction among them doesn’t matter. They need more than that. And so she turns to go.
But then rough fingers catch her wrist, curling loosely - a request that she stay, rather than a demand, for she could break his hold easily enough. Miranda half-turns back to John, who is looking at her with his eyes almost burning in his face.
“I don’t know what I want. I don’t - want . Like this. I never have, and now I don’t know… I’d almost believe the tales about you and Flint both, all the talk of spells and so on, except I know you too well for that, don’t I?” He looks at her, and his smile seems almost helpless.
Miranda turns fully back to face him, and with his hold on her wrist, the movement brings them very close indeed. She can see how he sways just a little on the iron leg he shouldn’t be wearing yet, and she’s put a hand on his side to steady him before she’s thought about the action.
“I don’t know the first thing about spells, whatever they’ve said of me,” she tells him. And if I did, that heat in your eyes would not be mingled with fear.
“I know that. And yet…”
She’ll never be certain, later, whether he moved or she did. The kiss is soft, uncertain, and it reminds her of being sixteen and kissing the stableboy in an empty stall, the first time she’d kissed anyone at all. Tentative and careful, and she pulls back just enough to find John looking startled, his eyes wide and so very blue. But there’s something like a smile playing over his lips too, and they’re pressed close enough now that she can feel the tension easing from his body, bit by bit.
“This is going to complicate things,” John says, that barely-there smile widening, turning wry.
He’s right, but Miranda laughs anyway. “If you think they weren’t already complicated, you haven’t been paying attention.”
Nothing else happens, of course. For one thing, the storeroom is a terrible place to get up to anything. For another, John was once chased naked out of a house in Amsterdam because he was caught in bed with a married woman. She was a businesswoman and John hadn’t actually known she was married - he’d charmed her into bed planning to get a look at her accounts while she was asleep - but the lesson he took from that particular incident was no using sex as part of the con when the target was elsewhere committed. He’d always assumed that if he ever wanted to take a lover simply because he wanted to, the same rule ought to apply.
(There had been that time in Toledo, of course, but he’s always felt the rule doesn’t count when all parties are involved.)
Iri says he looks for the humor in certain of the sexual incidents he’s found himself in because it’s easier than admitting that he usually wanted to bathe - or perhaps drown - in scalding hot water after. Choosing to have sex one does not want is not the same as being forced, they both know that better than they’d like, but there had still been something about it. Something that made his skin crawl even when the plan was a success. He almost expects it now, he’d almost thought that was simply how he reacted to such things.
He’s done nothing but kiss Miranda and think about kissing James, and it’s enough to set his blood sparking. He wants to reach out, to touch and be touched, and that’s new. He hadn’t lied, when he told Miranda he’d never felt this. There’d been something almost like it, in the chill of a Dublin night and the unsure press of Sol’s lips against his own, but they’d been too young, too unsure, for it to be the same. He remembers it now as a jolt, a there-and-gone flash, children clinging in the dark and unsure why they wanted to hold so tight.
This… It feels like it’s been lying dormant in him since he watched Flint take his ship back, since he met Miranda in the dark outside Eleanor’s tavern, and he doesn’t know what to do with it. Except, before doing anything with it, make sure that it really is there amongst all three of them. Which is how he finds himself on deck that night, Irial padding along at his side, to find Flint where he’s watching the dark water, arms braced on the rail. Next to him, Mona’s dark fur blends into the shadows until she looks half-formed of them.
She doesn’t look like a hellhound anymore, to John. She looks like a guardian, one not afraid to be of the darkness to fight off a threat. And what an odd, poetic thought that is, for him anyway. He crosses to Flint’s side, leans his back against the rail. “I’m told you won’t object, but you should probably know I kissed Miranda earlier.”
(Or did she kiss him? He’s not sure; it doesn’t matter for the purposes of the discussion.)
Flint looks sidelong at him, a faint smile on his lips. “You think she didn’t tell me first?”
“I’m not sure if I should have been more worried she didn’t, that you’d object, or that there’s more she could have told you.”
“You mean the part where she’s aiming to win you over for both of us?” Flint asks, and there’s a glint in his eyes that almost reminds John of how he’d looked that night, after winning the ship back from Dufresne. Only… not quite. “I knew that. Are you asking if it’s that I object to?”
“Tell me, Mr. Silver, what is it that you want?”
John laughs, he can’t help it. Iri, for her part, settles down next to Mona, who turns enough to curl around the smaller daemon, black fur against silvery-grey. “Your lady asked the same thing.”
“Should we not?”
John hasn’t a clue how to answer that. In his experience, no, not really. Even the people he’d bedded hadn’t seemed to be all that interested in what he wanted, which had suited him fine. It often meant he could get away with using his hands or mouth, and avoiding reciprocation he didn’t want. But he thinks - he’s almost certain - that none of the things he knows applies here, except maybe in terms of specific acts should things progress to a certain point.
“I don’t know,” John says, finally, reaching down to stroke between Irial’s ears. His fingers only just miss Mona’s fur, and he considers how easy it would be to just shift his fingers a little. As easy as it would have been with Arete, earlier.
He hasn’t touched another person’s daemon since Sibeal’s, when her daemon was named Irial and his was named Kevay. And that barely counted, for they had been one person, hadn’t they? It’s been too long, he’s not sure anymore. “I told Miranda that too,” he says, the words easier in the moonlight, somehow, with the ocean and ship sounds around them. “I suppose it depends on what the two of you want from me, as much as anything else.”
“Well,” Flint says, Mona curling tighter around Irial, nuzzling her ears. “That is the question, isn’t it.”
James will never be like Miranda, or like Thomas. Not in these things. He doesn’t have Miranda’s easy confidence that had brought her to his door in London, or the sheer nerve that it had taken Thomas (so Thomas had told him later) to kiss him that night. So he lets Silver leave him at the rail, and he doesn’t press in the days that follow. To his surprise, Miranda doesn’t either.
“There’s only so much we have time for, here,” she explains when he asks. “We’re all but running this ship as a triumvirate now. The last thing we need is to allow things to get too messy while we’re in such close space here on the ship. If he comes to us, yes, but I don’t want to push too fast.”
They go on a regular hunt, next, a minor target but still worth taking for crew morale if nothing else. It’s easy pickings, and it’s in taking that ship that they hear of yet another magistrate by the name of Hazzard, who despite all warnings, despite all the subsequent attacks, still hanged three pirates. “We’re running a little low on supplies,” Silver says when he, James, and Miranda are alone in the cabin. Billy’s the one who made the report, but he didn’t stay. Irial paces as much as the room allows, probably venting frustration so that her human can remain calm.
“That’s so, but can we afford the delay to reload, when it might make us look weakened?” Miranda asks, stroking Arete’s back. “We have enough, I should think?”
“It doesn’t matter,” James says flatly. “This Hazzard defied us. He can’t be allowed to do that, and Miranda’s right. A delay in retribution will blunt the force of it, and that cannot be permitted. “We’ll take what we can from the town, and then return immediately to Nassau. We have enough for the attack, and enough to get back after.” He is certain of this. They only came upon this information by chance, it’s already a little stale, and further delay is unacceptable. The last thing he needs is for this Hazzard to seem to be an example of escaping retribution - even if they do hit his town in the end, if there’s been enough time, other magistrates will start hanging pirates again.
If they’re given time to get comfortable, James knows they may never regain the advantage they currently have. “Our only advantage is in the fear we can spread. Give them time to calm down, we lose that.”
He hasn’t said it aloud to anyone, not even Miranda, not even Mona , but James knows they are working on borrowed time. The aftershocks of Charles Town and the recent attacks will not last forever. Eventually, England will send someone. Perhaps a new governor, perhaps a Naval presence. Regardless, he needs whoever they send to have as little to work with as possible, and the only way to ensure that is to keep pushing.
The only thing he can’t plan for is the possibility of Spain getting there first, but if Rackham can get the damned fort fixed, that will be far less of a concern. If it takes Spain long enough, there might even be a way to turn the two forces against each other, but that’s the kind of thing James knows he won’t be able to plan for unless and until an opportunity presents itself.
So it’s all straightforward, if not exactly simple.
The colonial regulars are an inconvenience, and one James knew would come along sooner or later. As far as he’s concerned, their presence just means success - it means they’re afraid, as they should be. He’s more troubled by the magistrate, by how he’d stood by a belief that being righteous would save him.
“I also know that most of those other magistrates you visited, they were corrupt men, dishonest men. I wagered that despite all I'd heard about you, your mercilessness, your cruelty, that you could tell the difference. That you could see I was an honest man.”
There had been a moment when he hadn’t seen the magistrate, when he’d seen blue eyes and fair hair in the dark, because it had sounded like something Thomas would have said and -
It doesn’t matter, James tells himself as he and Mona make their way back to the ship. What matters is seeing to it that his men can handle this new level of threat, and one of them clearly can’t. So he tells Silver that Dobbs lost his nerve, he ignores Billy’s defense of the man.
“Replace him,” he says flatly, and walks away.
He supposes he should expect it when, only minutes after he’s returned to the cabin, his door opens. He assumes it will be Miranda, until he turns and finds himself face to face with a furious John Silver. “Don’t you have duties, quartermaster?”
“Nothing that can’t wait. I will speak to Dobbs in the morning, tell him he’s too valuable in the rigging to risk in harm’s way. With that in hand, there’s another replacement on the vanguard I’d like to discuss.”
“And it can’t wait until the morning like Dobbs apparently can?” James asks heavily, choosing not to get up from the bed. He’d replaced his hanging cot with a bolted down bedframe after three separate incidents in which either he or Miranda had fallen out since she’d joined him on the Walrus .
“I don’t think it can, no. I’m talking about you.”
Mona growls and James’ eyes narrow; he notices suddenly that Irial, contrary to her usual habits these days, has stayed right at her human’s heels. “Is that so?” he asks lowly.
“I understand we faced colonial regulars out there tonight.”
“So?” James gets to his feet, though he doesn’t approach Silver yet where he leans against the desk. Mona has no such compunctions and Irial darts forward to meet her, looking as small next to Mona as she ever does, but like her human refusing to back down.
“These raids were difficult enough when the element of surprise was in our favor. But now that we seem to be losing that? Every time you go ashore, there is a risk you don't return, a risk Nassau loses its most recognizable figure and it’s a risk that would seem to be escalating. I am suggesting it's time we take you out of harm's way as well.”
“We're fighting a war to protect Nassau. A war in which our most effective weapon is the fear that we can instill in our enemies. We've succeeded in making Captain Flint the name of grim death to all of them. The only way that we can ensure that that story continues is if he is the one telling it,” James says, working to keep his voice low and even. God, why couldn’t he have started this in the morning, when James would have gotten some sleep, gotten the ghosts out of his head?
“That story is telling itself, and you know it. We've been assigned responsibility for raids we were nowhere near. Jesus, I've been given credit for having been a part of some of them. They are so terrified of you, they're terrified of me.”
“You think that's a reason we should relent?”
“Who the fuck said anything about relenting?” Silver shakes his head, and James can see his frustration, but it doesn’t sway him. “Look, I am talking about letting someone else stand in and play your role now and again.”
“Thank you for your concern, but I'll decide when it's time to start altering our tactics,” James says, turning away from Silver.
“No, I'll decide.” The flat challenge makes James turn back, in surprise as much as anything else. “This crew has spilled a great deal of blood to make your name what it is. It doesn't belong to you. It's a jointly held asset belonging to every man on this crew who sacrificed some part of himself to build it. They have a say about how it is managed, and I am the voice of it. It is clear to me that this raid was more dangerous than the last. They are adapting, and it is of some concern to me that you either cannot or will not acknowledge it.”
“I am well aware that things are changing,” James snaps, out of patience, as he stalks over to where John stands, crowding him back against the desk. It’s supposed to intimidate, so James is even more infuriated when John just glares right back at him, when he’s suddenly more aware of their closeness than his own temper. “They were supposed to change. It means they’re frightened, it means we are succeeding, and I will do nothing that will lessen that advantage.”
“For fuck’s sake, do you think they’ll know if it’s occasionally not you under the head wrap?!”
“There’s me,” Mona says, her voice rough with her growl, and Irial snarls with anger to match her human.
“In the dark, who’ll know if the giant hound is you or Morgaine?” Irial demands, and her voice carries a distinctive Irish accent as clearly as it does her anger.
“We cannot afford to lose you,” John says flatly. “And quite aside from that, I don’t want to have to see the look on Mir-”
“Don’t you fucking bring her into this,” James snarls the words, pushing Silver back into the desk. He hears the other man hiss, knows it’s probably the iron leg digging into his stump, and in this moment James doesn’t care. “Don’t you use her like that.”
“That’s not what I meant - for fuck’s sake, James, I’m trying to convince you - you won’t listen to me and I can’t watch you get killed for being fucking reckless, you bastard !” John practically screams it into his face, his own accent matching his daemon’s now as he twists against the hold James has on his arms. “Let me go, what the fuck?”
Mona pins Irial in a blur of black fur, but without the violence one might have thought from the argument going down. She does bite, but gently, teeth closing on Irial’s neck. Irial goes still, then suddenly relaxes with a sigh that seems more exasperated than anything, but still she relaxes. And John stills under James’ hands, still glaring but not fighting. “I’m not wrong,” he insists, voice low. “James. You know I’m not. We have to think carefully about this.”
“You have to trust me. And you don’t, do you?”
“I don’t… know how. And you won’t listen.”
“I’m listening, John.” James doesn’t exactly decide to thread his fingers into dark curls, it feels like it just happens, but John leans into his hand like it’s instinctive, and he doesn’t pull away. “But you need to listen too. They need me out there still, they’re not ready to handle new levels of danger without me. But I’m not going anywhere.”
He hasn’t got the right kind of confidence, the right kind of sheer nerve for times like this. But sometimes, you don’t need any of that. Not when your daemon has someone else’s relaxed and boneless under her, not already so close…
Still, James half expects John to shove him off, in spite of everything. He doesn’t expect to get kissed back with an almost wild sort of eagerness, doesn’t expect the fingers in his own hair pulling the tie loose, the quiet sound John makes low in his throat as he presses closer.
He also doesn’t expect Miranda’s bright laughter behind him, but that much at least isn’t a surprise.
Really, Miranda thinks later the next morning, she ought to have known something was going to go wrong, if only because everything had finally begun to go right. Not least of which was waking up a little squashed this morning because the bed James built isn’t really designed for three bodies.
Still, the fact that there are now three of them makes up for that.
It’s less comforting when less than a day has gone by and James and John are already at odds again. Truthfully, Miranda is inclined to agree with them both - James is right that they’re running short on time and supplies, and a delay could be problematic, to say the least. But John is also right - they’ve sold the idea of a united Nassau, and just leaving a distressed ship to its own devices weakens that story in a way they may not be able to afford.
“Can Irial investigate? If she were to shift a bird, could she fly over?” Miranda asks in an undertone. “That might be an acceptable compromise.”
John hesitates, but it’s Irial who says, “I don’t know if I can hold it. My shifting is - hard, now. If I fell… But if you think it -”
“No,” Arete snaps. “Absolutely not. Why haven’t you said anything? Mona told me about the tiger form you took on the warship, if you can’t do that now then those fighting lessons James wants to give John are all the more important.”
Neither of them has time to answer, though, because they come up alongside Hallendale’s ship and John snaps back to attention, giving orders to the men - which immediately become irrelevant as James jumps over the side. In this, at least, Miranda finds herself entirely in agreement with John’s exasperated huff and Irial’s equally frustrated growl.
“Is he trying to ignore everything I said last night about not risking himself all the time?”
Miranda thinks John meant those words for himself, or maybe for Irial, but she answers anyway. “Well, given the rest of last night, I don’t think your argument was the primary memory he took from it, no.”
“If I’d known he’d take it as reason to ignore me, maybe I’d have gone back to my own bed. Or hammock, rather,” John says, shaking his head. “Maybe you should talk to him about backing down occasionally?”
“I’m working on it,” Miranda murmurs back, gritting her teeth. She isn’t lying, actually - she just plans to wait to mention it until she has a successful argument in place. Simply telling James he needs to step back on occasion clearly won’t work, after all.
Everything seems to happen very quickly, after that. John is the one to spot something on the horizon, and Miranda jumps when he suddenly shouts for a glass, then as quickly as he can goes to the other side of the ship for a better look.
John calls “Sails!” even as James, Billy, and Dobbs cross back to the Walrus , and they’re moving but it’s already too late. Miranda places herself near enough to where Billy’s gone to stand with John that she can hear them talking quietly, wondering why their pursuer has yet to fire. That’s when they’re hailed by the captain of the other ship.
“Crew of the Walrus ! In my capacity as duly appointed servant of His Majesty King George the First, I address you directly.”
“Hornigold,” Billy says, and Miranda remembers that Hornigold is the man who challenged James before they went to Charles Town, the man who took Eleanor Guthrie into custody in exchange for a pardon.
Irial is by Arete’s side rather than Morgaine’s, so both he and Miranda hear her low growl and angry mutter. “English Jacobites are all the same, useless turncoats.” English Jacobites. Miranda notes the information for later, thinking that Irial’s proven she and John are either Irish or Scottish with those words, but then Hornigold continues with his speech and all idle thoughts are wiped from her mind.
“Time is short, so I will be plain and offer you the same terms as accepted by the late Captain Hallendale's men. Surrender, and I am authorized to offer you full, unqualified pardons. Your ship will be commandeered and you will be given a choice of either entering into my service or being set free at the nearest convenient port, your names cleared and your accounts squared. Refuse and I shall grant no quarter.”
The world seems to dip and sway, and it is not because of any movement of the ship. Miranda’s eyes find James’, the both of them equally cut to the bone. Pardons for pirates. Somehow, Hornigold has the authority to do the thing Thomas wanted to do, once. Somehow, the dreams and plans they all had ten years ago are being stolen, are being turned against them now.
Miranda watches James and Mona descend from the quarterdeck, watches the men gather round to hear what he has to say, and all she can think is, Who did this? Who is doing this?
“There'll be no battle today,” James tells his men. “Our disadvantage is too great. But what price surrender? They say they will pardon us all, but I say to offer to pardon something one fears is the act of a coward. To offer them in volume suggests that their fear of us is becoming unmanageable, that we have shown them what we are capable of and it terrifies them. Do any of you want to surrender to men who fear you? Lay down arms in a battle that we are winning?”
It isn’t enough. Miranda can sense it. James is trying to rouse their pride, stoke their anger, but - most of them never really felt the betrayals she and James have, she thinks. Most of them came to this life as one of a list of bad options, and they’d never known to expect more. That breeds bitterness, and grudges, but not the kind of rage to dare such rebellion as James wants. They don’t know that the very offer they’ve been given is like salt in a wound to her, to James, a reminder of everything they’ve lost. James’ words won’t stir them, not now.
But she has something that just might do it. Some things, some fears, are universal. And so, she raises her voice in the hush.
“There was a device in Charles Town,” she says, and her gaze lands on John and Irial, on the streak of gold so much more visibly placed on the jackal than on her own Arete. “A device that, when effective, cut daemons away.” She sees it, as her words sink in, the instinctive reach of hands for fur or feather or scale under their fingers, the assurance that they are whole.
“It broke even as the blade came down on me, yet for months my daemon and I carried the pain of the near-miss. In Charles Town we saw men and daemons, blank-eyed and docile till ordered to attack. Ashe was a governor appointed by the king Hornigold says will forgive us. But how can we trust anything ordered by those who would allow our very selves to be cut apart?”
She has them. She has them horrified, she has them wary now of promises, and it’s the opening James needs to push them over the edge.
“You all heard that!” James calls, and to his credit, neither he nor Mona allow the confusion they must feel to show, because she and Arete never did get around to telling them. “To beg forgiveness from a thing that has exiled us, left us to beg or steal because there were no other options but to die? That would take our lives, our very souls ? I can walk away from this fight, we can all walk away. It would be easy. Just sign our names beneath a solemn oath never again to do violence against it.”
James pauses, looking at them all, studying them. His voice, when he speaks again, is quiet menace, calm conviction. “No. Not after all it has taken from me. Not after all it has taken from you. Not after all it will still take, given half a chance. I will do great violence against that thing. Fuck Benjamin Hornigold, his king, and their pardons. This war isn't nearly over.”
And so, he has them ready to fight the world again. But they can’t fight, not in this case. They don’t have the firepower, they weren’t ready for this. It leaves them with only one option. Sailing right into a storm, and hoping Hornigold loses his nerve for the chase before they all die.
Well. Even in the worst case, Miranda supposes she would rather be here than on that damned farm, waiting.
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