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Against A Blood Red Sky

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The thing is, Jack and Caelia don’t particularly want to admit their latest plan. There’s reason to suspect Max and her damned cat won’t be keen on it either, which means Anne and Eagon won’t be pleased, and given the rage they know Charles and Titania will turn on them, they aren’t exactly willing to open themselves up to more trouble before they have to.


So, yes, they’re prevaricating, and Jack can see why that might look like they simply don’t care. To Max, anyway, who thinks even less of him than he does of her. He’d have thought Anne and Eagon knew better. But apparently not, because now they’re fighting over the issue. Again. Lovely.


“I'm not fuckin' around. I need to know.”


“Do you need to know or does your husband?”


“You know I hate it when you call her that.”


“Course I do. That's why I call her that.” He was telling the truth, after all, when he’d said he wants Anne to be happy, and if Max makes her happy then he won’t get in the way of that. But he’s not a good man, certainly not good enough to not be bitter about it. And so he gets a few digs in here and there. It always makes him feel a little better.


“She's got a right to be angry,” Anne says, Eagon hissing at her heels. “Her share of the gold is sitting up there, along with mine.”


“And mine. Please, relay to whom you must, Jack Rackham is not lazy. Jack Rackham is not stupid. Jack Rackham is not blind. And Jack Rackham is not unaware that currently there are no men working on that fort. That said, on the list of people on this island who are most concerned with seeing that fort restored, there is everyone else, and then there is one name that's, that's way at the top of it.” It won’t work on her, his talk-fast bullshit, and he knows it, but it buys him time, and that’s all that matters.


“Jack Rackham,” she finishes with him, glaring all the more.


“Yeah. Jack Rackham, exactly.”


“Don't treat me like I'm someone else. I'm on your fucking side of this, same as I've always been. I am just asking you to tell me what the plan is.”


Are you? Are you really, still? Jack almost asks, but he bites back the question. There’s no point to it. He might have told her then anyway. He actually isn’t sure. But he doesn’t get the chance to decide before the door below them crashes open, Charles Vane storming over the threshold. At his side, Tani sees them on the stairs and snarls. The room below them goes silent.


“Jack!” Charles yells, as furious as his daemon. Well, Jack and Caelia knew this was coming. His daemon presses her head against his neck, a calming gesture that doesn’t bloody well do much.


“You're about to find out,” he tells Anne, and then Charles is on the stairs and Jack is retreating back to his office, because while he’s well aware they’re both going to follow him, this is still not a conversation  he would like to have on the stairs.


Once back in the office, Jack moves behind his desk and sits on it, turned half away from Charles and Anne. He hopes the almost casual pose, the way he doesn’t have to meet Charles’ eyes, will help calm him. It doesn’t really, and he had more or less expected that. “Please let me explain.”


“What is there to explain?” Charles demands. leaning on the desk, into Jack’s space. Tani paces behind him. “You couldn't figure out how to repair the fort, so you lured me into capturing a ship full of slaves to do the job.”


“It was the first solid lead on a slaver we'd had in weeks. I needed someone who I could be certain would win her.”


“So you lied to me about it. What the fuck made you think I would just hand them over to you, knowing what you know of me?”

 

The first thing Jack had learned on Charles’ ship - he didn’t run slaves. Ever. It had taken time before Jack knew why. Before he understood the brand on Charles’ skin. Jack knows, but there’d been no other choices left. But he turns to face Charles now, hands braced on the desk, because he knows he owes him that. And he needs Charles to believe he is sincere.


“The three of us stood in this room, you, Flint, and I, after coming back from the Urca wreck, and we agreed that the fort's restoration was critical to Nassau's security.”


“We agreed you would hire men to restore it.”


“I tried that!”


“You're going to need to try harder!” Charles snaps, Tani rearing onto her hind paws, front paws landing heavily on Jack’s desk. Jack stumbles back in spite of himself, and when Caelia hops down from Jack’s shoulder and tries to reach for Tani, to explain, her paw almost gets bitten off in one snap of the black jaguar’s teeth. Caelia shrieks and races back up Jack’s arm, curling in against the bend of his neck again.


“How?” Jack yells, and he hates that his voice breaks but he can’t help it now. “I offer the men exorbitant wages to do the work. Do you know what they say? ‘You can afford more. We want double that.’ All right, double it, it's a deal. Fuck it. You know what they say then? ‘You can't tell us what to do. We're free men. We'll work when we please.’ Would you like to take a guess how that is going? It's five different crews, it's hundreds of men, untold thousands in wages, and I swear to God, I think that hole in the wall is bigger now than when we started.” Jack sinks into his chair, as much to get Caelia out of Tani’s reach as anything else.


“I stood between you and him, Jack. When Flint was ready to wage war against you over the gold, I was the one who said you would manage it as well as anyone could. For the good of this place, I was the one who said you could be trusted. You think he would have let the Barlow woman, of all people, set up those damned negotiations if he hadn’t been convinced first? And I’m the one who did it. I trusted you and he knows I trust about as little as he does, so that fucking meant something to him.”


“Why? Why did you stand behind me in that moment? I'll tell you why. Because you and I had been through enough shit for you to know that I would do the same for you, that I have done the same for you, and would again without hesitation.”


He’s on his feet again, almost without thinking. “I made a commitment to you, with you, to restore this place, to make it strong again. I see no other way to have it done. And I will have it done. I will move heaven and earth to have it done because I refuse to let you down. I knew this would be difficult for you, so I kept it from you. Please know that I meant no slight by it. No lack of respect or friendship. It's quite the opposite.”


Too much the opposite, in fact. But that’s one secret he hasn’t even shared with Anne, at least not by actually saying it, and he isn’t about to tell Charles, now or ever.


“We’ll let them go,” Caelia says before Charles or Tani can speak again, and Jack can feel four pairs of eyes, two human and two daemon, on him and his mongoose. “We need them to do this,” she explains for them both, “because the crews will not cooperate, and we have tried everything. We even tried to hire indentures off that one place inland that doesn’t use slaves, but the owner wouldn’t even open his door to us. Tani, Charles, we really have tried. We’d never do this to you otherwise. We need them but after this, they’re free to do as they please. Join crews, find respectable island work, or leave. Whatever they like.”


“We’ll hold you to that,” Tani snaps, and then she and Charles are gone. Jack slumps in his chair, Caelia curling up on his thigh. He pets her absently, but the gesture doesn’t bring its usual comfort. Not this time.


“That was fucking stupid, Jack, but it just might work,” Anne says after a moment. “I’ll go tell Max.”


“You do that,” Jack says. “And if she has a problem with my solution, I don’t want to hear it unless she has a better idea.”


<><><>


Most days, Anne ignores the noises that drift through the walls and floorboards. She still hears them, in a way she thinks Max and the brothel girls have learned to tune out completely, but she’s gotten used to it. Like the constant creak of wood or flap of cloth on a ship, it’s just there.


Most of the time. But today when she finds Max bathing, still tense from confronting Jack and sitting through the argument with Charles, Eagon paces the room, back and forth, and Anne finds the usual brothel noise setting her teeth on edge, enough so that she sits by the tub with her back to Max, watching Eagon pace and Kahedin groom himself in a patch of sunlight. Why the hell are they still meeting here all the time? Why does Max still want to live here? Madam or not, she doesn’t have to. “We got all the money in the world. Maybe we could find a room that ain't in the middle of a whorehouse.”


“I own a tavern, a brothel, a tanner, a butcher interests in a dozen other concerns on the street. I am the one they come to here when they need things, want things, fear things. In another time and another place, they would call me a queen. I built this from nothing. And none of it is real.”


Anne doesn’t like the sound of that, or the tone of Max’s voice. Melancholy, thoughtful - not proud, despite everything. “What ain't real about it?” She tries to keep her own voice calm, and not tense, but it doesn’t work, not with Max talking like this, not when Anne herself can’t relax.


“Because it is built upon things I cannot control, cannot predict. It is built on sand. And when the day comes when that foundation shifts, when civilization returns, do you know what they will call me then? The whore that lost everything. I like it in this room. Reminds me that nothing has changed yet.”


Anne turns around to face her, arm braced on the tub. “You saying this ain't real?” she asks, waiting for Max to meet her eyes.


“Of course it is,” Max says, but her face still matches her sad voice.


“The fort will be repaired. If he says it, he'll do it.” She’s followed Jack for years, believing that eventually they’d have something solid on what Max calls just sand. If she can convince Max of that, then she won’t sound so damned sad anymore, and Anne - Anne can’t stand her sounding like this. Like she’s expecting everything to fall apart.


It won’t . Anne won’t let it, she trusts Jack to find a way not to let it and Charles will find it if Jack can’t, because they won’t let each other down any more than Jack wants to let her down. Flint and his Barlow woman are people she doesn’t really know and can’t trust, but they’re stubborn fucks too, and they want this to work. Anne just needs to convince Max they can still do this.


“When you first opened that door and showed me the Urca gold, do you know what I saw?” Max asks. “A solution. The mortar that would secure the sand beneath our feet. The thing I could offer to England or Spain or whomever arrived here and threatened to reorder things, and say, ‘Take this and leave me be.’ Everything is dependent upon that gold, and right now it is sitting in a fort with no guns and full of holes.”


She has a point, but it doesn’t matter. Anne has to believe that because - “Charles is gonna agree to Jack's plan. In a month, the fort will be whole.”


“Made so by slave labor?” Max retorts, skeptical even as she leans in close. “Has it not occurred to anyone that if Jack has not been able to persuade men to repair the fort, it is even less likely he will be able to persuade them to defend it?”


“The fuck are you saying?”


“I am saying that if England were to return right now, there is nothing to stop them from capturing that fort. And so long as that gold is inside it, they will be capturing our futures along with it. The gold must be removed from the fort whether Jack wants it or not.”


Max might have a point. Actually, she almost certainly does - Charles might not agree to Jack’s plan right away, which will delay things, and who knows what trouble those useless crews will stir up when told to fight? But that doesn’t matter, not to Anne, not in this moment. Eagon goes still, growling softly, and Kahedin’s tail stiffens, his fur standing upright.  


"You're getting awful close to doing the one thing you said you'd never do,” Anne says. “Don't ask me to take sides between you and him. It doesn't matter. Can't be done. There's a reason it's up there in the first place. There's no other place to put it and secure it.”


“Not in its current form, no.”


“What do you mean by that?” Anne asks as the daemons slowly calm down.


“I mean, we convert it into something we can hide and move more easily. It’s the only way to be certain we will not lose it all.”


“And how the hell do we convince Jack and Charles - not to mention Flint and Barlow - to agree to that?”


“I did not say they would all be involved, did I? Jack I can convince, the others are not my concern. He is my concern because of you, because you’re right. I did say I wouldn’t come between you and him. I learned my lesson well about that.”


“I’m not Guthrie,” Anne says, stung.


“No. Quite the opposite in many ways. But I have still learned not to ask the impossible. In this case, I also won’t ask it because I know how it would hurt you. Jack will listen to me, and the others…” Max shrugs.


“Jack won’t want to go for it,” Eagon says, surprising even Anne - her daemon hardly ever speaks even to her. They usually don’t need it - Jack said once they come closer than any pair he’s ever met to actually reading each other’s minds. “He and Caelia are already tearing themselves up over setting Charles and Tani on a slave ship. This… They won’t like it.”


“They don’t have to,” Kahedin says. “They just have to agree to it.”


<><><>


They should have taken the damned pardons. John knows it, he says as much to Billy and later regrets it a little, because he probably shouldn’t have confided that to someone with little enough reason to trust him, or James or Miranda. Still, he’s right. They should have taken the pardons and then gone back on it later. Who would have stopped them?


But he’d let himself be caught up by James’ fierce words, he’d let his old fears of the Device, the terror that shaded all his worst nightmares in tints of amber as though he saw through colored lenses, be conjured up again by Miranda. They’d had him, and whether they’ve shared a bed or not, whether they’re starting to mean something John dares not name even to his daemon, that is not supposed to happen.


He is the quartermaster of this ship, it is his duty to challenge the captain for the sake of the crew. And he’d failed. So now, cripple that he is, there’s not much he can do but go below and try to patch up leaks. But having Muldoon with him helps, having a friend -


And who had ever thought he’d think that way again, such a dangerous way to think, that having people who matter is a good thing.


It’s going well enough, even if Muldoon is insisting that the crew owes him some kind of debt. “It ain't right not to let us pay it,” he says as water floods around their ankles. Irial is on the steps, her jackal shape not best suited to water, but Muldoon’s otter is enjoying it as much as any water-going creature can in the circumstances.

 

“All the shit we been through the last few months, do you wanna know what the most terrifying part of all of it's been? ‘We'll take care of you.’” John surprises himself by admitting it, but he doesn’t think Muldoon will tell anyone.

 

“I get it.”

 

“Do you?” Do you know what it is to be caged by your own body?


“'Course I do. Look at me. I know what it's like to be afraid of being the one ain't strong enough to stick. But it don't work that way, yeah? And even if it did, it wouldn't work like that for you.”


“No? Why not?”


Whatever Muldoon would have answered, he doesn’t get the chance. The ship lurches again, more water pouring in, and then Muldoon screams. “Aah! My fucking leg!”


Muldoon’s otter dives down for a better look, even as John, holding onto one of the ropes for dear life, stretches out a hand for Muldoon to take. John tries to pull, hoping against hope that maybe the otter can get her human’s leg loose and then John can pull him over.


“The crates are too big!” the otter says as soon as her head breaks the surface again. “I can’t get him loose!”


John tries to yell for help - he’s closer to the door, maybe he can get someone’s attention. It doesn’t work, and he doesn’t dare sent Irial out there. She could so easily be swept over the side, and if that happens… He doesn’t want to think about that. Meeting his daemon’s gaze, he nods.


They couldn’t risk her shifting a bird to fly over to that other ship, not when she’s had such trouble with it. But this, this only needs to last a moment. So Irial leaps into the water, keeping her jackal form as long as possible. The sea lion she shifts into once underwater is big enough to make the ship tilt, but John barely notices that. Pain twists deep in his chest and he can’t help a choked scream, hands tightening convulsively on the rope and on Muldoon’s hand.


Then Irial is popping back up, a jackal again, and Muldoon is swimming over to where John is grabbing onto the rope himself while his otter clings to him. “Thank you. But what the hell was that? It hurts you when she shifts?”


“Don’t say a word, you hear me?” John tells him, voice still hoarse. “You can’t say a word. You said you owe me? Then don’t say anything, and we’re settled, huh?”


“All right, but -”


“No. There’s no time for shit like this. She just won’t shift again, don’t look so damn worried, huh?”


And after that, with too much of the room flooded for any patching to be done, or to be of use if they could do it, there’s nothing to do but hang on and wait it out.


<><><>


Despite his ‘shall we begin?’ comment, Rogers actually leaves Eleanor hanging until the next afternoon. She doesn’t entirely mind - it gives her time to think, as she and Lysander are mostly left alone, and it also gives Andrew FitzHamilton a chance to seek her out with his half-mad plan to save his brother and use him to bring Flint and the Barlow woman on-side. The chambermaid or whatever she is, Mrs. Hudson and her polecat, mostly leave Eleanor and Lys to their own devices. As the woman said herself, her job is mostly to make sure Eleanor’s things are tidy and her door is locked.


Wonderful.


She’s still thinking about what FitzHamilton told her when she’s summoned to speak with Rogers. When she arrives, Rogers is seated at his desk, a scribe settled nearby with a book open. The scribe’s daemon, a tiny monkey of some kind, perches on his shoulder while Rogers’ cobra daemon is twined round his upper arm, her head raised up near to his ear. Eleanor takes a seat, Lys settling beside her with his head an anchoring weight on her thigh. She curls her fingers around the tea cup Rogers gives her, letting the warmth soothe her tension, and begins.


“At first, when my father left, I only watched. My guardian, a slave belonging to my father, ran the operation in his stead. Eventually, I felt it was time I stepped in.”


“How old were you at this point?” Rogers asks, curious and a little skeptical


“I was 17.”



That draws a huff of a laugh from him. “How does one persuade an island full of thieves and murderers to respect the authority of a 17-year-old girl?”


And so Eleanor sets the tea cup down and begins to explain, Rogers interested enough once she names Teach that he even pauses to make sure his clerk is getting every word. Eleanor wants to laugh, but she doesn’t. Lys’ ears twitch, and that is their only reaction. Anyway, she’s only half aware of the room. She’s years back, thinking of Edward Teach and that bear of his, Charles shadowing his as he had then - his daemon still unsettled, often taking on bear shape as well, but never the same bear. Hands and his rabid dog of a daemon, banished to the Wrecks. Hornigold and his lizard and their pretensions, their so-vaunted loyalties to a King Across the Water, whichever Stuart that was at the time.


Rackham, half a boy then, watching Charles with fascination, Bonny more than half a girl at his side. Flint, even, still fairly new to the island but already spreading fear. Herself, too, and Max - Max who she had yet to touch, but was already so aware of. They’d all been so damned young, hadn’t they? She hadn’t felt young, she’d felt adult and capable, but looking at it now...


She hadn’t thought the memories would ache, not now that she’s cut herself away from her old alliances, not now that she will help England reclaim Nassau and crush all of them, instead of the partnership she and Flint had hoped for months ago.


“Eventually,” she says, absently scratching between Lys’ ears, “I isolated Teach from all of his former allies until it was just him and his protégé, a young captain he had groomed in his image, trained as a peerless fighter. Had they stayed together, they might have resisted me.”


“But the protégé turned?” Rogers’ voice is one of mild interest, but his snake lifts her head, tongue flicking out as though tasting for a lie.


“Yes. And once he'd sided with me, Teach had no choice but to withdraw. After that, my credibility with crews on the beach was in good order.”


“And the protégé, what was his name?”


“His name was Charles Vane.” She knows, in the moment she gives Charles’ name, in the flash of Rogers’ eyes and how his face tightens, that she may well have miscalculated in making Charles’ death part of her suggestions so soon. Perhaps she should have waited until this moment, but she hadn’t and now she’ll just have to make the best of it.


“Leave us, please. Now,” Rogers orders the clerk. Once the door closes, he leans forward, eyes narrowed. “I need very specific answers to the following questions,” he tells her.


“Ask me what you want to ask me.”


“Charles Vane sided with you?”


“Yes.”


“Betrayed his mentor, betrayed Edward Teach for you?”


“Yes.”


“You were…”


“I was fucking him.” And both our daemons settled on it, in the same damned shape colored differently, God help us both, she thinks, remembering. But then Rogers is getting up and Eleanor knows this interview is about to spin entirely out of her control. That cannot be allowed. “Where are you going?”


“To inform the captain of the Gloucestershire he's about to head home. Plus one passenger.”


“You never asked me.” She’d expected some trouble but not this sudden flare of anger. It makes her wonder if he’s taking this personally already, and if so, why? But that answer can keep, she knows.


“I needed to ask?”


Yes, Eleanor wants to tell him. If you are to deal with Nassau you have to ask, because most of them are as careful as I am or more so. If you just take things at face value you’re doomed and I’m doomed with you. You need me more than you know, and because I need you, I have to make sure you see that.


“I never lied,” is all she says aloud.


“I was fully prepared to set foot on that island and say his name, say that the universal pardon had an exception, put my credibility at risk based solely on your counsel, and it was all to settle a personal feud with a former lover?”


She could say that is far from the only reason, that she was being nothing but honest about the fact that Charles is, indisputably, the most certain of Nassau’s captains to oppose Rogers’ plan despite any and all persuasion. But she doesn’t think that’s enough. She could say that their feud is a blood feud, written in her father’s blood, but that isn’t much better than a feud with a lover, all told.


“Why did you bring me here?” she says instead, holding instead to the one argument she knows is true, the whole reason he wanted her here at all. He knows he needs her. She knows how much he needs her. It’s time to make him see it, once and for all so they can be done with these little tests and focusing on the business of setting Nassau to rights.


“You know these men's names, you know the things they have done,” she tells him, holding his gaze. “But I know them . I know Flint is dangerous, but he can be reasoned with. I know Rackham is devious, but all he cares about is his legacy. And because I have history with Charles Vane, I know him most of all. I'm all too aware what he is capable of destroying when he sets his mind on it. I underestimated him and I lost my father. The Lord Governor Ashe underestimated him, and Charles Town burned. What is it you would like to have him take from you?”


There’s a moment of tense silence, Lysander’s tail thrashing and Rogers’ snake’s hood flared, before Rogers speaks in a low voice still rough with a rage Eleanor thinks is far more than this situation deserves. “Why, in God's name, would I trust you?”


Because you have no choice doesn’t seem like it’s going to cut it as an answer. Eleanor finds herself thinking of what Mrs. Hudson had said earlier, how she saw Eleanor as no different from any other highborn woman except for her father’s lack of good lawyers. For the first time, she tries to think of how she would make this argument if she were one of those women, the kind of woman she would have been had her father been given a different posting, or if she had been sent to her grandmother in Boston.  


It feels strange, like new shoes that don’t fit yet, like the shapes Lys took for days on end, trying to find the right one. But it gives her an answer a man like this ought to understand, one close enough to true to be going on with.


“Nassau is my father's house. It is my birthright, and I am obligated to see it set right, to see its monsters driven out. You don't have to trust me because we have mutual self-interest. And that makes for better partners.”


<><><>


There was a time, when they first began this, that Max had believed she and Kahedin could win Anne and Eagon away from Jack and Caelia. She had been so very certain of their ability to do it - until she saw Anne, entirely adrift in the wake of Jack’s betrayal. Until, after they’d settled things, she’d seen Eagon leaning against Jack’s leg, and Caelia racing up Anne’s arm to perch on her shoulder.


Anne’s said that she and Jack are no longer lovers, and Max too is allowed to touch Eagon, as she allows Anne to pet Kahedin. And yet… and yet… They are bound, Max thinks, and she believes that if pushed to the choice, Anne will choose Jack. Cannot help but choose him, perhaps.


What they are to each other, Max does not truly understand. She has never had anyone so close, so constantly, save for her own daemon. She only knows that one cannot last without the other, and so, in order to save Anne, she goes to Jack. He doesn’t want to listen to her, doesn’t want to admit defeat and exchange the gold, doesn’t want to betray Vane either, as Anne said and Max suspected even before that. The men are not so easy to read, but their daemons are almost painfully obvious in their affection for each other.


But just as Anne cannot help but choose Jack, Max believes Jack cannot help but choose Anne.


So she goes to him to convince him to convert the gold and hide away a cache. “If Nassau falls, we will have something to set aside to secure our futures.”

 

“‘Our’? Who?” Jack asks, voice dripping with suspicion.


“Mine. and Anne’s.” By Anne’s, Max means his as well, because surely if she knows they cannot be separated, and Anne will not allow herself to be forced to choose between Jack and Max - not yet, anyway, though she will have to - then of course Jack must know it.


It seems not, though, because his next words are bitter. “Lovely. Good old Jack gets buried beneath a pile of rubble while you two begin a well-funded life of leisure.”


“I didn’t say that,” Max says, annoyed and taken aback all at once. She hadn’t wanted to be so direct about this yet, but if he is insisting upon it...


“It's bad enough the only time I get to see her is when she comes here to relay something that you're displeased with. Now we're just accepting that if forced to choose between a long future with you and a short one with me there's no chance she'll even consider the latter,” he continues. His Caelia is hissing on his shoulder, Kahedin growling softly on hers.


Kahedin is an anthill tiger, Jack’s mongoose would be nothing to him, but letting her daemon attack won’t do any of them any good.


“Of course she will choose you,” Max snaps. She knows it, how can he not? How can he not trust in Anne’s loyalty after all this time? He was right, damn him, in the marketplace that day when he’d said she would not truly divide them. Even though he’d been trying to convince himself as much as her, he’d been right, and that means she has to let go. But at least she can save their lives. And yet some of her anger fades when he looks at her, when she sees that he really did think she’s claimed all of Anne’s heart. She wishes that were so, but it was never possible.


“The fort is going to fall,” she continues. “Tomorrow. Next week. Someday. And I do not believe for a moment you let yourself be buried beneath it when it does.” Somewhere, somehow, she developed some bit of sentimentality for him too. Some bit of respect for his resourcefulness, and a hope to see him survive whatever mess is coming. Perhaps loving Anne has meant caring, some little bit, for the only other person Anne herself loves.


“It will pain her to leave me behind,” she tells him, and she isn’t persuasive, or charming, or any of that. Just sincere, because between them the games have done no good to either of them. “What we have shared these past few months, it will be very hard. But you without you, there is no her. I am here in part to secure my own future. I will not apologize for that. But that is not why I'm asking you to cooperate with me. I am asking because though I know we have our differences, I know there is one thing we share. We both love her.”


And perhaps it is simply that which convinces him, once he’s had time to think about it. Perhaps, finally, Jack actually believes her without assuming she’s lying, or planning to stab him in the back. Perhaps Max’s words did nothing and it is the return of Edward Teach, with his history with Charles Vane, that scares Jack into it. It hardly matters, in the end. Of course, once Jack is convinced and tells them as such, Anne wants answers.


“What did you say to him? Tell me the truth. What did you say to make him change his mind?”


Max doesn’t want to meet Anne’s eyes, doesn’t want to say this now, but she must. “You and I spoke of what will likely happen the day England returns to this place. We spoke of how I must stay. Must find a way to enter into their world, and I believe you would want to enter it with me.”


Max draws Anne down to sit beside her on the bed, even as Kahedin curls close to Eagon, grooming his ears. “I believe that in this moment you cannot fathom leaving me. But if we are honest with each other, I think we both know -”


“Stop.” Eagon makes a distressed sound, and Kahedin nuzzles his neck, trying to soothe him, even though he and Max both know any comfort will be fleeting.


Max cannot stop, not now. The woman she had been before all that has happened might have denied the truth. Max wants to hesitate, wants to pretend a little longer that they can have this, that they will be together forever.


But she’s learned the hard way that very little can last, even love. Better, she tells herself, to part with affection still a bright memory, rather than the tarnished thing bitter endings can make of it. She does not want to remember Anne the way she remembers Eleanor, every memory edged now with bitterness, doesn’t want Kahedin lying and claiming he doesn’t miss curling with Eagon for shared warmth and the joy of touch. No, he would say, he prefers the freedom of sleeping alone. Just as he had so as not admit that cuddled against Lysander’s larger form he once felt safer than he ever had.


“Sooner or later,” she tells Anne, fingers curling round her lover’s arms as if somehow her body fights her words, “the day is going to come when, no matter our feelings, the world will demand that you and I…”


She trails off, thumb tracing Anne’s cheek, the line of her chin before pulling her into a kiss. Their kisses, their touches, are finite now, they must claim what little remains to them, so she does not object when Anne’s mouth trails down her body. She’s relieved that Anne is distracted, and cannot see the silent sobs twisting her face.


Two days later, the exchange is set. And that is when Max and Anne learn a governor is coming. In twelve days, which isn’t enough time to run, but may be enough to fight, or negotiate. Max plays along, because what else can she do?


Perhaps Jack is even right when he says there will be no battle if they can convince all the ships to fight. Anne wants to believe it, Max knows, and for herself, she supposes that whether it works or it does not, she must be ready to reach accomodation, one way or another. And accomodation means losing Anne. Losing her before Max had planned, before they had time to share even a little more...

 


Max hadn’t thought the end would come this soon.


<><><>


John isn’t the only one who gets put to patching down below. Miranda’s in another part of the hold, doing the same thing with several of the men. Joji had just shown her how to do this two weeks ago, and now Miranda is grateful for the lessons. The ropes strung up for John’s use become helpful to all of them in the fight to keep their balance as water sloshes around them despite all their best efforts.


Down here, Miranda can’t tell how bad the storm is. She can guess, as she sees more men come belowdecks through the open door. At some point, she thinks she hears John yelling a question at someone about where James is, but she can’t be sure with all the noise around them. And she knows the answer to that anyway, so she won’t ask.


He’ll still be above, somehow convinced he can get them through this by willpower alone.


Thinking about that makes her blood run cold, makes her hands shake so she can’t hold a hammer, and so Miranda does her best not to think about it. Tries not to imagine Mona swept overboard and the snap of their bond killing them both. Of both of them knocked into the waves and slipping undr


(Of course, the image is constantly in her mind, but she’s good at denying that. Has she not carried on for ten years ignoring the constant background hum of the image of Thomas and Leia alone in a cold stone cell?)


In the end, all they can really do is ride it out below, holding onto something. Miranda thinks she might hear a few men praying - one in Latin, even, and someone else in what she thinks might be Hebrew - but she doesn’t pray. She simply grips a rope tighter in one hand, her other hand curled tight in her daemon’s ruff.


Somehow, when the ship finally begins to steady, Miranda makes her way to the cabin. Arete curls in the daemons’ nest and Miranda tries to straighten things up a little, for something to do more than anything else. She hasn’t seen James, she hasn’t seen John, and she knows some people were swept overboard, others drowned even belowdecks.


The door opens and it’s John, limping worse than usual, using Irial to keep himself steady. “Take that off,” Miranda snaps, and her voice is hoarse. When John only looks at her, seemingly bewildered, she glares. “You think Howell didn’t mention you’re being an idiot about that thing? Now it’s full of seawater too. Take it off.”


John looks like he wants to argue, but something in her face must tell him not to bother. She’s seen the stump at its worst, after all, he can’t pretend to be shielding her from anything. So he takes it off, sitting heavily on the bed and she tosses him a mostly-dry cloth so he can at least wipe the seawater from his skin.


They’re both soaked, but when James finally comes in, he’s absolutely drenched, his hair hanging loose around his face when it had been tied back before, and there’s seaweed in Mona’s fur. Miranda bolts across the room, both of them holding on so tight it’s hard to breathe. Arete and Irial are on Mona in moments, and though John can’t get up, he watches them all with a tired sort of relief. “You’re mad. You are mad. What were you doing up there?”


“Someone had to steer. I’m sorry,” James murmurs in her ear. “Miranda - you know we couldn’t -”


She does know. There was no other choice. And yet, when the three of them curl up on the bed to sleep, Miranda doesn’t recall most of what she dreams, but there is a little she remembers. The study at home in London, and Thomas leaning against the desk with Leia on his shoulder. “This is not really what I meant by taking care of each other. Couldn’t you have found a less dangerous way of life?”


Miranda blinks awake in the dark before she can answer, and in moments she’s asleep again, dreaming of nothing worth remembering.


It’s Billy who wakes them the next morning - wakes two of them anyway, Miranda realizes, because John’s slipped out at some point. But then, full sunlight is streaming in the windows, so it’s time to be up anyway.


“We’re not moving,” James says before he even sits up, as Miranda is pushing a bit of hair out of her eyes. She needs to cut it again, she thinks absently, but that’s mostly irrelevant because as the last bit of sleep-fog clears from her mind, she realizes James is right, and that Billy isn’t responding.


Up on deck, John has that damned leg on again and is leaning on a barrel, on top of which DeGroot has a map spread out. Irial is holding still - far too still, in fact - in her coyote shape, DeGroot’s tern shifting from foot to foot on his shoulder. James and Miranda make their way over, James asking “Where are we?” before anyone can speak.


“The storm drove us east into the Sargasso Sea,” DeGroot explains, and Miranda feels Arete tense against her leg, because James has been showing her maps, teaching her to navigate, and she remembers him saying that the Sargasso Sea is a place where ships are often -


“We are becalmed,” DeGroot finishes.


“Stores?” James and Miranda both ask that, and at any other time it might be amusing, but not just now.


“Most of the fresh water was lost in the flooding in the storm,” Billy says. “The food that could be salvaged, we have a few days. Maybe a week.”


“How far to the nearest coast?” James asks, and Miranda can see the answer written on John’s face even before he answers.


“At our current speed? About three times that. Unless the wind returns soon, we won’t survive this.”


Miranda forces herself to keep calm, not to react, even as James turns away, staring out to the flat sea. Surely, there’s some way out of this, they’ll figure out something or the wind will return, she tells herself.


And if it doesn’t…


What does it say about her now, that she would still rather be here than waiting , waiting possibly forever?


<><><>


“The word in town is that there’s a new governor coming to Nassau. Rackham and Bonny and Vane are going to try to hold the harbor, but most of the townspeople don’t think they can. Because the other news is that Flint’s ship went down with all hands,” Conor says after he returns from his delivery run to Nassau Town, and there’s an odd flatness in his tone. Edana’s ears are drooping, and she curls up in a silent, unhappy ball as her human talks. But then, no surprise - the quartermaster of the ship was his brother Sean, after all. “There’ll be no help from them, Christopher.”


The man who calls himself Christopher McGraw puts a hand on his friend’s shoulder, his Eucleia landing beside Edana, preening her fur to comfort her. But for himself, Thomas Hamilton’s mind is racing. The governor, well. That doesn’t change much in their plans, really; the Nassau council wasn’t likely to be keen on their planned revolt either, unless Conor’s brother spoke for them. A governor just means playing it by ear, using the uncertainty to their advantage as much as they can. But the other matter...


The truth is, he’d never exactly been keen on enlisting the help of Captain Flint - merely prepared to make use of the connection. Had he had his choice, he’d cheerfully see Flint strung up, or at least he would have, before word reached them of Charles Town. Since then, he’s just… Well, frankly, he’s very confused.


But first things first. “Who says all this?”


“Someone in from St. Kitts to do business started the talk, and from what I can tell, his connections are reliable. There’s a new man out from London, don’t know his name or anything about his fleet, but that fort can’t take anything. Rumor is that Rackham wants to get all the pirates out to the harbor with the fort just as backup for ‘em, he thinks it might spook this new governor, but without Flint… And as for Flint, word came from Blackbeard’s men, they say, but no one seems to know what the source is. Course, he’s just come back himself, and caused his own stir, so I heard.”


“So the governor is almost a certainty, but the demise of the Walrus may or may not be the truth, then. I don’t know that much about the pirates’ internal politics but Blackbeard used to be one of the leaders, and now Flint is one of the leaders, so it would be to Blackbeard’s benefit to claim such a thing. Especially if he’s only just returned,” Thomas says, and he’s glad this point makes Conor cheer up a little, but that isn’t why he said it. Flint may not be dead, which means they may still have a potential ally… and he might have a chance for his answers.


He’d believed Peter, when he’d come to see him at Bedlam. Thomas had asked about James and Miranda - he’d been terrified. He knew that Miranda had her own family to go to, or she could go to Andrew, but if his father had done this to him, had locked him away, had he done the same to her? Had he sent James to the gallows? He’d made Miranda promise they’d take care of each other, even as his father’s men dragged him out, but what if they hadn’t had the chance? The not knowing had been terrible, but the answers Peter gave had been even worse.


In not knowing, after all, there was still hope.


“I’m sorry, Thomas. I offered to help them get to Paris or Amsterdam, but James insisted they go to Nassau. On the way, though… Their ship was attacked by a Captain Flint. My information is that everyone on the ship was put to the sword.”


He’d believed it, and after that… Before Peter came, he’d fought the so-called treatments of Bedlam, had fought to keep his mind intact. After, they could do what they liked. What did it matter?


(Until they’d touched Leia. The things they had tried to do to his daemon had left her wings tipped black and had reminded him there was something to fight for. What had been meant to destroy them utterly had instead woken them up.)


The day he and Conor had learned their contracts had been sold to a Nassau plantation, Thomas had laughed till even he thought himself a little mad. Conor had certainly been alarmed, he knew, recognizing the look in hazel eyes. He hadn’t explained though, and his friend with ghosts of his own had understood enough not to ask. Thomas knows the names of Conor’s ghosts - Mairin and Sibeal and Sean - and on the ship to Nassau Thomas whispered the names Miranda and James, explained in full why he calls himself Christopher McGraw now.


He told him they had died at the hands of Captain Flint - or someone on his crew, anyway, but is it not the captain who is responsible for what his men do?


But then there was Charles Town. The word was that Flint knew the governor somehow, that was why he’d thought there was a chance. But whatever he’d tried had gone wrong, he and his woman had been put on trial instead. He’s heard her name is Mrs. Barlow, they say she’s a witch, they say she controls Flint with spells, and something about that has always niggled at the back of Thomas’ mind, but he isn’t sure...


Then - and this is where interior gossip fails but Conor has friends among the brothel girls and the shopkeepers - Captain Vane showed up, and between his Rangers and the Walrusmen, not only did they get Flint and Barlow out, they also put Charles Town to the torch.


Some say Flint’s hellhound of a daemon ripped out Peter’s throat, some say he stabbed him through the heart. A few say it was Barlow who killed him, or her daemon. All the stories agree, so Conor told Thomas, that it was Flint or Barlow who personally killed Governor Peter Ashe.


And with that information, Thomas is left to wonder. Because who are they, this Flint and Barlow, to have gone to Peter, to have thought he’d help them and have things turn to such violence? Did Peter lie to him, and if Peter lied, then what is the truth?


Thomas Hamilton hopes very much that the crew of the Walrus is still alive. A little for Conor’s sake, for his friend who is so determined to salvage something from the wreckage of his relationship with his little brother. A little more for the sake of their plans, which can only be helped by allies among the pirate contingent.


But most of all, he wants to know what really happened to James and Miranda, and he thinks it’s entirely possible that Captain Flint is the only man in the world who can tell him that now.

Chapter Text



Surprisingly, Anne asks no questions until they've already arrived at the cave, and so Max offers no explanations. Of course, that  changes as soon as she unpacks the balance.



“What the hell is that?”



“It is a balance.”



“Yeah, what's it here for?”



Max looks up, watching Anne where she leans against the rock, and tries to keep her voice businesslike. “There is no point in delaying any longer. There will be no more merchants, no more exchanges. Sooner or later, that fleet will be upon us. Sooner or later, it will be time for you and I to go our separate ways. It would be wise if we are prepared and our shares are split evenly.”



Max finds, partway through this speech, that she can't watch Anne’s face, and she focuses on the device in her hands until Anne’s voice, oddly soft, makes her look up.



“Tell me why.”



“We've been through this.” Max doesn't let the conversation derail her as she tries to get started; she can't. Anne doesn't get in her way, but she makes no move to help either.



“No, you told me why I wouldn't stay here with you. But you ain't said why you won't come with me. If we lose, if we have to leave this place, why are you so set on staying? Why the fuck could you want to live in a world that says that fat pig on the beach is a man to be respected? A world that wants its sons to become that?”



Max had hoped Anne wouldn’t ask this. That she would somehow know Max can’t run with her, the same way Max knows Anne cannot remain. But she has an answer, a memory that explains everything, so far as she is concerned. She just doesn’t know if Anne will understand it.



“When I was very small, I would sneak out of the slave quarters at night to the main house. I would stand outside the window to the parlor. I would stand amongst the heat and the bugs and the filth on my toes to see inside. Inside that house was a little girl my age with the most beautiful skin, a daemon who was sleek and neat whatever form he took. I watched her dance while her father played music and her mother sewed. I watched her read and eat and sing and sleep, kept safe and warm and clean by her father. My father.” She hates that it makes tears spring to her eyes, even now, but Max is practiced now at not letting them fall. The things it took to make that room possible, they were awful things. But inside that room was peace. That is what home is to me.”



There is more Max could say, about the girl whose name was Lucette, the man whose name was Maximilien. She could tell Anne about the day she was sold away because ‘I don’t need children distracting my slaves’ . How she had run from the place he sold her to, and Kahedin settled on the shape he took the night they fled. That flight at the dark of the moon is how she came to Nassau, always remembering how she had told her father that he couldn’t just sell her, she was his daughter as much as Lucette was, and had been beaten for it.



He refused to acknowledge me, he refused me his name, so I took it for myself when I fled. I took it, and I mean to take that life I so longed for, to reach it on my own, she could say. She doesn’t, because that isn’t what Anne needs from her. She doesn't, because there are tears in Anne’s eyes too, and she doesn't know if Anne is near to crying for her, for the girl she was and the story she has just shared, or for them and what they cannot keep. But this moment is about them, the last moment to be them at all, a farewell now so that it can be done neatly.



“When you and I began, you did not choose me. Something that lives inside you beyond choice made it so, so I know you understand how this lives beyond choice for me, too. Our roads are going to diverge. Let it be now so we may not live in fear of it.” Let it not happen in the heat of the moment, a wound that will leave them stunned and damaged in the aftermath.



Never mind that Max feels damaged anyway. This has to be better than the alternative - she knows that alternative too well already, does she not?



In the end, neither of them allow themselves to cry. We both have too much pride, Max tells herself. Anne presses a kiss to her temple and then rises to leave. She's half lost to the shadows, half in the last spill of moonlight, when Max finds her voice.



“You should stay. To see it be divided evenly.”



“I trust you.” The words are the faintest whisper but Max hears clearly enough. And then Anne is gone.



The funny thing is, nothing Anne could have said would hurt more than that. There’s nothing Max can say to it, and so she says nothing even when Anne leaves, only strokes a soothing hand down Kahedin’s back when he curls against her leg. She does not cry.



There is a melody playing in the back of her mind, one that never really leaves, not entirely. The song Lucette played when she wanted her father to sing with her, Max’s favorite when she had been a little girl with muddy feet and a different name, when Kahedin too had another name and sat as a bird on her shoulder or became a snake twined in her curls so he could see.



She thinks of how it must look now sometimes, that room, that home. She thinks that Lucette must be married by now, and her husband has perhaps inherited the plantation because their father’s only sons were other slave-born bastard children like Max, no more acknowledged than she was. (She knows only because some of the other children around her, boys and girls, had Maximilien’s green eyes, or the nose she herself inherited from him.)



None of it matters now, with dark pearls sliding through her fingers, the soft clatter of them on the balance’s dish.



“Did we do the right thing?” she asks Kahedin quietly. He comes up to nuzzle her fingers, then hooks his way up her sleeve to her shoulder where he can tuck himself in against her chin and neck. “Perhaps we should have done what Jack thought we would do, take the money and start afresh somewhere, together. I don’t know how he and I could live in the same house, but we would learn it for Anne, I’m sure, couldn’t we have?” She knows it’s foolish even as she speaks of it, but…



But she remembers being willing to run with Eleanor once. She wonders how it is that now she is the one who will not run, who finds herself anchored to this place that is only sand.



“We did the only thing we can do. I don’t know if that’s right, or just true,” Kahedin tells her. “You don’t want to start over, and Anne can’t live in a Nassau returned to England’s rule. Even without Jack and Caelia I don’t think she and Eagon would be suited to it. Remember how much they hated that St. Kitts barbarian?”



“We didn’t like him either,” Max points out.



“No, but he didn’t upset us, we take people like him in stride. They’re part of the price we pay. And so is this. You know it, I know it. We won’t cage them, Max, but that means we can’t keep them.”



He’s right. And she has known it all along. She just didn’t fully appreciate that no preparation, no good sense about separating before they were forced to it, could stop it from hurting like this.



<><><>



They find Charles and Titania leaning against the wall, by the back entrance to the brothel. Charles has one of his cigars, and Tani is for once still under her human’s hand, not even her tail twitching. And somehow, somehow Jack already knows what’s happened.



“You’re going to leave with him.” He doesn’t say it but his daemon does. Caelia leaps from her place in his coat pocket and races across the ground, climbing up onto Tani’s back. Tani doesn’t stop her, as she usually does whenever Caelia tries this outside, where they might be seen.



That’s answer enough, and Jack has to close his eyes for a moment in the lowering dusk, feeling as if someone had punched him in the gut. It’s an all-too-familiar feeling these days, caused by Anne and Max, caused by the pressure of his own promises, caused by Charles hugging him and then furious with him. “Why are you going to leave with him?” he asks when his daemon doesn’t, and when he thinks his voice will be steady. “I know we will all have to leave if we can’t stop this governor, but the whole point of the plan -”



“He’s going to lead the fleet,” Charles cuts him off, voice flat. Jack stares at him.



“He’s going to lead the fleet,” he repeats, incredulous. “The man who thinks Nassau nothing but a pale shadow of her former self, he is going to lead the defense of Nassau. But wh-” This time Jack cuts himself off, because it’s obvious. “He leads the defense of a place he now disdains, with all his considerable skill and experience making him the best available replacement for Flint, and in exchange you leave with him.”

 

“That sums it up,” Charles agrees.



“Do you even want to go?” Jack asks. Charles glances at him, face shadowed.



“Have you ever known me to do something I don’t want to do?”



You brought the slaves back, even if you did raise hell with me for it after, Jack thinks, but he’s not quite stupid enough to say it. “Not to such a life-altering degree, no. Do you agree with him, then, that this place is no longer worth it?”



Charles doesn’t answer for a long while, his fingers carding through Tani’s fur. “If England does take this place, there’s nowhere for me in that. I don’t know if there’s anything for me in an independent Nassau gone respectable either. That’s not who I am, Jack.”



“You could try it,” Jack suggests, not sure why. It’s a stupid comment that earns the unimpressed look Charles gives him, of course, but he -



He has never understood this mess, never understood why he’d cleaved to Charles Vane for so long. Why, even when he was telling Anne that Charles Vane was a ‘thing they’d survived’, he still missed him. Still wanted - he’s not sure what. He’s never been sure. But he’d always thought, always hoped that one day, when he had his own ship and crew, when they were equals, it would be clear. It isn’t, it’s as murky and confusing as ever, and now -



“You can’t want to be his, his boy again. Not when you have stood on your own.” If I don’t want to return to being your quartermaster, you can’t want to put yourself second to Teach, he thinks, but that part is best left in the privacy of his own head.



“He says he needs a son. An heir,” Charles says, looking away. “I think it’s at least half bullshit, sure. But I turned on him for Eleanor. With that done…” He shrugs. “Respectability’s not for me, Jack. This place, that gold might change it, might not, but if it does, I’m not suited to it. Best I leave before it happens and I don’t have a choice.”



Who says it’s going to change? Jack wants to demand. He wants to - to - God damn it, how can he still not know? After all this time, how? You could stay, he wants to argue. You could see what happens, you don’t have to leave with him, what if he’s lying and he puts a knife in your back?



Jack knows asking Charles that won’t get him anywhere. Asking anything won’t get him anywhere at this point, will it?



<><><>



It’s the dehydration, more than the hunger, that takes its toll. Hunger weakens a man, hunger can kill, but dehydration drives you to madness faster. That’s what James tells himself when he first sees an all-too-familiar owl circling the sail, brown-barred cream unusually vivid against the blue cloudless sky.



(A funny thing. Normal rain, even a mild storm, would be a godsend now, water if not food, yet there’s nothing.)



He can’t look at Miranda. Can’t look at her and know he dragged her and Arete into certain death. She and Arete are too tired to push, this time. And John and Irial… James has to look at them, because John won’t stop challenging him, but Mona hides from them as much as she does Miranda and Arete.



And the owl is there out of the corner of his eye, preening her feathers on Miranda’s shoulder, perching on his bookshelf. Once, she’s on the rail, inspecting John and Irial with all the curiosity the real Eucleia used to show.



Then comes the moment when James shoots two of his own crew - one or both of them was stealing rations, and they don’t have time for John to convince the guilty party to come around. Miranda doesn’t look much happier about it than John does, her mouth tight and Arete more alert than he’s been in days, but she doesn’t interfere.



“If you’re not strong enough to do what needs to be done, I’ll do it for you,” James says, and the look John gives him, the way Irial steps back from Mona, almost makes him regret it. But he doesn’t, because he can’t afford to. He’s right; there is no room for kindness, not here, not now.  



“But you’re only strong enough to get Miranda killed.” There’s a voice whispering in his ear when he closes the cabin door, slumping heavily against it. “Strong enough to drag her and your new boy and all your crew through a storm into a calm that will kill you.”



Ghosts aren’t real, but he sees Thomas by his desk. Thomas, in the clothes he’d worn the day James returned from Nassau, and then - then his hair shaggy, unkempt, in the rags Bedlam must have put him in.



“I wanted you to protect each other, not die together,” Thomas says, and his eyes are as hard as the fathomless blue of the sky outside. His form shifts from the lord to the inmate, back and forth, back and forth, only his eyes remaining steady.



James squeezes his eyes shut and when he opens them, Thomas is gone. James’ knees give way and he slides to the floor, eyes burning. He wishes he could cry, for the first time in years he wants to, but as if his own body condemns him, he can’t even find that simple release of pain.



“Silver thinks you’ve gone mad,” Billy says that night, and James can only ask if Billy thinks the same. He doesn’t really get much of an answer, and perhaps that’s for the best.



Miranda says nothing at all. John won’t even look at him. Arete and Mona both are dark shadows, Irial a paler ghost - sometimes James thinks she’s almost as translucent as the spectral Eucleia usually is. That should mean something, it should worry him, but he’s not sure he’s even really seeing it.



He hears Thomas, from time to time. Whispers of his voice too indistinct to make out the words, a phantom touch on the back of his neck that is too familiar to be anyone else even in this unreal form. James doesn’t see him again, at least not properly. A flicker at the corners of his vision, and when he turns to look, no one is there. But he thinks he sees a hand playing with Miranda’s shorn-short hair - she doesn’t seem to notice, which is somehow worse than the rest of it. He thinks he sees a figure in the shadows, frowning at John as if to say did you replace me with him?



Don’t haunt her too, I’m to blame, one of us deserves some peace , James wants to say. Leave him be, I could never forget you but we were ruining each other just Miranda and I. But he doesn’t, because speaking to a ghost is worse even than simply seeing one. In his clearer moments, he thinks that Thomas would never be this cruel, to torment him and try to do the same to Miranda, to hate John because they care about him. Still, while he’s never believed ghost stories, he’s heard enough to know that too many say that ghosts are cruel even when they weren’t in life.



But ghosts aren’t real, and this is his treacherous mind, falling into delusion as just one more part of this slow death. And James knows well that his own mind is this cruel and worse. Perhaps he has gone mad after all.



And then, just when he’s beginning to think the best thing to do is for all of them to kill themselves before the thirst and hunger do it for them, they spot a whale carcass. James knows it will be too rotted for them to eat, but he goes out with John anyway.



It won’t make things worse, and he hasn’t the strength to argue.



<><><>



Andrew leaves the convoy with the ship initially used as a threat against Eleanor Guthrie, the ship Rogers doesn’t need. In this case, its mission is to take him to Savannah, Georgia, to find his brother and set him free. Andrew had hoped this would be all good news, that he could tell his brother that his wife and lover yet live, that -



But if Captain Hornigold is right, Miranda and James are dead, their ship sunk in a storm. How the hell is he going to tell Thomas that they essentially just missed each other?



“Maybe he’s wrong,” he tells Tethys, without much confidence. “Hornigold didn’t see the ship sink, he only saw debris. Could be they made it through.”



“With a wrecked ship, though, how far could they have gotten?” Tethys points out, landing on his knee. Her soft weight is familiar and comforting, but it only does so much now. He should have written Miranda, he thinks, he should have told her.



“I should have written as soon as I got the truth from Robert,” he says heavily. “Maybe they wouldn’t have defied Hornigold if they knew…”



Tethys nips at his skin through his trouser leg. “Stop that. You did as best you could, and it wasn’t wrong not to want to give Miranda false hope. The truth is we don’t even know if Thomas is still alive. What if we’d told her and then found out he’d died at the plantation after all? We made the choice with what we knew.”



“That isn’t going to make telling Thomas any easier,” Andrew says bitterly, and to that, his daemon has no answer.



The worst of it is, he feels that he ought to have seen this coming. Thomas and Robert never liked each other, and Robert was their father’s favorite. Alfred used to encourage the tensions between them, between the heir he despised and the bastard he favored. Andrew himself, merely tolerated, had sat on the sidelines to watch, until his change of church got him disowned entirely.



Anyone else might say that he was in Russia when all this unfolded, he ought not to blame himself when he was nowhere near. Sophia’s said it for years, in fact, her fox hushing Tethys by pouncing on her every time she tried to argue the point. But what his wife and her daemon don’t understand is that Andrew saw it for years, he read it in letters from both his brothers.



He knew . And it took him far too long to suspect anything. Andrew can’t help but feel that makes him culpable for this travesty where Thomas and his loves keep being ruined, and now it’s the final turn and what is he to say to his brother?



“Maybe we can just run with him,” Tethys suggests. “He won’t want to work for Rogers now, not when Hornigold ran Miranda and their James to death, and Hornigold is Rogers’ man. We could run, he might come to Philadelphia with us.”



“I think we might have to go back to Russia if we defy a Crown-appointed governor,” Andrew points out, “but I can’t see Sophia objecting too hard to that.” She misses Russia, he knows. The oddest part is that he misses it too. He’d never thought he would, but he does. And he knows quite well a clever foreigner can get in with the tsar if he knows the right people. Andrew knows… some of the right people, he could manage.



It’s a start of an idea, anyway.



The plantation, when Andrew arrives, is bigger than he’d expected it to be. He’d thought something small, but no, the fields are huge, the men small figures in whitish, baggy clothing bent over the rows. Their daemons help if they can, stay out of their way if not. Tethys soars as high as she can go, tugging on their bond until Andrew hisses with pain. Then she comes down again, settling on his shoulder. “I don’t see them!” she whispers urgently.



Andrew’s stomach knots, but he tries to ignore it. “Well, maybe you didn’t get a good look at the whole place,” he murmurs back, telling himself that it doesn’t mean Thomas and Eucleia aren’t here, it doesn’t mean they’re dead. They could have indoor work, or they could be on a different shift and asleep in one of the huts he sees. They could look too changed for Tethys to spot without a closer look.



Or they could be dead, and all of this, all of it , will be for fucking nothing.



Oglethorpe isn’t present when Andrew arrives, and his overseer Mr. Noll isn’t very forthcoming when Andrew gives his name, when he says he is Thomas’ brother and has every right to take him. “My brother was sent here by Governor Peter Ashe, you don’t recall that? I doubt the late lord was a regular customer, or an unnoticeable one.”



“Well, I know business was done with Lord Ashe, but even so…” the man demurs. Even when Andrew produces the papers Rogers gave him, Noll hems and haws, searching through papers because “We can’t remember every name that comes through here, are you absolutely sure he was sent here?”



He’s shifty-eyed, his sparrow daemon fidgety on his shoulder. Andrew thinks of Thomas, of the way he’d go intense when he wanted to convince someone, how Miranda’s smile would be so sweet you knew it could only mean danger. He thinks of how Robert’s eyes would flash, how their father’s eyes would turn to ice and freeze the blood.



He thinks he’s none of them, to do it on words and expressions alone, and Tethys soars from his shoulder, catches the other bird in her claws. They’re close in size but Tethys is by far the stronger.



Noll yelps and Andrew leans over the desk. He’s a tall man (he and Thomas get it from their grandfather, so they were told) and he knows it. He uses it now to loom over Noll, to hold his gaze as Tethys’ grip tightens just a little bit. “Mr. Noll. Where is my brother?” he asks, his voice low, even.



“I - we changed his name, to Christopher McGraw. He was shipped off to a cousin of Oglethorpe’s a few years back. He’d been granted land, he was given some of this lot so he didn’t have to spend money on African slaves.”



“Oglethorpe’s cousin getting to save money is not my concern. Where did you send him? ” Tethys’ beak nips at the other bird’s head and Noll winces.



“New Providence Island!”



Sometimes, Andrew reflects, it really seems as if someone has decided to turn his family into a cosmic joke. He, for one, isn’t laughing at all.



<><><>



Being so close to the island again is the strangest feeling. Eleanor had left in chains, and she’s coming back…



Well. In metaphorical chains, still, but she thinks she’s well on track to ridding herself of those. Nassau is the only home she has ever had, but this does not feel like a homecoming. It feels like a declaration of war, to have made it back here alive, at the side of Nassau’s new governor. It’s something like what she and Flint had planned, only now he’s forgotten that and she is not in the position of power she’d intended.



But she does have power. A quieter, subtler kind than she’s used to, but power all the same. It’s enough to be going on with. Well, it has to be, doesn’t it?



“Sometimes I think we’d be better off if we’d just left when Max and Kahedin wanted to,” Lys mutters, before turning his attention to washing his front paws.



“Don’t be ridiculous,” Eleanor says. “We have too much to do. We did then and we still do now. And we had nowhere to go anyway.”



There’s Boston, of course. There’s always been Boston, and a handful of letters suggesting that she’d be welcome, if she threw off her father’s unsavory business and came north. Or Philadelphia, her grandmother has a house there as well, she’s been told. But what was she supposed to do? She doesn’t even know how to have a lady’s maid who is half a guard, making sure she gets up to no mischief.



No. Nassau is hers. It’s for her to set right, and if the only way she can do that is by offering any and all help to Woodes Rogers, by tying her fate to his, then so be it. “We will see this through, Lysander. I refuse to do less. Not now, not after all that’s happened. Could you just walk away now? Truly?”



“Well, no, Ellie, but I can wish we had before it went this far.”



“And what’s the point of that, Lys?”



“There isn’t one. It’s just a fact that I feel it, that’s all, Ellie. Not everything has a point.”



“We don’t have time for pointless things right now.”



Her daemon is silent after that, but Eleanor can feel his disagreement, his unhappiness, down to her bones. He hates this, she knows. What her daemon wants is to take off on their own as soon as Rogers looks away for a moment. He doesn’t like playing housecat for the snake and her human, he’s said it in the dark at night, though he won’t say it aloud now. Not where others might hear.



It’s not that she disagrees, exactly. But what else is there? The truth is that it was this or the noose. She can be certain it would have been that, and not the… Well, she’s not sure what the other fate is, only having heard whispers. Something about a ‘Magisterium’, and some alternative to the noose no one seems to know any details of, but everyone fears it. Whatever it is, it happens only in secret. “At least in London, but I’ve heard in the colonies…” She hadn’t heard any more about that.



But Eleanor had heard them whispering at her trial that she would not face that. Oh no, not when they wanted a spectacle for her. She hopes her survival disappoints some of the gawkers who had come, day after day. That idea is another thing to take satisfaction in, she thinks.



“He needs us as much as we need him, Lys,” Eleanor says quietly. “Without us, his chances of being fast enough for Spain drop considerably and he knows it.”



“I don’t like that either. We know what happened when the Spanish -”



“Then we're the best of all to make sure it doesn't happen twice. We don't need that gold now, why not just give it back, get Spain to leave Nassau be?”



Mrs. Hudson joins her then, so Eleanor shuts up. But it's not long until she realizes something's wrong, and she makes her way to where Rogers is in consult with his men. Someone has set up a firing line at the harbor. For a moment Eleanor thinks Hornigold must have been wrong about Flint, but then she gets a look through a spyglass for herself.



It's Teach. When the fuck did he come back?



After that, Eleanor can't play the silent woman when the head of the naval forces is calling for a retreat and Rogers wants to make his address himself. “It shouldn't be you,” Eleanor says as she steps forward, a hand on Lysander’s back. “If you send someone else to read the pardon address, someone known to the men on that beach, it might work.”



Rogers and his snake are focused on her. Everyone is focused on her and she knows the commander’s order to have her removed means nothing. It can't be Rogers, it can't be her, but they have Hornigold. Expendable to the Navy, but their best chance with the men of Nassau.



She can see the moment Rogers decides to run with it, a flash of excitement in his eyes she knows all too well. Ambition, the same kind that drove her for all these years. For the first time, Eleanor wonders just how far they can really play this arrangement.



As for Hornigold, he probably thinks she's trying to get him killed. She isn't, but she doesn't mind if he thinks it. And, she suspects, neither does Rogers.



Oh yes, there is more to consider here.



<><><>



It’s as if the sharks are some kind of good luck token, the wind beginning to blow even as they’re still filling their empty stomachs. The wind has found them, and by the next morning, they’ve spotted land. Some of the men go to fill up waterskins and barrels by the river, others are off foraging for edible plants and the like. Nothing like that will keep at sea, they’ll need more meat that they can dry out, but as John hears Miranda tell the men, if they can get by for a couple of days on things that will spoil after that, they can save the longer-lasting supplies for when they really need them.



It’s not a bad idea, actually. John sends Llywellyn and Muldoon with makeshift slings to see if they can find any animals worth hunting - as long as they stay on the outskirts of the trees, he specifies. They still have shark meat, but anything else they can dry for longer-lasting food is going to be important. And those two, he knows, both know how to use slings as weapons, which is good because their pistols are all but useless with next to no powder having survived the storm. Like John himself, they just need a proper bit of cloth and a decent stone.



John, though, needs to get his boot off, so he goes away from the others, down by a sand dune. He can feel the salt water still irritating his skin, there’s probably some shark blood too, and he’s hoping taking it off will allow for some relief.



They’re finally alone and coherent for the first time since the storm, and it probably won’t last. So John assumes that’s why Irial chooses now to bring up things he would really prefer to ignore. “ That is heading towards infection,” she says, nodding at his stump as John pulls the peg off and clenches his teeth against the sting. “And our bond is injured again. I don’t understand why, but…”



“Well, we know it’s got something to do with your shifting,” John mutters. “I just hope…” He just hopes whatever it is only happens to them. “But you shift that cat every night and it doesn’t hurt, any more than it does when you turn back into a jackal in the morning. You don’t think… you can’t be settling piecemeal, can you?”



“How should I know? What they did, who knows what it did to us.”



And that has always been the problem, hasn’t it? At least Lizzie and Solomon knew what had happened to them and their daemons, the same as Miranda; a botched attempt at severing, a bond fraying but not cut. John and Irial had been shut up in boxes made of amber obsidian, moved a little further apart every day. They don’t know what happened to their bond aside from it being stretched. They’ll never really know - they suspect that the people who did it to them didn’t really know either, it was just an experiment, just something they did to see what would happen.



Of course, they’ve always suspected that Irial not settling might be an effect. But it’s never hurt for her to shift before. Now, unless she’s shifting between her jackal and clouded leopard forms, it hurts, and it keeps hurting until she shifts back. Which, John supposes it makes sense as a progression of the problem they already knew about - that Iri’s been struggling to hold other shapes ever since they woke up after Charles Town. The trouble is, they don’t know what’s causing this.



“They’re bound to find out eventually,” Irial says. “If they don’t see us in pain, they’ll notice the other thing. The only reason no one’s ever noticed before is we never stayed in one spot long enough.”



“They won’t notice, or they would have by now. As for the other, they won’t know if you keep your mouth shut this time.”



“It won’t work forever, but for now we’d both best do that, James and Mona are coming.”



John looks up to see James approaching, a bucket in his hand and Mona loping along at his side. “Does it hurt?” James asks as he sets down the bucket, dropping to the sand to sit next to John. Mona lies down beside Irial, pulling her in close. Against her dark bulk, Irial’s grey fur looks like smoke, as if one could look through her to see Mona.



(They can’t. Not quite. Irial is not made of smoke or glass, but sometimes, when the light hits, it looks like she could be. It’s been like this too long for it to matter now.)



“Less so. You know, fresh water helps,” John says, shaking off the thoughts of his daemon. What he’s saying is true, but the pain in his stump has been replaced by a heat he’s certain isn’t good news. Still, right now they have larger concerns. He’s been thinking about it, in his more lucid moments, and Hornigold’s offer seems to him to be a sign of something much bigger.



“The men have been asking questions,” James says quietly after a moment. “Soon we’ll need answers. What’s next for us?”



“I've been thinking about our engagement with Captain Hornigold. He offered pardons to our entire crew. He had no way of knowing how many men we even had, which suggests he had the number covered by a wide margin. And once someone's given him a hundred, what's to say they haven't given him two hundred? Five hundred? More?”

 

“Go on,” James says, as a black blur streaks toward them, stopping next to Irial and Mona to reveal itself as Arete. Miranda follows more sedately, sinking down next to James, and John sighs, setting down the empty bucket before he continues.



“So, the pardons,” John begins again, so that Miranda knows what they’re discussing. “Billy said something to me. Said that someone else likely procured those pardons for Hornigold. I started wondering. If you're Whitehall and you have it in your head you want to finally retake Nassau from the pirates, isn't the opening move in that attack the introduction of a universal pardon?”



John doesn’t fully understand the look James and Miranda share, but it’s clear something about this is as familiar to them as the Device had been to him. That makes his skin prickle, because the last thing they need is more history coming back to bite them.



“You been putting this together all this time and never saying anything to me about it?” James asks.



“Not to either of us,” Miranda adds, though she looks less bothered by it than James does.



John shrugs. “Well, none of us have really been in a frame of mind to talk of such matters.”



“No, I suppose not.”



“Well, then it's clear. The men must be prepared to return to an embattled Nassau. They must know we're about to join a fight to resist a British incursion.” John barely notes his own words, already thinking ahead. His brother’s request, the one he couldn’t honor before to forge an alliance between the pirates and rebellious indentured servants inland, is starting to sound more useful. But Miranda is shaking her head, something haunted in her expression, and James looks grim.



“It's likely over already,” James says, matter-of-fact rather than angry. “The fight. If there was one at all. It's likely it didn't last long.”



“The pardons will be tempting, but our men resisted.”



“Our men resisted because Miranda’s story scared the hell out of them, and because you and I told them to. For whatever reason, when you and I speak with one voice, we seem to be able  to compel them to any end. When it’s all three of us, we do even better. But Nassau will not be able to maintain that sort of resolve. Not without us there to help instill it.”



“How can you be so sure about this?” But some part of John whispers already that James is right. Someone always tells, someone tells to save their own skin, is the lesson Ireland taught him. And if someone doesn’t need to tell, because they can simply take a piece of paper and carry on? Is that the lesson Nassau will teach?



It’s Miranda who begins to answer, with a bitter sort of laugh. “We’re both sure, because before we came to Nassau we -”



But John is not to learn what James and Miranda did before Nassau. Not now, at least, because there are armed men surrounding them. Because of course, escaping a ship-killer and starvation isn’t enough, is it?