The Rose and Thorn - qqueenofhades (2024)

Chapter 1: I

Chapter Text

The bastard on the parapet above was very definitely aiming directly at him, and that, no matter his mixed feelings on why he was here in the first place, was the one thing Samuel Jones found bloody inexcusable. He ducked as the next round from the apparently very dedicated Spaniard blasted the trunk of the palm tree next to him, then fumbled another cartridge from his belt, tore the twist with his teeth, poured half the powder into the pan, and pulled his grimy ramrod to shove the ball, and the rest of the powder, down the barrel. Drew a bead on his target – the officers had about given up calling through the usual make ready, present, fire commands in the heavy bombardment, and every man was more or less shooting at will anyway – co*cked it, closed one eye, sighted down the barrel, and pulled the trigger.

The gun kicked, boomed, and actually went off, which was always a happy surprise when it did. Peering through the smoke, Sam could see to his chagrin that he had not shot the Spaniard, though by the volume and quantity of what sounded like some very Catholic curses, he thought he had at least come close. He crouched back down to start the cumbersome reloading process yet again, thinking that when he had agreed to do this (well, insofar as he had had an actual choice), it had been, in his mind, far more glamorous. The order had gone out through the Province of Georgia for all able-bodied men of arms-bearing age, sixteen to sixty, to join Governor James Oglethorpe in his march to St. Augustine, the capital of Spanish La Florida, and (theoretically, at least) capture it for the English Crown. Such, therefore, was the idea.

Reality, naturally, was turning out to be far more complicated. To say the least, Sam's family had an extremely delicate history with the English Crown, and this war, which had broken out last year, 1739, on deliberate provocation by the British to improve their economic position in the New World and hang onto their slave-trading right with Spanish colonies, was about as dislikable as it was possible to get. England and Spain were always fighting each other anyway, and Sam's father and grandfather had both been strongly against his going (his mother as well, though for different reasons). Sam understood their philosophical objections, and to some degree shared them, but he himself had different concerns. His twentieth birthday was in September, and he absolutely did not intend to be the only young man of his age sitting around on his hands while the rest went off to war. The society and good opinion of a number of fetching young ladies was at stake. He was going to make the most of this.

It was possible, Sam reflected, as he squinted against the glare off the water, that there were easier ways to accomplish this objective. The siege of St. Augustine had been, thus far, a very nearly unmitigated disaster. While Oglethorpe had started out with some modest success, the Spanish had recaptured the satellite citadel of Fort Mose in a surprise attack, wiping out half the Highlander and Indian contingent that had held it, and the Royal Navy blockade in the harbor – which by the very word, blockade, was supposed to keep Spanish supply ships out – had failed at that one job, allowing them to slip through the siege lines and replenish St. Augustine's dwindling provisions. Sam's father, the former Royal Navy lieutenant who had fought in several battles of the last major Anglo-Spanish war (now about four wars ago) would have been absolutely aghast at this incompetence, and it had left the British army, on its heels, with no option but to try to bash their way into the city by brute force. Which, given current events, was shaping up exactly as well as might be expected.

Sam ducked again as a second blast from the Spanish artillery on the walls crumpled the much-abused tree next to him into matchwood. His ears were ringing, and sweat was pouring down his back from the bruising July heat. He was not wearing the ubiquitous red coat of a soldier, but the blue wool jacket of a Continental militiaman, and either way, he was bloody boiling. He shucked it off, tucked his linen blouson shirt back into his breeches, and threw a hopeful look at the sky, imploring it to help out with a breeze or a bit of rain. Though he was likely to regret that instantly if it actually did, as it would turn this entire low-lying salt plain into hellacious mud, and Commodore Pearce, the lion-hearted commander of the Navy fleet, already had his bloomers in a bunch about hurricane season. One drop, and he'd probably run screaming, wig flying.

Sam snorted to himself, reloaded his musket again (he wasn't as fast as the well-drilled Army lads who could get off four shots a minute, but he wasn't some bumbling backwater country boy either – not that you'd know, the looks he got) and fired. The Spaniard was engaged in preparing to visit some other malfeasance on him, and this momentarily interrupted said proceedings. Indeed, their eyes locked among the chaos, and Sam had the brief and unsettling impression that the man knew him from somewhere, or had otherwise some animus with him that went beyond the general conventions of two blokes on either side of a flag trying to blast each other's brains out. Then there was another explosion, the field gun next to Sam backfired and someone went down screaming, and he forgot about it.

A few more inconclusive salvos were exchanged for the next few hours, but it was clear that the resupplied city was well prepared to hold against a few piddling bombardments, and Sam heard the officers yelling to fall back. God, this was embarrassing. They outnumbered the Spanish almost three to one between Army, militia, and Indians, boasted five Navy frigates and three sloops, and yet they were the ones scuttling away with their tails between their legs. It was a slog of close to a mile back to the British camp, a small tent city pitched on marsh and cut by glades (which, camp rumor held, contained several man-eating crocodiles), and the soot-faced, sweaty men were trudging in hungry, tired, and massively dispirited. It was clear that unless something changed, and quickly, they had permanently lost the advantage in Florida, and sporadic pay had not improved their tempers. The regulars could be more or less assured of theirs, but the militiamen were already clothed and supplied at their own expense, and as the Crown tended to hold the position that they should feel grateful to serve their rightful sovereign from the goodness of their hearts, this was not a profitable occupation. Or –

"Jones. Hey. Jones!"

Sam looked up with a start at the shout, to see his friend Nathaniel Hunt, one of the other men who had come from Savannah, where the Swan-Jones family lived after moving from Boston fifteen years ago. Sam was madly in love with Nathaniel's sister Isabelle, who was chief among the young ladies whose good graces he hoped to obtain by this venture, and he turned to him, wiping his face with his arm. "Aye?"

"General Oglethorpe wants to see you." Hunt looked rather intimidated. "Personally."

"Oh?" Sam had to repress a brief swoop of unease. He had figured that he was mostly invisible among the ranks, and extra scrutiny was never terribly welcome for someone of his particular pedigree. To have the commander asking for you by name was. . . well, hopefully it was just to settle up about those back wages, but not terribly likely. "I'll be along in a moment, then."

As Hunt trotted off, presumably to relay this message, Sam untied his long dark hair from its thong, combed his fingers through it, and splashed a little water on his face, which had only a minimal effect on the accumulated dust. He scouted up a new jacket and retied his neckerchief, and when he looked more or less presentable for an audience with the general – who, apart from his military station, was also the governor of the Province of Georgia and someone with the power to make things difficult for Sam and his family – swallowed hard and set off across the camp. Twilight streaked crimson and orange and gold across the western sky, and supper fires were starting to be lit, small earthbound stars, as clouds of stinging insects buzzed up from the marshes. The soldiers slapped them, grumbled, cursed, passed around canteens and bowls of stew, sitting on half-rotted logs and leaning their muskets against knots of saltgrass. Sam suddenly desired their company more than he had a minute ago, if an unexpected visit had cropped up in the meantime. This was probably nothing. Routine procedure.

He reached the central tent after a few more minutes, gave his name to the redcoats on guard outside, and waited as they ducked in to inform Oglethorpe. Then they beckoned him through, and Sam advanced warily as the flaps fell shut behind him. He had a pistol in his belt, not that he thought he could shoot the bloody Governor if this went pear-shaped, and he clasped his hands behind him, feeling as if he was back at school with the particularly irascible Latin master. "Ah – Your Excellency? I'm Samuel Jones. You wanted to see me?"

"Yes." James Oglethorpe was a trim mid-forties aristocrat in a currently rather damp and flyaway wig, which he seemed to have made a losing effort to tame. He was sitting behind a camp desk heaped with piles of papers and parchments: requisition orders, army reports, maps of the region, dispatches from the scouts and spies, and doubtless a hundred and one bellyaching letters from Commodore Pearce about the needs of the fleet. A few candles were wedged precariously onto the edge, along with some fugitive inkwells and penknives and a half-finished plate of dinner and decanter of brandy. "At your ease, soldier."

The last thing Sam felt was at ease, but he snapped a salute, clicked his heels, then adopted a slightly more casual posture, taking the camp chair across from Oglethorpe when the governor nodded to it. He tried not to fiddle with the loose thread on his jacket cuff. "Sir?" he prompted, when Oglethorpe kept writing. Likely shouldn't, keep your mouth shut until the commanding officer spoke to you, so on and so forth, but holding his tongue (or his temper) had never been one of his particular virtues. "Did you – "

Oglethorpe gave him a dry look, as if to say that he would find out if he just shut up for a moment, and removed the gadroon from the candle, dropping melted wax onto the letter and sealing it with a stamp of his ring. Then he said, "You are Samuel Jones of Savannah, Georgia?"

"Yes, sir."

"Is your father Killian Jones, formerly first lieutenant of HMS Imperator in the Royal Navy?"

A slight chill went down Sam's back, as this was never a well-boding line of questioning. Still, he kept his expression neutral. "Yes, sir."

"And your mother, I believe – " Oglethorpe checked one of his papers. "Emma Jones, née Swan, who was at one point in operation of a vessel, the Blackbird, that – pursued business opportunities outside of the usual parameters of enterprise?"

"If you're asking if my mother was a pirate," Sam said bluntly, "I think you know the answer."

Both of Oglethorpe's eyebrows raised at that, but he forbore to rebuke this impertinency. He set aside his papers and regarded Sam levelly, fingers steepled. "Both your parents, weren't they? Your father's notorious alias was Hook, later in his career?"

Sam winced. So much for this being innocuous. "My parents have been upright citizens for almost three decades. And considering that Georgia was founded to provide a refuge for those who might have landed themselves on the wrong side of England's laws – you should recall, sir, as you did the founding – surely you can't be registering a moral objection now?"

"There is," Oglethorpe said, "rather some difference between the honest poor abused in workhouses, those escaping the unjust vicissitudes of religious oppression, and other such deserving refugees, than there are between notorious and unrepentant high seas pirates. On that note, I believe your grandfather was also a pirate? James McGraw, known as Captain Flint – reported dead some years ago, by hanging?"

Sam kept his face straight. The number of ersatz "Flints" captured by the authorities and inevitably executed had in fact become something of a running joke with his family – "hanged you again last week, Grandpa" – but this meant that Oglethorpe had been doing quite a bit of digging. Not merely to boast about it, either. "Aye," he said, since there wasn't much use in denying it outright. "But my grandfather is, as you say, dead."

"Mm. And you are most likely named for the late Captain Samuel Bellamy, a former close associate of your parents, and also a pirate?"

"Yes," Sam said resignedly, deciding not to mention that this man was additionally his godfather, as he had a feeling that would be making Oglethorpe's point for him. "Also a pirate."

"Mmmmm." Oglethorpe's nostrils pinched, but at least he was not shouting for the redcoats to rush in and string Sam up – yet – so there had to be some purpose to this interrogation. "Well, young Jones. You have a. . . colorful genealogy."

"Yes, sir." Sam was thirsty as buggeration, but he did not suppose that the governor was about to offer him a drink. "Anyone else to ask me about, sir?"

Oglethorpe gave him a cold fish-eye, seemed to consider it, and then sat back. "That will suffice for the moment. I suppose it's to your credit that you are forthcoming about it. Though, one would also reckon, quite dangerous."

"My parents never tried to hide who our family was, and used to be. Even as much as they've lived peacefully since they left that world behind." Sam's tone matched the governor's for levelness, but he was not about to sit here and listen to his kin be slandered to his face. "Is there a purpose to this? Sir?"

"So you are going to claim that, despite this, you are a loyal subject?"

"I'm here, aren't I?" Sam decided it was best to finesse this question. "Fighting for you? And from what I can tell, the whole thing has gone tit* up without any help at all from me."

Oglethorpe looked pained.

"Er." Sam coughed. "Feet. Feet up."

"Well – despite your markedly uncouth matter of phrasing it, I cannot argue with your conclusions." Oglethorpe took the decanter and poured a bracing tot of brandy for himself. "The failure of the blockade was a serious blow, and by all indications, we will have to retreat. That damnable poltroon Pearce has also turned lily-livered about keeping the fleet out in hurricane season – though considering what happened twenty-five years ago, just down the coast, I suppose he has a point."

Sam concurred on this accord, as the legendary wreck of the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet was an event well known across the New World, and once more pertinent to his family history. He was, however, slightly wary as to why Oglethorpe had turned that quickly from interviewing him about said history to dropping bits of undeniably sensitive intelligence. His first instinct – that Oglethorpe wanted to blackmail him somehow – felt accurate, but it was more than that. Having made it clear what was at stake if Sam should refuse, viz. the potential continued peaceful existence of his entire family, the carrot must now follow the stick, and Sam didn't feel like waiting it out. "Well?" he said. "What do you want from me?"

Oglethorpe's eyebrows made a now fairly-accustomed pilgrimage toward his hairline. "Do you always speak so. . . openly to your superiors?"

"I'm not one for flimflam." Sam leaned back in his chair. "You do want something from me, don't you? That's what you're getting at. You've been elegantly insinuating how much you know about my family and how much trouble you could make if I don't cooperate. Let's assume for the moment that I'm cooperating. What is it?"

"Well." Feathers ruffled, Oglethorpe had to take a restorative gulp of brandy. "Among our other misfortunes, Governor Montiano has recently captured several of my clerks and aides-de-camp, men with detailed knowledge of our plans, capabilities, and the continuing broader operation of the war. We are preparing for a – well, never mind. Suffice it to say that the future strategy of the English Crown will be considerably jeopardized if Montiano succeeds in passing that intelligence to his overlords in Havana. In exchange for your agreement to work as my personal agent in this matter, tracking the Spaniard with the intelligence and taking whatever measures necessary to ensure that it is not received, I will. . . take your word for it that your family are productive and peaceable members of society. Is that clear enough for your tastes?"

Sam repressed a brief and unpleasant sensation that he knew exactly which Spaniard would be carrying the letter to Havana. "So you're what – asking me to put my inherited pirate skills to work in your interests? Shoot the messenger, as it were?"

"If that is what it takes, then it would, of course, be sanctioned by the state of war that exists between Great Britain and the Spanish empire. Not, of course, that I find the prospect tasteful. I am aware that murder remains a sin in the Anglican confession, and I would not ask you to commit it without due cause." Oglethorpe actually looked candidly at Sam for the first time in the conversation, which was nice enough of him that Sam decided against mentioning that his family wasn't much for church. "All I ask is that the letter with the intelligence does not reach Havana. And since you, as you note, have somewhat of a heritage with these acts, you can employ your own discretion as to what that involves."

"And I'm supposed to do this for free?"

"On the understanding that your family would be guaranteed their safety, yes."

Sam considered, tapping his fingers on his knee. He wanted to point out that guarantees of safety were not going to cover any bribes, fees of passage, food or lodging, or other expenses, and that the militiamen were, as noted, already several months in arrears of even their modest pay, which always seemed to be the first to go whenever the supply chain was in straits. Not too much in straits, though, given that Oglethorpe still had his brandy. Wouldn't want to deprive him of that, to be sure. "But you're still not expensing me for it?"

"I should not be surprised that the scion of pirates haggles like a fishwife." Oglethorpe pulled out another sheet of parchment, dipped his quill, signed it, and stamped it. "In that regard, well, this is for you. Letters of marque. It entitles you to take that which you require for your sustenance, under the auspices of your status as a servant to His Majesty, George II."

Sam grimaced. "You're making me a privateer, you mean."

"I am hiring a pirate," Oglethorpe pointed out, with some asperity. "Not a priest."

This was, Sam supposed, rather flattering in its way, so that he wondered if he wanted to correct Oglethorpe's amusing but mistaken impression that he had been raised as a miniature buccaneer from the cradle, wrapped in the skull and crossbones as a baby blanket and taught his letters by chalking DEATH TO ENGLISH TYRANNY over and over on the slate. He in fact had no more real knowledge of the pirate life than any other nineteen-year-old lad with an overactive imagination, because his parents had always ensured that he never had to live that way. But he could not deny that he was curious. They had all experienced it, they had known it, they had bled and breathed it, and grateful as he was for his comfortable and prosperous childhood, he felt that he had rather missed the boat, in more ways than one. He was proud of what his family had been, even as he knew there was no place for them in this ever more modern world. And yet, he could not help but want his own taste. Just a little. Just that same breath of adventure, of freedom.

He hesitated, then took the letter. Not that he knew entirely what to do with it, but it couldn't hurt to keep it for now. "Am I going by myself?"

"An army company would attract attention, and I won't be able to spare men from our rearguard, given that Montiano and his negroes are likely to be breathing up it." Oglethorpe sighed. He himself was a fairly progressive man as such things went; it was on his express instigation that slavery had been banned in the new colony of Georgia, and he had cultivated genuinely good relationships with the local Indians, several of whom were here fighting for him. That did not mean, however, that he was inclined to view a hostile alliance of Spaniards and black men favorably. Slavery had been outlawed in Spanish Florida since 1728, granted in gratitude for them rising up to defeat an attempted British invasion, and since the issue of its continued trade lay at the heart of this war, Sam rather thought that despite any personal convictions as to its moral wrongness, Oglethorpe was still supporting it by fighting for the system that sustained it. "You may, however," the governor went on, "choose a traveling companion. Your mission will be dangerous, and it is best not to go entirely alone."

"Hunt," Sam said at once. Whatever was going to happen, he'd feel far safer with a friend from home at his back. "Nathaniel Hunt."

"Very well. If you think you can trust him, you'd best be on your way." Oglethorpe looked as if he knew that he was depriving Sam of a hearty meal and a good night's sleep, but time was of the essence. The Spanish agent might already have a head start. "Good luck, Mr. Jones."

"Please," Nathaniel said as they trudged through the thigh-high salt grass, "tell me that you're not doing this to impress my sister."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." Sam prodded gingerly ahead of him with his musket. There were all kinds of poisonous vipers around here – moccasins, copperheads, cottonmouths – and he'd seen a man bitten, have his leg swell up blue and bloated, then die in agony hours later. The sound of the camp had almost, but not quite, faded behind them, and as they had to get back to St. Augustine, determine if the courier had left yet, and avoid being killed all before sunrise, Sam was setting a brisk pace. "Besides, even if I was, fair's fair, isn't it? You're not going to tell me you don't have eyes for Geneva?"

Nathaniel was a tall, lanky redhead, which meant that when he blushed, it looked as if his entire head was afire. The fact that said blush was visible even by moonlight was testament to its ferocity. "Shut up."

"Aha." At least, Sam thought, Nathaniel could take comfort in the fact that he was far from alone in this affliction. Geneva Jones was twenty-four, a striking beauty (not that Sam himself was vested in this, as she was his older sister, that would just be bloody weird) and the present captain of the family ship, the Rose, which had been a Navy sixth-rater in its former life before their mother commandeered it. Geneva had always demonstrated more of an aptitude and aspiration for sailing than Sam, who preferred to conduct his misadventures on land (the one trait in which he sensed that he might have disappointed his seafaring relations) and as such, had been the one prepared to inherit said vessel. Come to think of it, this mission also couldn't hurt as a chance to polish Sam's credentials as an old salt, or however that worked. "You do."

"I said, shut up." Nathaniel kept walking determinedly. "Besides, someone has to come along to be sure you don't break your fool neck."

"It'll be a good story," Sam said. "Have your uncle print it up in his paper. Or he can put it in the other one, Poor Richard's Almanack. I'm sure it would be very popular."

Nathaniel looked mildly horrified at this suggestion, as if his uncle Benjamin found out, it would assuredly mean that his mother, one of the other sixteen children of Josiah Franklin and his two wives, would find out as well. "I think I'd rather face the Spaniards."

"There, see, you've that going for you already." Sam stole another wary look from side to side, checked the grass once more for poisonous beasts (of whatever variety) and jumped the creek, before gesturing to Nathaniel to halt. "This shouldn't take long. Keep watch."

Nathaniel blinked, utterly baffled. "Keep watch? For what? We're not even out of the camp yet. Hate to break it to you, Jones, but that's one of our supply wagons just there, not a Spanish artillery position."

"I know it's a supply wagon, you dolt." Sam cracked his knuckles. "I said, keep watch."

Bafflement remained the chief emotion on his friend's freckled countenance a moment longer, until it was replaced by horror. "Oh no. Oh, no. Sam, don't you – "

"I have a letter of marque, remember? And this is the hell of a lot easier to start with than some Spanish fortress or man-o-war bristling with guns. Besides, they haven't paid us anyway. Do you want your share or not?"

"Oh my god," Nathaniel said. "You are going to get us killed."

"Just keep quiet and let out a good yell if anyone comes this way." Sam checked that the sentries had passed, then limbered up the side of the wagon, untying the lashings and burrowing beneath the canvas like a determined weasel. He could still hear Nathaniel muttering imprecations to himself under his breath, clearly vastly regretting this decision not an hour into it, but, well, that was his misfortune. Sam rummaged around in the dimness, saw beady eyes and batted away the foot-long rat that was gnawing on the grain sack, and finally happened on one of the petty cash chests. The main strongboxes were kept in the governor's pavilion with the guards, but the supply wagons needed to have their own capital on hand to barter or purchase provisions for the army, and the drivers were not always terribly conscientious about taking it out every night – who would bother to steal it, in the middle of camp, when being caught would either get them short a hand or a noose around the neck? Aye. Rhetorical question, Jones. The answer being you.

Sam took the ramrod from his musket, which he had brought into the wagon with him for this express purpose, and worked at the lock – not terribly complicated – until it gave way. He might not be a full-blown pirate, no, but growing up with them had given him a black-market skill or two, and he opened the chest, grabbed one of the money sacks inside, gave it a good jingle to test that it was full, and then stuffed it into his jacket and bailed out of the wagon to the extremely judgmental stare of Nathaniel Obadiah Hunt. At least it was his, and not anyone else's, and Sam scrambled to his feet, brushing grass off his breeches. "Let's go."

Still shaking his head, Nathaniel shouldered his own musket and their rucksack of provisions, and they trotted at a healthy pace until the British camp had mostly disappeared behind them. St. Augustine lay dark on the horizon, the Castillo de San Marcos bristling with fortified positions and torches burning along the walls. The Spanish were no doubt extremely vigilant as the possibility of a second English sneak attack during the night, and Sam and Nathaniel had to be very, very careful picking their way across the outlying island. It was still strewn with the remains of the bombardment earlier, broken trees and heaps of stones and here and there, unpleasantly, a staring corpse already starting to smell ripe from the heat. Some of them had supplies still with them, and might have had coin, but Sam already had what he needed, and he was no grave-robber. Leave that to the scavengers.

At last, they reached the bay, slipped through the mud flats left by the outgoing tide, and cautiously eyed up the ships in the harbor. All they really had to go on was that Governor Montiano would be sending his intelligence to Havana, so they could hitch a ride aboard one of the sloops – it shouldn't be too difficult, if Sam presented his commission from Oglethorpe. He thought vaguely of the fact that his family might wonder what had happened to him, if he did not return home with the rest of the retreating army. When tasked with a vital secret mission, you did not get a chance to ask if you could write to your mother first, but Sam hoped they wouldn't worry. Besides, any letter he gave to one of Oglethorpe's minions would provide them with an excellent chance to find out exactly where his family lived, the fact that his grandfather was not dead, and other such sensitive details. Finish this, and they'd be. . . well, Sam was not so naïve as to think that this would shield them from scrutiny forever. But still. This could matter.

He took a deep breath, hitched his pack up, and started to walk.

It was the dream that woke Emma, though once she opened her eyes and felt herself return to reality with a small gasp, she was not quite sure what it had been. It slipped quietly away on the tides of sleep and the stillness before sunrise, and she blinked hard, left with only a vague sense of unsettlement and unease. It faded, though, and she let herself sink back into the pillows, Killian's arm settled around her waist where he had draped it before they had fallen asleep. In the deep heat of a southern summer, neither of them saw much call to wear anything to bed, and much as Emma enjoyed being cocooned in amorous embrace with her dearest spouse, she was also rather too warm, and she lightly disentangled herself, settling his arm on the mattress and admiring the dark sweep of lashes on his cheek. He looked young in his sleep, he always had, despite the advancing streaks of silver that frosted his hair, the well-weathered lines that framed his eyes. At almost fifty-three – his birthday was in a few more weeks, on Saint Bartholomew's day at the end of August – he would have fallen under the militia conscription order as well, as men were not exempt from service until the age of sixty, but a one-handed man did not qualify as able-bodied, could not fire a musket or otherwise fight, and besides, it was possible that the Colony of Georgia did not want to clutch Captain Hook too closely to its bosom anyway. That past was kept quiet and private these days, and Emma did not think that the authorities were fully aware, but no sense in tempting fate. Besides. She was just as glad to keep him home.

That made her think yet again about Sam, whom she had not stopped worrying about since he had marched off with the rest of the men in January. At going on six months, this was the longest he had yet been away from home, and with the slow and piecemeal movement of news through a war zone, there was not necessarily any way to know that they would have been informed by now if he had died. The founding of Georgia as an organized colony, when previously it had been the vital buffer zone between the British Carolinas and Spanish Florida, was always destined to be a point of serious contention, and Emma could not help but resent that her family had once more been caught up in one of England's pointless, damaging, draining wars. Still. At least the rest of them were here, together. At least she had this.

She paused, looking down at Killian, then settled closer alongside him, deciding that the heat, given that the sun was not quite up, was not too onerous after all. She traced a finger down his chest (his magnificent fur was also rather silver in places) and then lower, opening her palm, as he made a deep, rumbling sound in his sleep, stirred, and she saw a crack of blue beneath those lashes, grinning at her. He arched his back, pressing himself into her hand. "Well, love. That's one way to wake up."

"Good morning." Emma leaned down to kiss the corner of his mouth, wanting him, his weight and warmth and presence, to chase away whatever demons were lingering from the darkness. Her hair fell loose, the blonde gone white in a few sizeable places as well, as he reached up with his good hand to play with it, tucking it behind her ear. "Did I interrupt a good. . . dream?"

"Nothing comparable to the real thing." Killian shifted as she rolled on top of him, uttering another satisfied-sounding rumble as she palmed him. He wrapped his shortened arm around her waist, settling her into the grooves and lines and hollows of his body where she had learned to fit so well, and they passed an extremely pleasurable interlude with the minimum of talking. Then, when she had rolled off again, both of them enjoying the deep flush of climax spreading through them with the same steady glow of the rising sun, he said, "What is it, love?"

Emma supposed she shouldn't be surprised that he could, as ever, sense even the faintest tremors of disquiet in her soul. "Nothing." She circled his nipple with her finger. "I'm all right now."

Killian gave her one of his Really, Swan? looks.

"Really." Emma had to laugh. "Just worrying about Sam again, that's all. I had a dream – I don't even remember if it was about him – but it felt like one of those. . . those motherly things. It's been hard on me, the not knowing. I'm ready for him to come home."

"You can't keep the lad close by forever," Killian said gently. "When I was nineteen – well, I'd just joined the Navy, so everything seemed possible to me. You're not the smartest of creatures when you're a boy of that age, so – whatever Sam's been doing, whatever he's gotten himself into, it's likely best we don't know, eh? Be far too stressful otherwise."

Emma buzzed a reluctant laugh, even as she couldn't rid herself of the faint, lingering thorn in her heart. Still, however, there were happier preoccupations on this front. "I don't suppose Geneva will be awake just yet. She was rather late arriving last night."

"Aye," Killian agreed, with the same doting look he had always worn when discussing the subject of his daughter, for all the twenty-four years of her life to date. Geneva had just returned from her trip to Boston, where Henry had remained with his wife Violet and their two children, Richard and Lucy. Henry had a respectable position as a reader of law and history at Harvard College, though he had been making noises about moving the family to Philadelphia and taking up with Nathaniel and Isabelle Hunt's uncle Benjamin and the newspapers, pamphlets, and publishing business he was profitably running there. The Hunts were longtime friends of the Swan-Jones family, also with their roots in Boston, and Emma hoped that Nathaniel, who had likewise gone to war, was at least trying to keep her son out of trouble. He seemed to have a far better grasp on what that actually entailed than Sam did. He's too much like the rest of us.

At any rate, Geneva sailed fairly frequently between Boston and Savannah, keeping up the family tradition of female captains in her mother's stead, and she might have picked up something about the progress of the war on her peregrinations. Emma sat up, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and went to pull on her shift and drawers, then her stays. "Give me a hand?"

"Very funny, Swan." Killian rolled his eyes tolerantly, though he had in fact become quite good at doing up his wife's corset with one hand; he did not always bother to put on the complicated brace for the hook if they were merely lounging around at home, and he tended to wear his false hand when they were going out. Savannah might be an opportune place for ex-pirates to settle, given the philanthropic considerations that had attended the colony's founding, but that did not equate to openly displaying it before everyone's faces.

Once Killian had laced the stays, not too tightly, Emma shrugged on a light lawn dress, and Killian himself pulled on a loose shirt and buttoned breeches, both of them leaving their feet bare as they padded downstairs and into the airy solarium that adjoined the house's kitchen. They did not keep servants, though they could certainly afford to do so; that would just have to go into the ledger as another item with which to shock the neighbors. Killian sat at the table as Emma filled the kettle and set it on for coffee, to which all the Colonies had become ragingly addicted, and set on a pot of porridge to warm. When it was burbling appealingly, she took it off, spooned it into two bowls, and took the honey pot as Killian passed it with a slightly pained look on his face. This was her taste in breakfast more than his, as Killian tended to insist on boiled mackerel, grapefruit, and other severe and bracing choices of morning meal. You could, and might have long since, taken the sailor out of the Navy, but etc etc.

They had eaten for a few minutes in amiable silence when the stairs creaked, and – clearly drawn by the scent of food – Geneva came shuffling in in her dressing gown, yawning and groggy. Nonetheless, both Killian and Emma quickly got to their feet to greet their daughter with a kiss, and Emma ladled out a third bowl of porridge, pouring coffee into an earthenware mug (she and Geneva liked it with a bit of cream and sugar, Killian insisted on quaffing it black as tar). "How was the voyage, sweetheart?"

"It was a bit of a bloody hassle, actually." Geneva shook her tousled black locks out of her face, sat down with her breakfast next to her father, and began to voraciously devour it. "The Spanish are crawling straight up the arse of any ship that seems remotely English, and I must have had to declare my goods ten times. Not to mention the looks those bastards give me, whenever I say that I'm the captain. I spent five hours arguing with the guardas costas off Cape Hatteras."

Killian and Emma exchanged a look, as they themselves were too familiar with the guardas costas, the Spanish patrol ships that had made pirate lives so unpleasant back in the day. This war, moreover, had ostensibly been started by one – when the master of the guardas ship La Isabela had seized and boarded a British brig, the Rebecca, and cut off the ear of its captain, one Robert Jenkins. The incident had remained a source of insult, but only that, until the British government, looking for an excuse to declare war on Spain, had fanned it into evidently the most major outrage the country had ever suffered, anywhere. (Colorful legends that the severed appendage had been displayed before Parliament remained unverified.) "Off Cape Hatteras?" Emma repeated. "They're not supposed to be so far in English territory."

"Must have been my lucky day, then." Geneva gulped down another spoonful of porridge. "We all know that the real profit from the annual ship comes from all the contraband aboard it, so I suppose they were determined to ensure it wasn't me. I finally sent him packing, though."

"Aye, that's my lass." Killian looked enormously proud. The "annual ship" meant the one ship of trade goods a year that Britain was allowed to send to the Spanish colonies in the West Indies, as they were otherwise a closed market that only Spain was allowed to trade with. The Spanish colonists, however, were as eager for English luxury goods as their government was for them not to have them, and were willing to pay exorbitant prices for their acquisition. Hence, whichever captain was chosen for the annual ship must be barely able to hold the wheel, as his palms had been so well greased. Half of the smuggling in the Caribbean for the entire year must go through that ship, and was fenced profitably at its port of destination, so the guardas costas must be even more overzealous in trying to catch it and prove a major success to Madrid. "While you were out, did you. . . hear anything of how things are going, in Florida?"

A slight shadow passed over Geneva's face, as she clearly knew they were asking for news of her brother. "Only rumors, but it didn't sound promising. Oglethorpe is besieging St. Augustine, has been since June, but whichever nobhead they have in command of the Navy fleet seems to be sleeping on the job. The sea blockade hasn't been effective. They might have to fall back."

Killian snorted, as even his long departure from the Navy would certainly not prevent him from judging it harshly on its failures. "Typical."

"Aye." Geneva scraped the bottom of her bowl and looked hopefully for a second serving, which Emma took it to provide. "Then again, what would you expect? I doubt the South Sea Company is actually giving them any money either."

"No," Killian said scathingly. "Seeing as that would detract from losing it in illicit insider trading and gaming the stock market. Likewise typical that twenty years after they crashed the economy the first time, they're given a kiss on the arse by Westminster and their very own war, isn't it?"

Geneva, who had been only four when the "South Sea Bubble" burst for the first time, ruining a number of common creditors who had been persuaded to invest at artificially skyrocketing stock prices in the promised opening of trade with the Spanish Indies (but not, of course, the wealthy shareholders who had conned them into it) raised an eyebrow. "You know you sound like a grumpy old man, Daddy, don't you?"

"I'm justified, lass," Killian said, with great dignity. "Well, if Oglethorpe is retreating from Florida, that might mean your brother's coming home, but it's not necessarily good news for the rest of us. That means the Spaniards might be on the march, and if they make it to Savannah – "

The Swan-Joneses exchanged a look, as they all knew that what befell captured cities in wartime was rarely pleasant. Finally Geneva said, "We'll leave on the Rose, we'll take Granny, Grandpa, and Great-Uncle Thomas with us. Go back to Boston, if we have to."

"Ah," Killian murmured. "So England can take another home from us."

There was a brief and unhappy silence, as nobody was eager to uproot from Savannah, where they had lived for fifteen years, and surely Miranda, James, and Thomas must be even less so. Still, that remained as yet a theoretical difficulty, happily, and Geneva drank the last of her coffee, then set the cup down. "On that note, I was actually planning to visit them today. I brought back some books for them. Did you want to come?"

"That sounds lovely." Emma started to rise to her feet. "I'll get the horses hitched up."

"No, Mother, I'll do it. Soon as I get dressed." Geneva pushed her back down. "Stay."

Raising an eyebrow, Emma did as instructed, as she had to consider that perhaps it would not be the worst thing in the world to consider hiring help. When Sam was home, he was saddled with all the chores that it was useful to have a teenage son on hand to accomplish, but with his extended absence, and the fact of Killian's limitations, that meant that most of the housework and general mucking about fell to Emma. Neither of them were getting any younger, and there were certainly any number of interested applicants. At least a maidservant and a footman, as they could likely get by with that, and she would treat them better than Leopold White had ultimately treated her. She would have to place an advertisem*nt in the Virginia Gazette, published in Williamsburg, as that was the chief newspaper serving the southern colonies. Gone were the days when all the Americas had only had the Boston News-Letter, printed once weekly, to rely upon, as the trade was steadily growing – thanks in no small part to Ben Franklin, in fact. She'd look into it.

Geneva returned in fifteen minutes or so, washed and brushed, and went to hitch up their two horses to the buggy, which she enjoyed driving through Savannah's cobbled streets at decidedly unladylike speeds. Various outraged guardians of public virtue had registered their objections to Killian, which were promptly and thoroughly ignored, and several local ministers were more than slightly convinced of Geneva's status as a Cautionary Tale to all the impressionable young women in their parishes. Emma bit a grin as her daughter helped them up onto the running board, adjusted her hat to a fashionable angle, gathered the reins in gloved hands, and snapped them lightly over the horses' backs. They rolled out of the carriage house, and down the road.

It was a hot and clear late-summer morning in Savannah, the air already thick as soup, and the merchants were as interested in reclining in the shade as they were in hawking their wares. Geneva only attracted a few stares, as most of the locals were resignedly used to her by now, and they sped up once they had crossed town, taking the road (well, wandering country lane) that led out to the small house, built under huge old oaks, where Miranda Hamilton McGraw lived with her husbands, who were at least as married to each other as they were to her. Hearing the buggy's wheels crunching up, she opened the door and stepped out onto the porch, and Geneva waved to her. "Stay there, Granny," she called. "We'll come over."

Miranda did as instructed, though her face had lit up with joy to see her granddaughter, as the two of them were very close. She was not much for traveling these days, as she had never entirely recovered from her ordeal in Charlestown and the lasting damage it had left in her, and at the age of sixty-five, she was more than justified in a quiet retirement. When Geneva had unbuckled the harnesses and led the horses to the trough, she hurried up the garden walk to hug her grandmother (gently) and kiss her on the cheek. "I have a surprise for you."

"More than just this unexpected visit?" Miranda raised an eyebrow, turning so Emma could kiss her as well, and Killian nodded affectionately. "I didn't think you'd be back from Boston for another week at the least."

"Wind was good," Geneva said, with the casual competence of the experienced sailor. "Though the delays with the guardas nearly wiped that out."

Miranda's brow furrowed. "They've gotten quite bold again, haven't they?"

"Don't worry, Granny, I still have both my ears," Geneva assured her, linking her arm through Miranda's, as Miranda took a better grip on her cane with the other hand, to escort her inside. With Killian and Emma following, they went through to the small kitchen at the back of the house, where James McGraw and Thomas Hamilton were reading the paper in their shirtsleeves. Flint was likewise in his late sixties, but tough and strong and weathered as a stump of ironwood, his hair gone mostly the rich, mellow white of redheads, though there were ginger streaks left here and there and in his beard. Strictly speaking, he hadn't been "Flint" for many years now, and while everyone was grateful for it, it still tended to be how Emma thought of him. Fonder, rather than the previous wariness and careful, always-contested alliance, but an older lion was still a dangerous one, and he more than certainly still had his claws. Even his life here in peaceful obscurity with Miranda and Thomas had not softened those edges entirely.

And yet, Flint was smiling as he stood up. "Well," he said, crossing the floor to clap Killian on the shoulder, let Emma kiss his scruffy cheek, and hug Geneva with one arm. "Thought I smelled trouble. Those bastards let you back into port then, Jenny?"

"Only with minimal bribery, aye," Geneva said dryly. She stepped past him to hug Thomas, who – although she and Sam would have happily called him grandpa as well – insisted that he did not want to take away from the family that James and Miranda had built in the years without him, and was content to be known as great-uncle. "I've a surprise for you."

With that, she took out a large parcel wrapped in brown paper, handed it over, and watched with barely concealed delight as her grandparents opened it. There was a leather-bound edition of the poems of Catullus, the same of the histories of Tacitus, a copy of Gulliver's Travels by the novelist Swift, the newest Poor Richard's Almanack, some tracts by the philosopher Locke, and several French books with risqué woodcuts. "This must have cost you a fortune," Miranda said, finally looking up from lovingly paging through each. "Are you sure you don't want us to – ?"

"Don't be ridiculous, Granny. It's a gift." Geneva shook her head firmly. "You know Henry's at Harvard, and he's thinking about moving to Philadelphia and taking up with Mr. Franklin. You'll have more books than you know what to do with."

"Gracious, you'll spoil us." Miranda's eyes shone, belying her protestations, as she squeezed Geneva's hand. "Well, what next for you, after all this industry? Surely a young lady as busy as you won't be sitting at home for long, much as we might enjoy your company while you are."

"Actually." Geneva's voice was the sort of carefully offhand tone that was used to impart potentially uncomfortable information, while trying to make it sound as ordinary as possible. "I was thinking about going to Nassau."

That caused everyone in the kitchen to sit up sharply and pay attention. Killian and Emma glanced at each other, as James, Thomas, and Miranda did likewise, a current running among all five of the adults. Thomas had never been there, and the other four had not been back since they had left. It was a bustling center of (mostly) lawful commerce these days, rather than a notorious outlaw haven, and they obviously could not stop Geneva going if she wanted to, but that would certainly take a few tries to swallow. "Nassau?" Emma said at last. "Why?"

"Uncle Charlie's there," Geneva pointed out, which was true. Emma's brother, Charles Swan, had stayed on New Providence Island and risen to a position of some significance in its politics. The pirates' old and sworn enemy, Woodes Rogers, had actually been reinstated to the office of governor after he was released from debtors' prison, though his second tenure was quite a bit less successful than the first, and he had died there in 1732. Upon the occasion of his decidedly unlamented demise, Charles had taken over as the acting governor of the island, holding the office for a few months, before he formed the strong opinion that such a career was not at all for him. He returned to his work with Max, the de facto mistress of the island anyway, to manage David and Mary Margaret Nolan's shipping and merchant concerns in the Bahamas, of which a portion of the considerable profits had been sent to Killian and Emma for years. And yet, none of them had ever quite felt up to returning. It felt like tempting fate, given everything that had happened to them there. Charlie had visited them in Boston and Savannah alike, but they had never returned the favor with Nassau. It remained too delicate.

"Aye," Emma said at last, slowly, seeing that her daughter was waiting for her to answer. "I can understand you might want to visit, and aye, Charlie would be happy to introduce you to the merchant guilds there. But it's. . . it's surely not where you mean to make a career?"

"One of you should be a pirate," Flint suggested. "Seeing as Samuel can't sail to save his life."

Miranda gave her second husband a deeply reproving look. "James."

"No, Grandpa, I don't mean to be a pirate." Nonetheless, Geneva had to bite her lip on a smile. "But I – I've wanted to go there for a while. I feel as if I should at least see the place."

"By yourself?" Thomas raised a grey-blonde eyebrow. "From what James and Miranda have told me, it's not the sort of place I'd think a young lady would feel comfortable venturing alone – it might be slightly more respectable these days, but a fresh coat of paint is scarcely about to fix all the holes in the walls, only hide them. Nobody would know me, and therefore I doubt I'd attract any singular attention as your chaperon. Permit me to come along."

Flint and Miranda both started to say something at this, then stopped. Surely Thomas must be just as curious about the life they had shared there for a decade without him, and with his long years of work on the plantation where he had been sent by his father, thus to expunge the scandal from the Hamilton family name without actually killing him, he was still reasonably spry and active. As he pointed out, it would attract no attention for an older gentleman to be traveling with his great-niece, and no matter if it had been a quarter century or not, there was no way Captain Flint could set foot on Nassau again without lighting the entire Caribbean afire with the news. The world presumed him dead several times over, which was not entirely inaccurate insofar as Captain Flint had long returned to the sea and only James McGraw remained, and it was that anonymity which was keeping him, his wife and husband, and the rest of their family safe. Nobody needed to look for a dead man, or think to try him for his crimes. Bringing him back to life might be more trouble than it was worth.

"Thomas," Miranda began at last. "Are you sure? Do you want to – I could go with both of you, if you thought that would – "

"You can't travel well," Thomas reminded her. "And I know you and James have not spent a single night apart since you found each other again. Stay here and look after each other as you did for so long, my dear ones. It's my pilgrimage to make, now. Assuming, of course, that Geneva would be willing to bring an old man along."

"Of course, Great-Uncle Thomas." Geneva seemed surprised that he would have to ask. "I'm not planning to be there long, just a fortnight or so. If you wanted more time – "

"No, no. A fortnight should be fine." Thomas smiled at her. "Likewise, I thought it was time that I visited. So then. That's settled?"

Flint and Miranda glanced at each other, their hands linking under the table, then nodded. Just as well, Emma knew that she and Killian could not prevent their daughter, a grown woman and captain of her own ship, from returning to the place where this had all begun, their home and their fortress and their battleground for many years. Still, Emma hoped it would go quickly, and that Charlie was correct when he insisted it was no different from any other bustling port city in the New World. She had carried a certain image of Nassau in her head for so long that it was a shock to think of her daughter going there, bringing the two worlds together again after their years of separation, until sometimes it seemed to have dwindled almost into a dream lost on waking. Like the one this morning, like that faint whisper of unease but nothing discernible or solid. Only shifting shadows, and countless ghosts.

"Very well, then," she said at last. "But please do be careful."

Geneva and Thomas left three mornings hence, once Geneva had had a chance to resupply the Rose, be sure that her crew had been paid (they were too used to her schedule to complain that she was dragging them out of home and hearth and their wives or mistresses' beds after not even a week ashore, and she made sure the money was good enough that they didn't) and made at least reasonably certain that there was not a hurricane brewing up further out to sea. It wasn't a terribly long journey from Savannah to Nassau, and she had sailed to the Caribbean before, but it was still not one she cared to risk if the weather was going to be a pain in the hindquarters. Especially given how anxious her parents and grandparents already were about the enterprise, no matter how hard they tried to disguise it. She didn't mean to worry them, but she was also fully confident in her ability to handle herself, and her great-uncle Thomas, while he might not be one of the several pirate captains in the family, had learned from necessity how to defend himself. They would be fine. Her uncle Charlie would be there too. No worries at all.

Geneva was also aware that her family was especially sensitive about the prospect of storms, given how her godfather, her brother's namesake, had died. She had only met Sam Bellamy once, when she was far too young to remember, only hours after her birth on a remote strip of Caribbean sandbar, which was also where her grandparents had been married and made the fateful decision to sail for Charlestown and avenge the betrayal of their old friend, Peter Ashe. She had been taken away with Henry by their uncle Liam and aunt Regina, who lived in Paris these days, and who Geneva also did not remember, given that they had left France and returned to the Colonies when she was still less than a year old. She knew her father missed his older brother, as the Jones boys had never been separated in their lives until Killian's disgrace and downfall, his transformation into Hook, but Liam was likewise not much for traveling any more, wanted his sailing days to be behind him, and was haunted by the events of Charlestown in a different way. He had had to kill the bloodily infamous privateer and terrifying mercenary captain, Henry Jennings – also to protect Geneva and Henry, and which Henry remembered but would not talk about – and that memory, the cost of what it had taken to bring down the monster who had wreaked so much pain and havoc on their family, had left him never the same again.

Geneva had begun to mull the idea of suggesting to her parents that she take them to Paris, though it would certainly be the longest voyage she had ever attempted; she had sailed plenty in the Colonies and the Caribbean, but the Atlantic was a different proposition. Not that she thought she wasn't capable, and if worse came to worse, she would have both her father and mother, experienced captains in their own right, to help. But if she wanted to go to Nassau, she also wanted to go to France. Could not help but think of that Scottish folk ballad, and how oddly, poignantly appropriate it was for their scattered family. The water is wide, I cannot get o'er. Neither have I the wings to fly. Give me a boat that can carry two, and both shall row, my love and I. She wanted her father to see her uncle again, wanted to mend what still seemed so deep and raw and broken. A ship there is and she sails the sea, she's loaded deep as deep can be. But not so deep as the love I'm in, I know not if I sink or swim.

Nonetheless, Geneva did her best to banish such melancholy preoccupations for their departure. Grandpa, Granny, Mother, and Daddy had all come to see them off, all with a flood of last-minute advice about Nassau. Despite their misgivings, she couldn't help but think that they all missed it, at least a little, though some of their suggestions were wiser than others. "Get into at least one fight," her grandfather said, sotto voce, as he hugged her on the quay. "Don't tell your parents."

"Grandpa." Geneva raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm not going to start a second war, you know."

"Pity. I think England deserves all the wars it can get." James McGraw smiled, not entirely reassuringly. "Jenny, you and Thomas look after each other. That place is not just a bit of quaint family history, you know. What Nassau did to me, to all of us. . . it can catch you off guard, if you're not prepared for it, and it can change you. You're smart, and you're strong, and you're hopefully more bloody sensible than we were, but still. Pay attention. Both of you."

"I will," Geneva promised, turning to kiss her grandmother and then hug both of her parents. They were putting a brave face on it, but they were still clearly struggling with letting her go again, when the questions of her brother's whereabouts remained outstanding, and she hoped she ran across the little twerp on the way, give him a good shake for making them worry. Sam Jones had a very high sense of adventure and a very low sense of self-preservation, which could make for a combustible combination.

Farewells completed, as Thomas kissed Miranda, hugged James, and promised Killian and Emma that he would likewise look after their daughter, the travelers went aboard the Rose, and Geneva gave orders for them to make ready to depart. She and Thomas stood on the deck, waving to their family as the Rose began to take the wind, until they were quickly dwindling small specks. Geneva ensured that everything was in order, said one more. quiet prayer under her breath, and went to take her turn at the helm. When she looked back again, Savannah had vanished astern, there was only the sea behind her and before her, and all the world was sunlight.

Chapter 2: II

Chapter Text

Sam awoke to the strong smell of brine and fish, the sound of a loud argument in what he thought might be Portuguese, and a dog licking his face, which made him curse and push it away. He understood the principle of having a cat on board ship; they kept the rats down, tended to themselves, and stayed out of the crew's way, but a dog must eat as much as a sailor while doing none of the work (what did it do, bark at dolphins?) This seemed a seriously questionable decision on the part of his current vessel, but as the theme of his adventures to date appeared to be shaping up, he had not been left with a great deal of choice. He had approached one of the tender boats on the beach, thinking that he could pay for it to take him out to one of the Navy frigates in the harbor. He had reckoned without the – in hindsight, blindingly and idiotically obvious – fact that all the small craft ashore were Spanish, and had absolutely no interest in transporting this pair of gormless English striplings anywhere. So in sum, to start off Sam's vital interception mission on which the very future of the war might hang, he had strolled up and volunteered himself to be abducted. Wonderful. Just bloody wonderful. If Nathaniel –

At that, Sam's eyes flew open, even as his skull was still aching from the smart blow that one of the Portuguese pricks had administered to the back of it. Trying to avoid moving too fast, he glanced around cautiously, forced to console himself with the fact that at least Nathaniel had not thought of this beforehand either – fine pair of secret agents they made, the both of them. As it happened, the dog was now licking Nathaniel instead, slumped against a coil of rope across the way, and after a few more moments of the mangy mutt's devoted attentions, his eyelids fluttered. He groaned, opened them, stared at Sam with the maximum amount of umbrage it was possible to convey in a facial expression, started to say something, then bit his tongue.

Having reassured himself that he had not – yet – gotten his friend killed, Sam edged slowly toward the sound of the argument from above. The one possibility he could see was that he was increasingly certain that they were indeed Portuguese, and not Spanish. While somewhat of an afterthought in the scheme of things, not quite to the class of the heavyweights England, Spain, and France, Portugal did hold the vast colony of Brazil and other possessions in the Indies and the Main, and while they more or less cooperated and allied with Spain in doing this, their allegiance to Madrid would not be guaranteed. That, now that Sam thought about it, was likely the cause for the argument. Half of the crew must want to hand them over to the guardas costas right now, and pocket a nice reward for their trouble. The other half (well, hopefully it was at least a half) must favor keeping them around, seeing if there was some further use to them, maybe even make Spain pay handsomely for the service of returning them.

It occurred to Sam that if so, he could possibly still salvage this. Convince them that he was important enough to be taken to Havana directly, as that was, after all, where he was trying to go. It might be harder if none of them spoke English, and how exactly Sam would pull this off without actually dying remained a sticking point, but that was a problem for later. As long as he was right about all this speculation as to their disagreement. If they were just squabbling about whether to drown them or shoot them, that, well, that lengthened the odds a bit.

At that, Sam pawed at his jacket, and discovered to his astonishment that the sack of money was still there. Evidently their captors had not even bothered to search them before knocking them over the head, confiscating their weapons, and tossing them in this fish-smelling predicament, and that was a morbidly hopeful idea. It might mean that the kidnappers were as thoroughly amateur as the kidnapped, and while they would still have the money if they wanted it – Sam could obviously not stop a dozen brawny sorts from helping themselves – its presence might at least convince them that there was more where that came from, or that he was rich enough to fetch a good ransom. And while Sam did not speak Portuguese, he could just barely scrape along in Spanish, and they would have at least one man who knew that. He was feeling more hopeful than he had five minutes ago, despite still being summarily abducted and held belowdecks of an enemy vessel with a superfluous dog and a deeply unimpressed friend. Now they were getting somewhere.

Just then, the ladder creaked, and with a look at Nathaniel imploring him to trust him despite all good reason to the contrary, Sam sat up straighter. The next instant, several pairs of feet descended into the dimness – this was a small ketch, with only one deck below the main and a crammed hold intended for a few hammocks and stowing cargo. As their owners came into sight, half a dozen bearded faces regarded the boys with deep suspicion. They seemed surprised that they had come to (perhaps they hadn't hit them hard enough) and one of them called sharply to the dog, which sat where it was and whined. Sam felt a brief and unexpected affection for the fleabag, and when the silence turned excruciating, shrugged and took it upon himself to get on with whatever was about to happen. "Hola," he said, in a friendly voice. "Me llamo Samuel."

There were snorts and a few startled looks, but nobody clocked him a new one, so Sam took that as a good sign. "Mi amigo, Nathaniel. Estamosah, what's the f*cking word – deserters. Wait – somos? Somos desertores. From del campamento Inglés. Yo tengo – inteligencia? Inteligencia importante. For el gobernador. En Cuba. Havana."

He held his breath, hoping that this was not the most obvious of all ploys in the history of attempted neck-saving, though this lot did not look like candidates for the famed All Souls exam in Oxford (which Sam had briefly aspired to, before realizing that it would involve far more of the Latin master than anyone needed in their life). When there was still no answer, he stoutly plowed on. "Havana. Necessito to go to Havana. Dinero. Tengo mucho – muchas? – dinero."

As he had hoped, that got their attention immediately. He pulled out the money sack, wincing at the possibility of losing it less than forty-eight hours into the venture, but if it got them to Havana, it would be a very wise investment. Glances were exchanged among the crew, someone stepped forward and yanked it out of his hand, and there was a murmur as they opened it, saw it was real silver – and then remembered one small fact, stopped, and scowled heavily. It was of course English currency, and that would do them no good in any of their usual ports of call, as they couldn't spend it and they couldn't trade it without someone getting suspicious as to where they had come by so much of it. The man who had taken the bag, coming to this conclusion, flung it on the boards with a curse, sending coins rolling in every direction, and started toward Sam with what absolutely sounded like the Portuguese version of "Get him, lads!" In that moment, Sam could only think of one thing, despite its high likelihood of backfiring in any number of spectacular ways. No time for another.

"FLINT!" he yelled. "Mi abuelo. Capitán Flint!"

That, at last, caught them short in a way that not even the money had done. Everyone across the Caribbean, regardless of nationality, knew who Flint was – and more importantly, what he had left behind. Half the £87,000, or 120,000 pieces of eight, that Charles Vane and Henry Jennings had stolen from the Spanish salvage camp in 1715 had been lost with the wreck of the Walrus, Flint's ship, on the fabled pirate hideout of Skeleton Island, and he had also buried another chest somewhere ashore. (The other half, aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge, had been dispersed and spent in various avenues long ago.) Rumors had long swirled about the feasibility of retrieving such a legendary stash, whether it had actually sunk or might be trapped in the ship's decaying hulk, but had been hindered by the fact that nobody knew where Skeleton Island actually was. The remaining charts had been lost with the Walrus, if Flint remembered the exact bearings he wasn't saying, and besides, everyone believed that he was dead. The Spanish had never stopped brooding on the insult and their desire to recoup their lost loot, and the tale of the treasure had taken on a life of its own. If Sam could possibly lead anyone to it, the Portuguese could either charge a huge price to hand him over, or take advantage of it themselves. Win-bloody-win.

There was a very long silence. Then the one who looked like the mate said, in heavily accented English, "Captain Flint – dead."

"Aye, he is." Sam wasn't so desperate to save his own neck as to sell out his grandfather, but now that he'd made the ploy, he couldn't back down. "But I told you I have intelligence for Havana, didn't I? You want to risk telling Güemes that you had the way to reclaim the lost treasure in your hands, and let me slip through?"

The mate squinted at him, not understanding all of this, so Sam sighed deeply and was once more obligated to patch it into his terrible Spanish. The gist of it, however, was that Don Juan Francisco de Güemes y Horcasitas, Count of Revillagigedo, the captain-general of Cuba and governor of Havana, would be extremely displeased if they did not bring Sam to him straightaway, and if that lost treasure was recovered, surely there would be a generous cut of it for them. Or if they wanted, they could just die poor and stupid. No skin off his back.

There was much frowning, more muttering, and a few dangerous looks at Sam, but the end result was that someone was finally dispatched to fetch the captain. He spoke better English, and introduced himself as João da Souza, a bearded man with a somewhat misleadingly genial air; he might slap your back and drink with you, but was clearly not about to brook any challenges to his command or actually consider you a friend. Sam had gotten adept at quickly reading people, and when da Souza pressed for details, merely repeated his earlier insistence that Flint was his grandfather and this was an unmissable business opportunity. Surely this couldn't be a terribly profitable job, slaving on this rinkidink tender boat to sell to the Spaniards at ridiculously undercut prices. Money. Just think of it. Lots and lots of money.

Da Souza clearly wanted to believe him, for obvious reasons, but not without proof. "How do I know," he asked at last, "that Flint is your grandfather? You are a very bad pirate."

Sam winced. "I'm a wonderful pirate, actually. If you give me a chance."

"Yes?" Da Souza tossed a complicated twist of rope at him. "What is that?"

"That is. . ." Sam considered the object in question with all the accumulated wisdom of his family's legendary seafaring exploits and specialized knowledge of the most arcane difficulties in the owning and operation of sailing ships. "That is definitely a knot."

Someone snorted audibly. "You cannot be of his line."

"My mother's his adopted daughter," Sam said defensively. "Him and his wife. They're – were – my grandparents. So – "

Da Souza's eyes sharpened, and Sam struggled not to let his expression change. He was fairly sure the captain had caught that brief slippage into present tense, the hint that his grandfather might not be quite as dead as he was trying to insist. It was thus less than entirely reassuring when the captain smiled. "Havana. Yes. Güemes, we will take you to him."

"Er, thanks." Belatedly, Sam supposed that his gaffe in fact might not have been the worst thing in the world – sailing in aboard a Royal Navy ship would have put all of Cuba on alert and made it impossible for him to conduct his search for Montiano's agent in private, if he wasn't arrested the moment he set foot ashore. Arriving anonymously aboard a humble Portuguese supply tender would attract no notice whatsoever, and if da Souza had been safely assured of mythical riches, he might even go to the bother of actively trying to keep Sam alive long enough to reach the governor. And if Sam could find out what exactly the intelligence was – Oglethorpe had not told him that, after all, just that he needed to intercept it – he could decide what to do with it, stopping it or otherwise. It was somewhat of a surprise to hear himself thinking so calculatingly about this, actively planning where it might most benefit, but. . . prior evidence all aside, he wasn't a complete idiot. He knew this was dangerous. He had to keep his eyes open.

Sam and da Souza spat in their palms and shook hands on their agreement, Nathaniel let out a sagging breath of relief (he had certainly seen Sam talk them out of tight corners before, but that might have been the tightest) and Sam was given to wonder if, now that they were such mates, the crew might be induced to feed them. He had been constantly hungry since he left home, as subsisting on less-than-robust army rations was about the worst privation in the world for a nineteen-year-old boy (as he, like the rest of his ilk, could eat his parents out of house and home while remaining the exact dimensions of a beanpole). Asking this question finally landed him and Nathaniel with some hardtack and a weazened orange apiece. Evidently, while they may certainly die in the course of this, it would not be from scurvy. Dad would approve.

"I can't believe you did that," Nathaniel muttered, as they gnawed the peelings off. The crew had gone back to the deck to make ready to sail, and they could feel the ship starting to gain speed beneath them. "Next time, maybe we don't get knocked out first?"

"Aye, maybe." Sam chewed experimentally on the hardtack, hoping that there would not be a surprise weevil experience (that had happened to him when he was eight, which he supposed might be part of his dislike of sailing). He did not want to fall into all his successes in such an arse-backward fashion, but it was still preferable to failure. "It worked, though, didn't it?"

"That was luck," Nathaniel pointed out, cruelly but accurately. "Besides, I don't trust da Souza. He'll try to coax you to tell him the bearings to Skeleton Island before we ever get to Havana, then chuck us overboard if you can't tell him. And I know you don't know those."

"Keep your voice down, will you?" Sam looked around edgily. He didn't know who else on the crew spoke any English, and did not want to risk them finding out. He was also aware that this bluff only ran any chance of success if da Souza actually had an interest in bringing them to Cuba and assisting the Spanish war effort, as otherwise, he could indeed just throw the boys into the ocean without anyone ever knowing they had been there. He wouldn't as long as the riches were on the table, but as soon as they weren't, well. . .

There was, however, not exactly much either of them could do at the moment, and they settled uneasily by the bulkhead, heads still aching, as the tender boat made it further out to sea. Sam risked a peek through the anchor eyelet, clambering through the heaps of rope and sacks in the bow, to see that they were almost out of sight of land, as da Souza must have known a back route out of the harbor away from the Royal Navy blockade – probably the same one they had used to smuggle supplies through to St. Augustine in the first place. It wasn't that long of a trip to Havana if the wind cooperated. He wasn't going to have a lot of bloody time to come up with a plan, and the Spanish agent could be well ahead of him anyway. If so. . .

And yet, despite the admittedly uneven start to his venture, and the very real risks that remained to his family if he failed, Sam couldn't help but enjoy himself, more than a little. Sure, he'd probably die, but he was young enough to feel immortal, invincible, and this would be enough of a ripping good yarn that he'd never have to sit tongue-tied at another family dinner while the rest of them swapped tall tales and sailing stories. He was deeply proud of being Killian Jones and Emma Swan's son, James Flint and Miranda Barlow's grandson, Sam Bellamy's godson, and even Geneva Jones' brother (though he was sure he couldn't actually tell her that). He knew they loved him regardless, but he did not want to be the hatchmark, the asterisk, on the list of pirate legends – the runt of the litter, the black sheep. He wanted to be enough.

After a moment, Sam blew out a breath and turned away. He was still hungry, though he didn't think any more food would be forthcoming, and besides, he had to see if he could scrounge up any of his coins from where they had rolled into dark corners. Da Souza and his crew might not be impressed with English money, but Don Juan Francisco de Güemes might, and Sam had plenty of uses for it otherwise. He was tired, but he wasn't sure he'd sleep. He needed to think.

No comments on how well that has gone before. Sam muttered a brief prayer to Saint Jude, just because it couldn't hurt, and went off to get started.

At least from the harbor, Nassau Town, New Providence Island did not look like the formidable stronghold of hostis humani generis, enemies of all mankind, as the laws and tracts of all the colonial empires had – unsurprisingly – declared the pirates' republic at the height of its influence. There were no ships flying the black flag, no roving gangs of wastrels, and, perhaps most disappointingly, no piles of treasure lying around on the beach. One John Tinker had been named the new governor in 1738, but due to the demands of the war and his concerns elsewhere, he had not yet bothered to take up residence, and nobody appeared to be missing him very much. Indeed it looked, exactly as promised, quite normal, an ordinary hub of lawful commerce. The fort on the headland remained only half-rebuilt, as Robert Gold had destroyed its predecessor during the last battle, and the Union Jack was flapping merrily overhead, which surely would have disgusted Geneva's relations if they were present to observe. Indeed, while she hadn't expected to arrive in some preserved bit of pirate Utopia, with rum and brawling and salty wenches and whatever else they liked, it was somewhat of a letdown. Like going to find a prince, and meeting an accountant.

Still, she did not intend to let an underwhelming first impression deter her from a closer acquaintance. She turned away, ordered her crew to put down anchor, and prepared to go ashore. It had been an uneventful voyage from Savannah, though she had veered well out to sea to avoid Spanish ships around Florida, and the mercury was holding steady, though that could never be trusted for long in the dog days of summer.

"It looks quite. . . benign," her great-uncle said. "I suppose I had rather a different idea of it."

Geneva had to laugh. "Aye, I was just thinking the same. Though I'm sure there is more to it than meets the eye. We might end up wishing it was as boring as it seemed."

With that, she helped Thomas down into the boat, along with a few of her crew members, and took one of the sets of oars, pulling them toward the quays. No sooner had they bumped against the boards and disembarked, however, when a small and obnoxious individual in an excessively powdered peruke wig rushed up and thrust a ledger under Thomas' nose, clearly taking him for the master of the arriving vessel. "Berthing fee is a shilling," he announced. "There is the docking register and the cargo tariff to settle as well, sir, so if you would step to my office – "

"I'm not the captain." Thomas looked as if he was trying very hard not to laugh. "That would be my niece here."

"You?" The man goggled at Geneva with irritating, if not unexpected, skepticism. "Are you – managing it in your father's stead or something of the sort, miss?"

"No," Geneva said. "I'm Captain Geneva Jones and that's the Rose, my own ship. As for your ludicrous charges, it seems as if pirates of one bloody sort have just been exchanged for another, doesn't it? Good to know Nassau is still a den of bald-faced thieves."

"We are not thieves." The port factor inflated territorially. "We charge the dues and customs as appointed by the merchant guilds and trading boards of His Majesty's West Indian territories. Entirely lawful, I do assure you. So if you – "

Geneva couldn't help but flinching at the mention of New Providence being firmly back under British stewardship, no matter how peaceably it had worked out. She hadn't expected it to affect her, since it was a fight she had never been part of except for the briefest imaginable time as a very newborn infant, but it still landed in some uncomfortable ancestral heart of her. Thomas – whose own experience of English law had been far from benevolent, even if not that of the open piracy and rebellion of his spouses – had an odd look on his face as well. Exiled to a work camp in the Colonies after his confinement in an asylum, announced to the world that he was dead, disinherited and bereft of his family name, title, and home and everything he had ever worked for in a respectable career as a peer of the House of Lords and the promising scion of a well-established family. He might be happily reunited with James and Miranda these days, and all of them had struggled to finally put the past to rest, but the wounds remained.

Still, however, Geneva – while she might have her grandfather's advice in mind about getting into at least one fight while she was here – did not see it necessary to start off by assaulting the port factor and being shut promptly into jail. So she went to his office, paid the charges, signed the docking register, and returned to where Thomas was waiting for her in the shade. "Well," she said, with an annoyed huff. "Being hit up for English taxes the instant we land? I suppose Nassau has changed after all."

"Indeed." Thomas' cheek twitched again, but he offered her his arm, which Geneva took, and they started up toward the streets, her crew having hastened ahead in apparent eagerness to see if everything was civilized these days, or the legendary houses of booze, bawd, and bad decisions still remained for public inspection. She'd box their ears if they gambled away all their wages, or got themselves into an entanglement from which she would be obliged to extricate them. She could not blame them for curiosity, as it was after all a considerable part of the reason she herself had come here, but still.

"You're very like him," Thomas said unexpectedly, as Geneva pulled her skirts up with her free hand to avoid the muck – she captained a ship and managed her own trading business and took advantage of numerous other pursuits normally accorded to firstborn sons, but she still liked to wear dresses and to do her hair fashionably and to buy jewelry and trim her sleeves with lace. "Your grandfather, that is. And your grandmother. I see so much of both James and Miranda in you. I know you're not theirs by blood, but it is easy to forget."

"It's never been any different for us, you know." Geneva glanced at him sidelong. "I didn't meet them – and you – until I was eight, but Mother and Daddy always told us about you. It didn't feel like meeting strangers when I saw you at last. Just like family who had been away for a long time and finally came back."

"I remember." Thomas laughed, even as the half-sweet, half-painful shadow of memory crossed his face: the first time that Killian and Emma had seen Miranda and Flint in years, since losing them in Charlestown and Skeleton Island, respectively, and believing them dead. The introduction of them both to Thomas, and Flint and Miranda meeting all their grandchildren for the first time, as Henry, Geneva, and Sam had been fully willing to accept this in their stride and not sure why the adults were in tears. Geneva's own recollection was of being relieved that the pirate they had hanged in the Savannah square was not actually her grandfather, hugging her grandmother for the first time as Miranda shook and shook, and being distracted with biscuits and put to bed while the adults sat up all night on the veranda. The Swan-Joneses had moved from Boston the next year, when Henry had taken his degree from Harvard, to be closer to them, to let Geneva and Sam grow up with the rest of their family, not wanting to miss any more time, and she remained deeply grateful for it.

They reached the top of the steep, cobbled street, lined with swinging signs and painted storefronts, food stands and scriveners, taverns and trading posts and other familiar features of an ordinary market town. If it was somewhat more grimy in places, it was usually down a back alley, and nobody was resorting to fisticuffs (at least not in the open). Palm trees shaded the handsomely colonnaded plaza before the governor's mansion, which in the absence of the actual governor being in residence was evidently used as the city hall anyway, and the rich golden light slanted as thick as honey on canvas awnings and red-shingled roofs. It was. . . pretty, with a sense of being well lived in, comfortable as an old shawl or a favorite dress. Not wild, not anymore. Whether or not that had been vital to its character before, and this could only be a pale and cheap copy, Geneva could not say. Still, though. She liked it.

They went up the broad marble steps of the mansion, enquired after the whereabouts of Charles Swan, and were sent to a nearby half-timbered townhouse with a brass plaque on the door. They rang the bell, were shown in by a servant, and in a few more minutes, Geneva's uncle – fair and blonde and retaining some of his old good looks, though his hairline had receded and his waistline had expanded – was effusively greeting them. "I had no idea you were coming to Nassau, you should have written! I don't suppose your mum and dad. . .?"

"No, just me and Uncle Thomas." Geneva gestured to him, as the men shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. "We weren't intending to be here long, a fortnight or so, and we won't impose if you – "

"Nonsense," Charles said heartily. "There's plenty of room, you're welcome to stay as long as you like. None of you have ever visited me before, I should mark the occasion. Indeed, business is booming, and if you're at all interested in remaining longer, my dear, I'm currently in the market for a new ship and captain. War always tends to be good for our bottom line, so there's that – although there's no guaranteeing the bloody Spanish wouldn't ransack you. Come to think of it, I wouldn't fancy explaining that to my sister, but the offer stands."

"Ah – thank you, but I think I'm sorted." With that, Geneva was induced to be shown upstairs by the maid, taking one room at the end of the hall as Thomas took another, and once she had washed and freshened up from the voyage, returned downstairs to the sitting room to visit. She, Thomas, and Charles passed a pleasant afternoon drinking tea and chatting and catching up with the news, and as dusk began to fall, Charles announced that he'd take them to his favorite supper club. No better way to really meet the locals.

Geneva, who had begun to suspect that her uncle was trying to butter her up to join the family business regardless of whatever she had politely refused earlier, agreed, rather amusedly, and fetched her hat and gloves. The evening was still very warm as they stepped out, the shadows ink-black among the waving palms and the sun a spill of claret wine in the west. Crickets shirred in the distance, torches and lanterns lit among the narrow wynds, and she and Thomas followed Charles to an appealing establishment on the harbor side of the city, where they opened the door and entered a lowlit, busy common room. Charles was evidently a regular, as he was greeted by name and seated promptly, and as they were waiting for their meal, Geneva was left to conclude that the whole thing had thus far been like a pleasant holiday. She was quite sure it had not been like this when her parents and grandparents had lived here, and briefly wondered if this could be considered any sort of authentic experience. Unless she was going to just –

"Mr. Swan?"

The table looked up with a start to see a man who seemed faintly, intangibly familiar, though for the life of her, Geneva could not have said why. He was sunburned and rough-weathered, with long black hair streaked with grey, a scraggly beard, an embroidered jacket, and – most noteworthy – a missing leg, though he wore a leather and iron replacement that allowed him to stump along with a crutch, which he laid against the table. His face was outwardly friendly, but his blue eyes were cool and shrewd, the face of a man who held the cards and shuffled the deck as he pleased. Spotting the empty chair next to Thomas, he took it without asking for permission, and smiled, once again in a friendly fashion, but with a clear sense that he was not about to be sent away without an answer. "Good evening. I regret having to interrupt you with company."

"I." Charles looked rather like a schoolchild who had stood up to recite before the class and forgotten his lines. "Mr. Silver. Good evening to you too."

At that, Thomas twitched slightly, a reaction which the newcomer – clearly not a man who missed much – caught out of the corner of his eye. He turned to them. "Friends of Charles?"

"Family. This is his niece, Geneva, and I'm her great-uncle, Thomas."

Likewise, a very strange expression crossed the man's – Mr. Silver's, as it evidently was – face. Something shock and curiosity and wonder and vindication and suspicion and fascination all at once, like the unearthing of a mysterious skeleton or fabled treasure from the ground where it had lain in secret for years, and was only now coming to life again. "Correct me if I presume," he said slowly. "But you wouldn't be – you could not possibly be – Thomas Hamilton?"

"Do you know me, sir?" Thomas was startled and wary, as any sudden arrivals with apparent familiarity of his past were far from reassuring. "Have we met – ?"

"We have not. You are him, then?"

"I am. Can I be of service?" The words were polite, but the tone was cool.

Silver did not answer immediately, continuing to regard him with an interest so intent as to nearly be rude. He realized it and glanced away, but could not help but looking back, as if Thomas was a museum exhibit or rare curio on which he intended to compose a lengthy treatise. At last he said, "I was well acquainted with a particular friend of yours, in the past. If he's still alive – if you've crossed paths again – then I don't suppose he's mentioned me?"

"You're – " Just then it clicked, for Thomas at least, even as Geneva and Charles remained utterly baffled. "You're him. John Silver, Long John Silver?"

"I've been called that in the past, yes. Even at times in the present." Silver shrugged. "Well, then. This is – I scarcely know if serendipitous is enough of a word. And a great-niece?" He glanced back at Geneva. "No, wait. You're theirs, aren't you. Hook and Swan's daughter?"

"Killian and Emma Jones are my parents, yes." It was an unsettling feeling to be sitting across from someone who clearly knew far more about you than you did about them, and who might put that information to work in any number of ways. Geneva thought she might recall her grandfather mentioning someone named Silver, but he never said much about his old life, not to her and Henry and Sam. Kept it locked away, the old and wrathful mantle of Flint that he could never shed entirely, but which he had grown to master to the point that he could leave it where it lay, and just be James McGraw to his family. "You – you must have served on my grandfather's crew. On the Walrus."

"Your grandfather?" That seemed to intrigue Silver nearly as much as Thomas. "Captain Flint bouncing fat babies on his knee, letting them pull his beard and feeding them bonbons? I can't see it."

"Is it your concern?" Geneva did not feel obliged to disclose her personal history to this man, somehow both old friend and unsettling stranger, and she rather wished he would be on his way. "Do you go around bothering all the relatives of old business partners at supper, or just us?"

"Business partners?" Silver seemed amused. "That's one word for it. I was his quartermaster, yes, so I suppose it is not entirely inaccurate. But as it happened, I was looking for your uncle. Charles, I have a venture, and I need a ship."

"Most of my ships are abroad." Charles fidgeted. "Indeed, all of them. I am grateful for your assistance in the past, of course, but I don't think I can – "

"More than assistance, wasn't it? I daresay the Nolan enterprise on Nassau would never have gotten off the ground if Madi and I had not extensively facilitated it. There were also repeated loans on favorable terms of repayment, when your own difficulties cut into the profit margins, and introduction to those men who knew more about the Indies and the Caribbean and the general merchant business than you did. You have done well with sustaining the momentum once it was begun, certainly, but starting it? No."

Charles, who had been about to take a sip of wine, choked and put it down, as Geneva glanced accusingly at her uncle. She was not about to say that he was openly trying to take advantage of her unexpected arrival, but this did explain quite a bit about both the warmth of his reaction and his determination to get her to stay, if Silver was holding him over a barrel for some favor that he either had to offer up, or watch his life become very difficult as a result. Thomas seemed to have come to the same conclusion, though his expression was very wry. "Well," he said. "You are just as James described you."

"Ah, so the two of you have been reunited. That is. . . touching."

"I don't believe you have a sentimental bone in your body, Mr. Silver."

Silver smiled again, but with less humor. "We will have to agree to disagree about that, then. But given the arrival of you and your niece, surely there must be at least one ship at hand?"

"Aye," Charles said uncomfortably. "Hers, the Rose, but – "

"The Rose?" Silver looked as if he could barely believe his luck. "The ship which began her life as a Royal Navy sixth-rater, formerly under the command of Woodes Rogers himself, which – thanks to my own and extensive efforts – was captured and placed under the pirate flag on Skeleton Island? Which your mother then took over as captain, Miss Jones, and seems to have passed along to you? To speak of fortunate and fitting turns of fate, seeing as you owe ultimate possession of that ship to me, and given this venture's own association with the place where that happened, that is as close as a clear-cut sign from heaven as any of us can ever believe in."

"What venture?" Charles demanded, agitated. "What are you talking about?"

"The reason Rogers found us on Skeleton Island," Silver said, "was because of the betrayal of another of our crewmates. Billy Bones went to Rogers and gave us up, in exchange for them both pursuing their mutual vendetta against Flint. So far as everyone knew, Flint killed Billy in their last fight there. But it has come to my attention that, rather like Flint himself, perhaps that death was not so final after all. That Bones is still alive, has emerged from whatever obscurity he has lurked in for the past twenty-five years, and may have taken ship to England to provide the coordinates and intelligence to reach Skeleton Island, and the Spanish treasure that remains lost there. Such an action would, needless to say, sharply swing the entire balance of the war, and to who knows what end. Do you follow?"

Geneva, Thomas, and Charles opened and shut their mouths in unison like a trio of goldfish, while Silver seemed gratified by the effect, but not enough to rest on his laurels. Geneva herself knew that Billy Bones had been a friend of her mother's, at least before his betrayal of the pirates to the English crown, but everyone had likewise considered him to be dead, the loser of his final face-off with Flint, fallen into the water and drowned or stabbed or shot. Finally she said, "Why would Bones give up the location of Skeleton Island to the English now, even if he did survive? Whatever old quarrel he had with any of you, with my grandfather, it was years ago. Why just emerge from hiding and rekindle the feud? What would he have to gain from it?"

"Why, indeed?" Silver looked pleased. "Billy was – is – an utterly stubborn, blockheaded, self-righteous blonde bastard, but he wasn't stupid. Nor was he overly burdened with a sense of loyalty to England. He was kidnapped by the press-gangs as a child, as he was out selling pamphlets for his parents – political activists, printers, the exact sort of thing that His Majesty does not want upsetting the apple-cart among his subjects. So if he is offering intelligence on Skeleton Island to the English authorities, he wants something in return for it. And since you've just confirmed that Flint is still alive, living out his days in happy retirement with his loved ones and family, perhaps that explains quite a large part of his motivation."

"My grandfather has no interest in returning to the pirate life," Geneva said, feeling slightly panicky. "Even if Bones learned that he was alive, he wouldn't decide to just – "

"Would he?" Silver sounded wry, almost sad. "Billy and I were also friends, once upon a time. Allied together to protect the crew, and our own interests, from the worst of Flint's madness. But that, like much else, came to an end long ago. If he's lived this time as a penniless mendicant, exiled and disgraced by pirate and English alike, taking work on this ship or that one, suffering, dwindling to nothing – can you really not think that learning this would make no difference? Suddenly, a quarter-century since his life was ruined, the man who ruined it has risen from the grave. He is in reach, a tangible flesh-and-blood entity to strangle with one's own hands, a final and damning victory when Flint would altogether not see it coming, or have any reason to expect another attack, especially on this front. To make his joy turn to ashes in his mouth. That is the sort of prospect to give a man a new life, a possession of a cause, one last worthwhile thing to do before he dies. So aye. If Bones knows your grandfather is alive, you're all in danger."

Thomas started to say something else, then stopped, frowning and troubled. "But he – " he began at last. "James has been reported dead half a dozen times, at least. How would Bones have any idea that those were a fraud, and what was the truth?"

"Again, another question that one might consider it imperative to investigate." Silver leaned back in his chair, picked up Charles' wine goblet, and took a sip, raising an eyebrow at Geneva. "But of course, your uncle cannot spare a ship?"

Charles winced, looking at her with a guilty expression. It was reasonably clear that he was hoping for her to volunteer the Rose, rather than suffer the awkwardness of being strong-armed into doing it for her. She was aware that her family had come into possession of a Navy frigate by thievery, though not that Silver thought he was entitled to all the credit for it – yet she had no way to say that, born liar as he might be, he was fibbing about that. Thomas was not disagreeing, at any rate, which meant that whatever James had said to him about his old quartermaster and uncertain ally and ultimate friend and enemy alike, it must correspond at least roughly to this. The silence was excruciating. Then, gritting her teeth, Geneva said, "Well. I have a ship."

"You do? Wonderful news." Silver glanced at her with such nonchalance that it was almost impressive, despite the shameless operation of this entire little manipulation. "Available for our use, perhaps, if I was to find us a crew?"

Geneva glanced at her uncles for help, though she wasn't sure how much to expect from either of them. Charles was clearly allowing this to happen if he wanted to stay in business, and Thomas wouldn't argue against investigating this mystery, if there was a deranged and vengeful ex-nemesis of Flint's out there who very much intended to see to his unfinished business. Finally she said, "We're not provisioned for a crossing to England, we'd – "

"That would be attended to." Silver finished off Charles' wine and put the cup down.

"So you want to stop Billy, do you?" Thomas looked as if he had been too well warned about Silver's true nature to accept this explanation at face value. "That is what you'd have us believe? To prevent him from reaching Westminster with this kind of information – why?"

"I don't believe that was the issue under discussion." Silver's tone remained polite, but his eyes were as guarded as castle walls. "The benefits for your family are obvious. I suppose your niece would have no objection to bringing you along. You are, after all, intimately and unfortunately familiar with the operation of English politics. You might have an old connection or two in Parliament you could approach – discreetly, naturally. It would be quite embarrassing for them to receive the disgraced and twice-dead Thomas Hamilton, banished first to Bethlem Royal Hospital and then some work plantation in the Americas, in public."

Thomas's fist clenched on the table, even as he fought for the poise of a lifetime diplomat and nobleman who knew he was being baited and had to resist the urge to take it. After a moment, he managed a gracious, if strained, smile and nod. "Yes. Of course."

"Splendid. I'll call at the house tomorrow to discuss arrangements." Silver wiped his mouth and stood up. "So if that's all, I'll be – "

"What does Mrs. Silver think of this?" Charles seemed to have taken himself aback by this interjection, but could not retreat once it had been made. "She is in accord, of course?"

Silver's smile this time was the frostiest of all. "As we have never been married in the eyes of English law," he said, "she is still customarily known as Madi Scott. As for her sentiments, I am afraid I would not know. Good evening, Miss Jones, Mr. Swan, Mr. Hamilton."

With that, he took up the crutch from where it rested, tucked it under his arm, and made his determined way through the tavern crowds and out the door, leaving Geneva and her uncles in a state of mild shock. At last, she turned to the former of these in considerable outrage. "Why didn't you tell me that this was why you were so pleased to see me?"

"I. . ." Charles trailed off under her stare. "To be fair, I had no way of knowing what exactly he was proposing. This was the first I heard the details as much as you. And, erm, if you and your great-uncle could see your way to doing it, I'd be very grateful. I would write to your parents, of course, mention that it was only a small errand and I would reimburse you for all reasonable expenses. I. . . really do not have any other candidates, and Mr. Silver has been helpful in the past, and it, well, it does sound rather serious. If you might. . .?"

Geneva chewed this over. She did not particularly want to say yes, but she was also not sure it was wise to say no, and if this did have to do with Bones and some revived revenge plot against her grandfather and by extension her family, it was best that she get to the bottom of it. She had wanted to make a trip abroad, after all. Might be able to fit in a side excursion to Paris to see her uncle Liam and aunt Regina, though she had meant to bring her parents along on that one. But as it would take more time to make another trip to Savannah and back, and as time was plainly one thing Silver did not want to waste, it did not look likely that she could pop by to pick them up. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission, not that she needed her parents' permission to sail as she pleased. She was a grown woman, and the Rose's rightful captain. It was her call.

"Fine," she said. "I'll do it. But you owe me really bloody marvelous Christmas presents for at least the next ten years."

"Ten?" The relief that spread across Charles' face was palpable. "My dear, I would say twenty."

Killian and Emma did not say much on the way back from the harbor. They had to drive James and Miranda home first, and as they pulled up and Flint climbed out of the buggy, thus to offer his hand to Miranda with somewhat stiff courtesy, they all knew him well enough to see that he was ruffled. Not necessarily at any of them, but Nassau was quite clearly a sensitive subject, and one which he could not help feeling haunted by. As Miranda took his hand and stepped down, she said, "Are you going to tell us what is troubling you, my dear, or wait for me to draw it out?"

"I still don't know if it was wise to let them go alone." Flint glanced at Killian and Emma, as if to say that surely they must have an opinion on letting their only begotten daughter walk into a nest of vipers without due and extensive preparation. "Who knows what scum is lurking around there, waiting for an opportune moment? Thomas doesn't know the place like you and I did. If he or Jenny get themselves into a situation they can't escape – "

"They are both very clever people, and doubtless will endeavor all they can to remedy it." Miranda squeezed his hand comfortingly. "If you really thought it was so dangerous, you could have said otherwise, or – "

"I couldn't have gone, we both know that." Flint was still vigorous enough that he rarely looked his age, but just now, the weight of nearly seventy hard-battled years had settled on his shoulders. "And I didn't want to leave you alone. It's not that I think Thomas and Jenny can't handle themselves, but we all know what that place made us, and how. It's . . . easier to bear it yourself, than to watch."

"Aye," Emma said quietly. "Sam said something much the same to me once."

There was a communal heavy silence, as all of them knew that she was not referring to their son and grandson, but to their late – well, there was never any easy word or way to define what Samuel Bellamy was to them, even in the comparatively brief time he had been in their lives. Sometimes Emma thought she had only ever loved Killian more, and the notion that they were now going on twenty-five years without him was an almost unbearable crime. Sometimes Sam seemed half a dream they had all had together, and still lingered at the edges of waking, never quite banished or sent to rest. Flint and Miranda could not regret having Thomas back, but she knew that sometimes they wondered if it would have been so easy to choose, if Sam had lived. They had shared him with each other, and their grief with him, and his death, coming so soon after Miranda's apparent loss in Charlestown, had been the final heartbreak to push Flint over the edge and into his desire to seek his own end and cessation and the drowning of his burdens in the sea. Even now, Killian, Emma, James, and Miranda were careful with Sam's memory, the moments at which they conjured him, the times at which they did not. They could not fail to hear his name spoken every day to the boy who carried it on, but that was different. Sam Jones was his own self, not a shadow of his godfather, and they were all grateful. And yet.

"Well," Miranda said briskly, rousing everyone from their reverie. "I doubt even Nassau can wreak too much mischief in a fortnight, now can it? And I rather suspect you enjoyed the opportunity to tell Jenny to embrace her pirate roots, James, even if you won't admit it. Come, help me inside, and let Killian and Emma be on their way."

Flint looked briefly as if he was about to respond to this, but waited as Emma leaned down to kiss her mother. "We'll be in touch," she said. "If Sam comes home soon, we'll all be by for supper, how does that sound? I'm sure he has a great deal to tell us."

"Aye," Flint said cynically. "Best hope he's not wearing a red coat when he does."

Emma shot him a look, as while Flint was generally very fond of his younger grandson, he had not ceased to offer his disparaging opinions on the vastly ill-conceived decision to take part in an English war on any side except that of their enemies. "I just want to see him safe."

"Of course." Flint nodded to them both, then took Miranda's arm and walked them up the path to the house. He let them in and shut the door, and Emma paused, shook herself, then took up the reins and wheeled the buggy around. They had a few things to pick up on the way back, so she'd best get there before the shopkeepers all went to lunch. It would also be good to have something to take her mind off Geneva and Sam alike. She was likewise confident in their ability to take care of themselves, but trouble, especially for a Swan-Jones child, was rarely too far away.

They drove back into downtown Savannah, as Emma parked the buggy at a hitching post and went into the grocer's with her list, as Killian stepped down to enjoy the shade. She stood out among the flurry of sensibly mob-capped, plainly-skirted women jostling to the counter and vying to attract the attention of the grocer or his apprentice. For a lady of her status – not ridiculously wealthy, but between the portion of the Spanish treasure they had invested, the income from Nassau, Killian's owned shares in several ships, and Geneva's trading business, more than comfortably off – doing one's own errands was clearly déclassé.

Once Emma had been apportioned her goods, Killian appeared to help lug them out to the buggy, causing another stir among the women – whether for a gentleman hauling heavy flour sacks, his missing hand, or his striking good looks even in his mid-fifties, it was hard to say. Emma had just returned inside to fetch her potatoes when she overheard the grocer arguing with a particularly persistent customer who wanted two parcels of sugarcane, not one. "Miss, there's no telling if there'll be sugar next week or not, not if the Spaniards come marching up from the south! I need to be sensible about what I'm buying and selling, if they – "

"I'm sorry to interrupt." Emma leaned over. "Was there news about an invasion?"

The grocer squinted at her, but gave in, as Leroy Small could rarely resist the urge to do, to gossip. "Aye. The Spaniards, they might be here soon. Oglethorpe's in full retreat, he's even left his artillery behind, some said. Take my word on it, sister."

Emma raised an eyebrow, as she did not want to be so pompous as to snobbily correct his assumption that she was another of the maidservants, but found it slightly irritating nonetheless. Especially as Small had been responsible for crying wolf several times in the past, she was not sure she entirely trusted a loud-mouthed purveyor of public hysteria, yet wanted to know just how bad the situation might be. "So he's retreating with his army, then? Do you know when they left St. Augustine?"

"Week ago? That and a bit?" Small shrugged. "You have a son in the ranks, then?"

"Actually," Emma said, "yes, I do."

"Well. Hope he's not dead, sister." Evidently viewing this as a positive remark on which to close out the interaction, Small nodded chummily to her and went back to his argument about the sugar, while Emma rolled her eyes heavenward and hoisted the potato sack. She went out and put it with the others in the buggy, then got up with somewhat more emphasis than she intended. The confirmation about the retreat was grim, but at least Sam would be back soon. He was fine.

"Hey, love." Killian put his hand on hers. "What's wrong?"

"Oh, just something he – Small – said." Emma forced a smile. "I'm fine."

Killian's lips went thin, as he and the grocer had not been on the most spectacular of terms since Leroy had interrupted a romantic supper Killian and Emma were having on the waterfront for their twentieth wedding anniversary by shouting that the market was on fire (the market had not been on fire). "That short noisy bastard? I'll sort him if you like, Swan."

"No, no, nothing like that. He said Oglethorpe's all but running out of Florida with his tail between his legs, and the Spaniards could be hot on the trail after him. You know him, it could be entirely hot air, but – "

"You're worried about Sam, and us if the Spanish get here," Killian completed, reading her thoughts as usual. "Well, love, no need to panic until we hear it from a more reliable source. Come on, let's get home before we melt in the heat."

Emma nodded, banishing the faint chill that had touched her neck despite it, and prodded the horses into motion, clip-clopping the rest of the way home, up the drive, and into the carriage house to unhitch, while Killian unloaded the groceries. Once Emma had splashed some water on her face and dusted the mud off, she fetched her quill and inkwell and paper from the desk, sat down, and began to draft an advertisem*nt to be sent off to the Gazette. Two household staff, a maidservant and footman, sought for a modest family estate. Pay would be generous and treatment fair, references and discretion appreciated. Address all correspondence to Mrs. E. Jones, care of the City Hall, Savannah, Prov. of Georgia.

Once Emma had folded it and set it on the side table, she went to the kitchen to start supper. Still unable to banish a certain lurking disquiet about Sam, she distracted herself with reading the letter from Henry and Violet that Geneva had brought back from Boston. Her grandchildren, Richard and Lucy, were eight and five years old respectively, and while Philadelphia was not much closer than Boston in the scheme of things, Emma thought it might be nice to have them continue to progress in a southward direction. She had missed so much of Henry's childhood that she wanted to be there in some respect for the second generation, but time and distance made that difficult. They seemed to be happy, doing well. She would just have to take that for comfort. All of her children felt very far away right now, physically or otherwise.

Emma slept intermittently that night, woke early, and decided to take the letter to mail both in hopes of shaking her melancholy mood, and finding out if there was any more news to be had about Oglethorpe's retreat. There were certainly other mothers anxious for word of sons, wives for husbands, and Emma felt a peculiar, shameful gratitude that Killian's missing hand kept him at home – the thought of having to worry about him and Sam was too much to contemplate. For the same reason, when Henry had ventured the prospect of a visit last Christmas, Emma had advised him not to, fearing that he would be caught up in the militia recruitment. Henry was a scholar, not a soldier, and could barely fire a gun straight, but that would not have mattered.

Emma hitched up and drove into town, dropping the letter off with the packet boat that made the weekly trip between Savannah and Williamsburg. She was not quite so desperate as to subject herself to a return to Leroy's, but she did not need to, as there were knots of worried civilians congregating in the square; this was clearly now the number one topic of public concern. There was no way to know if the governor was going to come rushing in to fortify the city for an expected attack, if this was just a prudent or even overly cautious strategical decision, or if the entire coast was burning behind him.

Emma debated joining one of these groups, but it felt rather too much like congregating at a wake, and she shook her head again, furious with herself. Yet the fact remained that the last time she had had one of these feelings, explainable only by motherly intuition and a strong sense of things simply being not right, was when Sam was eight years old, out too late on a stormy night, and when she had finally taken the lantern and gone to look for him, she found him trapped under a broken log, a few hundred yards out in the trees, the wind blowing his shouts for help in the wrong direction. He had a badly twisted ankle and was rattled and cold and upset, but otherwise right as rain by the morning, and she had always been grateful that it was not anything worse. But if she had ignored it for another few hours, if someone or something had happened by, if the storm had gotten worse, if anything. . .

Still, short of riding straight down to Florida herself and getting into the middle of whatever mess might be going on there, there was nothing for Emma to do, and she finally gave up and went home. Killian was sitting in the garden, reading another of the books that Geneva had brought back for them, but when he sensed her presence behind her, he marked his place, set it aside, and held out his arms. "Come here, love."

Emma hesitated, then went over and sat down on his lap, settling her head against his shoulder as he linked his arms around her waist, brushing a blonde-grey strand of hair out of her face. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't know what's wrong with me."

"Aye, well, I do." He pressed a light kiss against her collarbone. "I'll promise to give Sam an extra-good bollocking when he comes home, for making you worry. If that would help."

"If we did. . ." Emma trailed off, half-ashamed of herself for even suggesting it, but not enough to stop. "If we did go try to find him. . ."

Killian kissed her palm. "You know I want him back as much as you do, and Christ knows I've spent plenty of time thinking of all the terrible ways he's likely gotten himself in hot water. But Sam's a man now, not a boy. A young one, but still. You have to let him flap his wings a bit – aye, and crash, if only since it's the only way he'll ever learn. It's hard for you, with the way you are in wanting to protect everyone, and being his mother to boot, but for better or worse, we can't rush in and pull him out of every tight corner he ends up in. You know I'd take you seriously if you thought he was badly injured, or worse, but. . . do you feel like that, love?"

Emma considered. "No," she admitted. "Just that something's wrong."

"That's his usual state of being, isn't it?" Killian said wryly. "You can blame me for that, if you wish."

"I'm not sure, I think we might share it equally." Feeling somewhat better, if still not entirely reassured, Emma nuzzled his cheek with her nose, then kissed it, and they sat in comfortable silence for some while, until a knock on the front door, echoing through the house, startled her. "Are we expecting someone?"

"Not that I know of." Looking surprised, Killian slid her off his lap, and got to his feet. Both of them must have had the thought at the same instant that it might be one of Oglethorpe's officers, or one of the militiamen, or – "I'll come with you, love. If you. . ."

"No," Emma said, as firmly as she could. "Don't be ridiculous. I'll be right back."

With that, leaving him in the garden, she went back into the house, crossed the front foyer, had to swallow down a brief and unwelcome nervousness, and convulsively straightened her hair. Then she opened the door. "Yes? May I help you?"

"Are you Mrs. Jones?" The man on the other side was a rough-hewn sort in a homespun brown coat, with callused hands and a faint whiff of the stockyard. "You put in a notice for a footman?"

"I did." Emma was taken aback. "But I only sent it off this morning, it hasn't even left Savannah yet, much less reached the Gazette. How did you – ?"

"The master of the packet boat is my cousin. He saw it, knew I was searching for work, thought to send me along. A chance you're free to discuss the position, ma'am?"

"I. . ." Emma supposed this was possible, even if this individual was rather slovenly for a prospective footman and there was something about him that put her on guard. "I'm actually rather – maybe not at the moment, but if you return when the notice is published, we could – "

"No, ma'am, I'd really like to."

"I don't think that will be – "

With that, quick as a snake, he moved. He slammed one hand over her mouth, pushed her backwards through the door, and fumbled in his jacket for a knife – an ugly, ill-kept thing which he was currently trying to plunge between her stays. Emma grabbed his arm, wrenched it over his head, and slammed her knee up through her skirts to catch him smartly between the legs, then twisted him off her as he let out a yelp. She forced his fingers open, making him drop the knife, though he continued scrabbling for it. Emma knocked it away, worked up enough momentum to throw him off her, and both of them dove for it at the same instant – she had not fought like this in years, but it came to her without conscious thought, a deeply ingrained old reflex. She opened her mouth, about to yell for Killian, then panicked about him being caught in the middle of this, if someone who was certainly not a footman had turned up apparently for the express purpose of murdering her in her own front hall –

Just then, a pistol went off at close range, Emma's ears rang, and the next thing she saw was her erstwhile assailant crumpling to his knees, a bloody hole blown through his forehead, and a grisly amount of brain and bone splashing the whitewashed wall behind him. He folded forward, then hit the floor facedown, as she whirled to see Killian pointing his flintlock with cold and deadly intent, making sure the bastard was not about to get up again. Then when there was no sound but the echoes of the gunshot, a slow crimson trail seeping out in all directions, he demanded, "Bloody f*cking hell, what was that? Are you all right?"

"I'm – I'm fine, I – " Emma discovered that her legs were shakier than she thought as she attempted to get to her feet. It had all happened so fast that she wasn't sure she hadn't dreamed it, except for the indubitable presence of a dead man on her nicely swept floorboards. "Killian, he tried to kill me, I don't – "

"Aye, I saw, hence why I made sure he couldn't!" Killian's eyes flashed, until for the first time in years, she could glimpse the dangerous blue-heat glimmer of Captain Hook. "Or did he – "

Emma steadied herself on the banister of the stairs, took a deep breath, and went over to the corpse, swallowing down her revulsion. It certainly wasn't as if she'd never seen a man abruptly shot to death – just not, again, for a while. She knelt down and went through his pockets, and finally pulled out a small knotted sack that when opened, spilled several freshly-minted golden guineas into her hand, Georgius II Dei Gratia stamped cleanly on the face around a portrait of the king in laurel-wreathed Roman style, the inscription continuing on the back to frame the royal coat of arms. This was more money than a humble tradesman might see in a year, or several, and Emma sucked in her breath. "Killian. Look."

He leaned over her shoulder, catching her drift. "Bloody hell. Someone paid him."

"Someone paid him a lot." Emma put the coins back, having an unpleasant sensation of déjà-vu to when she had been recruited in a dark tavern in the Turks Islands, to the aim of capturing HMS Imperator and destroying its commanding officers – one of whom she had now been married to for almost twenty-five years, coincidentally. "To kill us, or at least to try. For this price, you think they could have found a decent hitman."

"Unless they did," Killian said, very grimly. "You advertised for two servants, didn't you?"

"What do you – "

"If you hired two assassins, one much better at their job than the other, and sent one here knowing he'd likely be killed, but considering it a useful diversion, and that you'd get your money back as soon as he was dead anyway, where might you send the other?" Killian was already grabbing for his boots. "Especially when he made a public appearance yesterday for the first time in bloody years, so if you were paying attention to such things, you'd know he wasn't really dead?"

Emma remained blank an instant longer, than horrified. "What – Flint? You think someone sent this one over here to distract us and make sure we couldn't interfere, so the actually competent one could – ?"

It was reasonably plain that that was indeed what Killian was saying, and there was no time to hitch up the buggy. Leaving the problem of the dead man in their front hall for later, they grabbed a pistol apiece, flew to their feet, out to the stable, saddled the horses as quickly as they could, and leapt astride, thundering down the road, avoiding the city proper, and out to the Hamilton-McGraw residence. They dismounted almost before they had reined in, ran up the walk, and Killian kicked the door in. "Hey. HEY!"

They could hear the sounds of a struggle coming from the back of the house, and raced in just in time to see Flint being pinned against the wall by some colossal – and colossally unfriendly-looking – man in a tattered black coat. He was snapping and punching and kicking like a shark on the line, but wheezing as his throat was progressively crushed, and Miranda was bleeding from the forehead, looking as if she had been thrown back against the bookcase. She struggled to her feet and threw a very heavy copy of Dr. Faustus at the man, clearly trying to get him to drop Flint and come after her, but even this literary ambush did not succeed in diverting him from his purpose. Miranda then looked set to charge him, but as a sixty-five-year-old woman who needed a cane to walk and who was already disoriented from being hit, she would not have done much good. Fortunately, Emma and Killian had arrived in the nick of time to do it for her. Emma rushed to cover her, while Killian – evidently deciding that one dead man was going to be hard enough to get rid of and doubtless wanting to press this one for more information – snatched up the fallen Marlowe and brutally concussed Flint's attacker with it. He wavered, then staggered back, which gave Flint just enough opportunity to wrench free, snatch the heavy pistol from the desk drawer, and shoot him anyway. As he went down, it was just possible to see Killian slap a hand to his face. "Mate! No!"

As the ruckus belatedly quieted, everyone gasping for breath and struggling to regain their bearings, Flint sprinted across to Miranda, whom Emma was just helping to sit up. "f*cking hell! What just – are you – ?"

"I'm all right." Miranda winced, pressing Emma's offered handkerchief to the gash on her temple. "You know, I really did think we were past all this."

"So did I," Flint said darkly. Having assured himself of her safety, he spun around to glare at the corpse, then at Killian, as if blaming him for its presence. "The f*ck was that all about?!"

"I was going to ask him, before you shot him!" Killian was clearly not about to be blamed for his father-in-law's trigger-happy ways. "And there's more, one of these bastards came by our house as well, I shot that one, which is why I was trying to keep this one alive for questioning. Seeing as if someone is paying them a handsome sum to kill us, I'd like to know why!"

"They came after you. . .?" Flint's blood was still too up to focus on much beside the presence of someone who had tried to kill him and his wife in their own sitting room, but that at least made him frown. "What the – someone knows we're here? That all of us are here?"

"So it would seem," Emma said, wiping the last trickle of blood from Miranda's cut. "I doubt there are odds long enough to cover this being a case of some other notorious ex-pirates that someone wanted dead, and we just happened to be in the way."

"If we now have a pair of dead men in our houses, that is going to be a further difficulty." Miranda pushed away Emma's hand and looked around for her cane, struggling painfully to her feet. "Murder, no matter how justified, is not the sort of crime to make the authorities turn a blind eye. If our real names and identities are uncovered, there will be a trial and a spectacle. We'll have to dispose of the bodies at once, and hope no one comes searching for them."

Flint gave her a look as if to say that this was exactly why he loved her, that she could shake off an assassination attempt and then coolly plan how to hide the evidence. It was true that any run-in with a magistrate's court or any other instrument of justice was not going to end well for the men, especially as they had only their own word that the killing had been in defense of themselves and their womenfolk – the victims, after all, were dead and not able to say otherwise. Any jury would be quick to suspect the worst of former pirates, especially two as notorious as Hook and Flint, the legendary terrors of the Caribbean. This was exactly what they did not need.

They had to wait until dark to proceed, at any rate. Then – with Flint armed to the teeth and keeping extremely vigilant watch until they returned – Emma and Killian rode back to their house at what they hoped was an unsuspicious speed, swung down, and while Emma hitched the horses up to their cart, Killian went inside and wrapped the dead man in an old sheet. They hefted him into the back – already smelling ripe from the heat – and tossed a few things on top, so they would not be very obviously out for a nice evening drive with a corpse. It was a nerve-wracking trip back to Flint and Miranda, who, having ransacked their own dead man for any potential evidence, and finding nothing of use, had likewise unceremoniously bundled him up for burial. Flint was not leaving Miranda by herself at the house with the slightest chance of more killers on the loose, so they all climbed aboard and rode as nonchalantly as they could into the woods, flies starting to buzz above their pungent burdens.

Once they had gotten far enough outside the city limits that they were not likely to be discovered or inopportunely interrupted, Emma reined in the horses, and Killian and Flint jumped down, found a suitably soft bit of ground, and pulled out the spades. Killian wasn't the fastest at digging with one hand, so Emma took over, she and Flint laboring in the thick, sweltering blue-black night, intermittently pricked by the glow of fireflies. The lantern hung on the spar wavered in the haze, dancing like a will-o-the-wisp, as Emma struggled not to recall several memorable ghost stories she had heard about dark nights in remote woods. God, this was not good. Even if they could hastily bury the bodies and return to town with nobody any the wiser, someone still knew they were alive, lived here, and had made a serious attempt to have them killed. If so, Oglethorpe's retreat was the very least of their problems.

Once Emma and Flint, sweating and swearing, had hollowed out a hole of suitable size, they crawled free, got the bodies out of the cart, and dumped them in. Emma felt a faint impulse to say a prayer, not out of any real concern for the souls of the not-so-dearly-departed, but to ward them off from any desire to stay around and haunt her. Not that she believed in ghosts, not really, but any good seafarer did not take superstition lightly, and Killian had already turned in a circle three times and tossed some dirt over his shoulder. Emma herself had a brief and horrible conviction that one of the dead men was stirring in his shroud as she and Flint began to throw on shovelfuls of rich damp earth, and had to fight the urge to just pile it on all at once and run away. Maybe set a boulder on top, just for good measure. Bloody hell, she was not sleeping tonight.

At last, they finished their macabre task, and climbed back onto the cart, uncorking the water skin Miranda passed over and taking a long guzzle apiece. The stench of decay and grave dirt clung to them both, so that Emma would need to wash thoroughly in the near future. Killian had led the horses away to stop them being spooked by the dead men, so he brought them back and they hitched up again. Emma did her best not to wheel them around and lay tracks back to town, but she wanted out of that place, and badly.

"I think perhaps you two should stay with us tonight," she said, low-voiced, as they rolled through a stand of whispering trees, moonlight casting weird shadows on the ground. "I'd feel better about it. At least until we find out who was responsible for this."

"Aye, I'd feel better about it as well." Miranda glanced at her, the troubled look on her face plainly visible in the silver glow. None of them wanted to discuss the dread prospect of losing their home here in Savannah, everything they had built for many years, but they could all sense it hanging over their head like the sword of Damocles. It was almost a good thing that Sam was off wherever he was, that Geneva and Thomas were in Nassau, as at least it kept them at arm's length from whatever ugly flower had started to bloom here. "But we must be very careful at pulling at any of these threads. We may find the answers, and wish we hadn't."

"I want to know who's trying to kill me," Flint said flatly. "These days, at least."

"Of course. But anyone who knows about us is just the beginning of the danger. Anyone they told, any way they could spread it. . ." Miranda trailed off. "I'm not sure they'll do us the favor of barging into our parlors to be conveniently shot."

"But who would want us dead?" Emma asked. "The Georgia authorities know who we are, or at least who Killian and I are, and as long as we pay our taxes and live quietly, they've never troubled us. Why would that have changed? Under who?"

"I don't know." Miranda continued to regard her gravely. "Who?"

Chapter 3: III

Chapter Text

Geneva stood on the doorstep for several moments, working over the words in her head, before she raised her hand to knock – and yet once she did, they all fled anyway, leaving her uncharacteristically tongue-tied. She wasn't even sure why. This was by far the least difficult part of what she appeared to have gotten herself into, and she wasn't, in the ordinary course of things, prone to nerves. But perhaps it was the sense that, if anywhere, this was her last chance to get out of it or at least not go in completely blind, and if it failed, she was. . . well, it wouldn't be good. Using John Silver's false leg to bash him over the head sounded an appealing idea, but was not about to solve any of their present quandaries. This might, but at a cost.

After a long moment, the door was opened by a young maidservant holding a candelabra, who looked startled to see a caller at this unsociable hour; it was past ten o'clock, and even on late, long summer evenings, even on such a place of relaxed protocol as Nassau, business, except of the most urgent sort, could usually wait for breakfast. "Can I help you, Miss – ?"

"Captain," Geneva said. "Captain Jones. Is your mistress home tonight?"

A brief, unreadable flicker passed over the maid's face. "She is home, yes."

"If she's not abed, and even if she is, I would like a word, and I'm prepared to pay for the privilege." This might not be a pirate haunt any more, at least to the eyes of the world, but Geneva was quite sure that a well-placed coin or two could not hurt (and had already seen, of course, that this element was far from eradicated). In proof of her statement, she casually twiddled a piece of eight between her fingers, a trick she had learned to pass the time, and which always made men hereunto confident of cheating a little lady in a lacy dress rather hot under the collar. "It concerns – well, I'm told it's not quite proper to call him her husband?"

That did get the maid's attention. She paused, then nodded once, stepped aside, and admitted Geneva into the dark hall, leading her through it to the airy veranda at the back of the house, screened to all sides with palm trees and dark tangles of bushes, fat white candles lit in punctured tin lanterns and spilling waxen gremlins. Two women sat at a table on the porch, account books and ledgers open in heaps, along with stacks of requisitions and docking reports and neatly inked columns of figures. It was plain that no matter the lateness of the hour, they saw it as no deterrent to sorting out whatever pressing matters of business occupied them, and Geneva felt a certain peeress-to-peeress admiration. These were her sorts of folk.

"Madam?" the maidservant said. "There's a Captain Jones here, asking to see you."

The nearest of the two looked up. She was a regal, stately African woman with long black dreadlocks, only barely touched with silver, gathered from her face with a knotted scarf of colorful fabric, the merest suggestion of lines around her calm dark eyes, and a presence that in youth must have been strong and feisty and brave enough, but had turned with age into something even more formidable, polished and beautiful and inscrutable as onyx. Her expression showed a hint of surprise, but only that, before she pushed her chair back and swept to her feet. "I am Madi Scott," she said. "Was I the one you were looking for?"

"I. . . yes, ma'am." Geneva had a momentary impulse to curtsy, though she had a feeling Madi would find it amusing, or even insulting. "I'm sorry to call so late."

"We were awake." Madi nodded to her companion, another dark-eyed, middle-aged woman who wore thick kohl liner and a string of pearls. "This is Max, the factor of Nassau. Have you met?"

"I'm Charles Swan's niece," Geneva said. "You three work together."

"Ah. Charles." It was unclear from Madi's tone whether being related to him was something to aspire to or not. "Yes, we do. His niece, then? Hook and Swan's daughter?"

Geneva was unsure how to feel about the fact that everyone seemed to know her, or at least her parents. It certainly meant that her family had left an indelible impression on this place – which, given what Silver was trying to blackmail her into, was presently the problem. "Yes."

Madi considered a moment, then beckoned Geneva to take the extra chair at the table. "Your father saved my life once. Sit down."

That took Geneva by surprise, as it was a story she had not heard, but she did, as Madi nodded for the maidservant to excuse herself. Geneva noted that the girl was white, and could not help but admire the fact that the daughter of former slaves could turn the tables so neatly. She accepted the cup of something that Madi passed her, then looked at it in surprise. "What's this?"

"Sangria," Madi said. "It is a Spanish drink. What did you come to say?"

"It's about. . ." Geneva hesitated. "John Silver."

"Ah." Madi's face was as smooth and beautiful and unreadable as a statue of polished teakwood. But her reaction on hearing the name was clearly far from warm, which confirmed to Geneva that common-law though it might be, the marriage was either way considerably estranged. "And what has he done now, exactly?"

Geneva took another sip of sangria to brace herself, and then did her best to explain the sorry situation which she had somehow found herself plunged into, upon the occasion of just trying to enjoy a peaceable getaway to Nassau with her great-uncle. At the mention of Thomas Hamilton, Madi's expression flickered, but not enough to permit any clear indication of her thoughts. When Geneva had finished, she said, "You are expecting me to do something about it? Approach John, perhaps? Convince him of the folly or danger or futility of this enterprise?"

"I thought. . ." Now that it came to it, Geneva was not entirely sure. "I thought you should at least know that was what he was asking of us."

Madi's lips tightened. "I am not surprised," she said. "We have. . . been apart. For some time. There seems to be less binding us now, than there was. When there was the war, and the need to fight it, that served as the strongest shared ground between us. Now there is less. I do not believe that the victory he desired was to see Nassau serve as just yet another ordinary trading post in the West Indies, for its destiny to be so mundane as that. He saw something different. Special. Stronger. A place he could craft to his liking, in his own image, and over which he could hold the final say. And Long John Silver does not take easily to such. . . diminution."

Geneva was not surprised by this, as surely some of Nassau's residents would have accepted its reclamation by civilization more readily than others, and nor was she surprised that Silver would be one of those who found the yoke still too heavy to bear. Not after who he had been, not when he must have made a comfortable enough life for himself in this new skin, but remained ultimately restless, unsatisfied, and forever just that bit unshakably haunted by the events of Skeleton Island, and the loss of the Walrus, her crew, the Spanish treasure, and Flint. Flint himself had never said a word about how he had gotten off the island, how long he had spent there, or what had passed between him and Silver in their final conversation, why Silver had taken the impression back to the others that he was dead, or near enough not to matter. If he had told the story even to Miranda and Thomas, Geneva was not sure, and it was certainly not something he had shared with his grandchildren. But if that was so, despite the veneer of misdirection and manipulation that clothed them, Silver's motives might be, at heart, the same as Billy Bones's. He too had lost his old life, and everything that mattered to him most, on Skeleton Island. Small wonder that, upon hearing of this possibility, of its ghost risen to trouble him once more, he was so obsessed with uncovering the truth of it.

For her part, Geneva could not help but think that this sounded very like what Flint himself had aspired for Nassau, and she could not imagine that he, if forced to live under its new regime with the memories of the old one all about, would have been particularly content either, or able to let the past go. Even now, in Georgia, it retained its hold on him, and to think of trying to do it here was impossible. This did not engender any overwhelming sympathy for Silver, but it did at least provide some insight into his perpetually opaque mental processes. "Do you know how he could have heard that Billy Bones might be alive?"

Max was the one to answer that. "A half-mad Irish pirate," she said. "Ben Gunn. Claimed to have sailed with the Walrus, and that he was one of the men marooned there upon its wreck in 1716. Arrived in Nassau a few months ago, to tell a tale that he and Bones had been on the island for almost three years after the shipwreck, and finally both bargained passage off on a passing trader. They did not see Flint while they were there, or know how he escaped. They supposed he was dead. Apparently Gunn and Billy worked on several ships after that, mostly in the African Ocean near the Gold and Ivory Coasts. Parted ways and then crossed them again several times. His last report was that Bones had made his way back to the Americas, met with someone in Charlestown, and then took ship for England immediately afterward. Not long ago."

"Charlestown?" That, to say the least, sent a cold chill down Geneva's back. There was possibly no place in the Colonies that her family had a darker history with, and none of them had had any desire to return there since Flint and Charles Vane had burned and sacked it. Flint himself had killed Peter Ashe, its governor, his old friend, and the man who betrayed him, Thomas, and Miranda, and Miranda herself still lived every day with the damage of her ordeal. "Bones met someone in Charlestown? Someone who could have passed him the intelligence about us?" To say the least, the Carolinas would not have forgotten a grudge against Flint. No one who had ever met (or run afoul) of her grandfather often did.

"We don't know," Max said. "Gunn was. . . far from clear."

"Could I speak to him?"

"If you have a gravedigger and a conjure-man." Madi smiled, without amusem*nt. "He's dead. Not long after he arrived. A fever. All we have are the fragmented ramblings of a man on his deathbed, told to a drunk priest, who was not sure he had recalled half of them correctly. So as you can see, this is somewhat less than certainty."

"Silver seems to be taking it seriously."

"Indeed he is." Madi sat back in her chair, face still unreadable. "Even the chance that Billy Bones, the only other person apart from Flint and Silver themselves who knows the location and secrets of Skeleton Island, was alive, is enough to be followed to every end."

"And so that's what Silver has been trying to engage you for, to track Billy down by use of your ship and to call in every favor your uncle Charles owes him," Max completed. When Geneva looked at her in startlement, she shrugged. "I have known the man from the moment he first set foot in Nassau, nearly thirty years ago. I have more than some acquaintance with his character."

"Yes." Geneva could not help but suspect that Madi and Max were the queens of this island, crowned or uncrowned, and that no matter how vital her uncle fancied himself to its operations, it was only insofar as the space they allowed him. That, after all, was why she had felt it prudent to pay an immediate visit. "That, therefore, was my question. I did not arrive here intending to undertake a voyage of some months in pursuit of a man who might or might not be planning to sell a literally priceless secret to Westminster, but I am not insensible of the danger to my family if so, or the possibility that England would take a sharply renewed interest in Nassau and everyone who ever lived here. The entire war between England and Spain would become focused on the mystery of Skeleton Island and the possibility of recovering its lost riches, and I cannot doubt that skeletons of a quite different sort would soon begin tumbling from closets. All of which, I further suspect, we would much prefer to stay there."

Madi and Max exchanged an appraising look. "You're a sharp one," Max said, with a faint, enigmatic smile. "And quite lovely, if I may add. Likewise, a woman we could use."

"I've already got one offer I'm not sure what to do with." Geneva glanced between them. "Is there another ship, any at all, you can find for Silver's use? Or at least some way to ensure that the enterprise is not completely beholden to whatever he finds it fit to tell me?"

"I have lived with John as my husband for many years," Madi said, after a moment. "I loved him – in some ways, I still do. He is brave, and clever, and stubborn, and he cares far more than he ever wishes to admit. He was an invaluable asset to us during the war. But the qualities which made him so strong in that situation are ones that. . . transfer less well to peace. He manipulates people, and he will never stop. He has manipulated even me, thinking it with good intentions, in the name of my safety. He will never stop believing that he alone sees a situation the clearest, and that he knows the best manner in which to reach it, and all of us are simply pieces to be moved accordingly. That was why he and Flint were so much the same. In the brief time they were united in their aims and agreed on their moves, they were unstoppable. But Flint was already broken, his star falling, going out. So Silver bore the torch onward. Whether Flint handed it to him, or whether John took it from him, he has never said. Not even to me."

A faint but distinct bitterness edged Madi's voice, and she fell silent, staring off into the darkness of the surrounding trees. Then she shook herself. "So yes. You are right to believe that John would see you as a valuable piece on his chess board, and that while he might regret where he could end up having to move you, he would send you there nonetheless. I do not believe that I could completely forestall it by accompanying you, but it could at least give him pause. As well, I want to know the truth of this matter. I'll come with you."

Geneva blinked. "You'll. . .?"

"Max can manage the business and affairs of the island most competently in my absence. As well, it has been some time since I was allowed to draw a free breath again, to see the world." Madi grinned wistfully, an unexpected expression on her calm and guarded face, which suddenly made her seem younger. "So yes. I will come."

"No other ship, then?"

"One could be found, if necessity was at its uttermost, but for something like this, I think you and I would both ultimately prefer that it was yours, would we not?" Madi raised an eyebrow. "If this is as significant as it seems to be, we do not wish to be caught on the sidelines, powerless to alter its course or its result. When are we departing?"

"The day after tomorrow," Geneva said. "Once the Rose can be properly supplied for a voyage to England, and assuming no further complications – or at least, from outside forces. Silver does not want to waste time, and admittedly, I would like some answers as well."

"The day after tomorrow." Madi rose to her feet, clearly signaling that the conversation, for now, was over. "I will see you then."

Once Geneva had been showed out, glanced warily around to be sure that nobody was lurking in the street to ambush a woman alone at night, and set off back to her uncle's house, she found herself chewing over and over the question of who in Charlestown could have known the sensitive information of her family's history and whereabouts, been in a position to pass it to an embittered old sailor looking for one last revenge on Flint, and what they themselves would have gotten from doing so. The obvious answer was just that they wanted Flint to be actually dead after the number of times the papers had boasted of catching him, but that seemed too easy. Her mother and uncle had lived there after they first arrived from England, with Emma working as a maidservant in the house of the wealthy merchant, Leopold White, but they had been thrown out when she became pregnant with Geneva's elder half-brother. Upon White's death, his fortune and shipping concerns had been inherited by his only daughter, Mary Margaret, who was married to Captain David Nolan of the Royal Navy, a man who had been crucial to the pirates' ultimate overthrow and defeat of Lord Robert Gold. It was the Nolans who had re-enfranchised Nassau and for whom Charles managed their business here, and they resided in Charlestown after David's retirement, in the White family estate. Geneva was not particularly well acquainted with either of them, but it was the only point of contact she could think of. Ask Charles to write to David and Mary Margaret as well as to her parents, and see if they could find someone sniffing about the Carolinas for Flint? Seeing as he was a trusted employee who had worked for them for many years, surely they'd be obliged both to take him seriously, and to put in an effort to look.

These and other strategical considerations kept Geneva distracted even after she arrived back at her uncle's house, was reprimanded for being out so late without an escort, and had to remind him that she was well used to doing things by herself. She went to sleep still thinking of it, woke the next morning without a clear answer, and was run off her feet with preparations all day anyway. Thomas took the opportunity to visit the house outside the city where Miranda (and when he was home, Flint) had lived for their ten years on Nassau. Nobody had wanted to tempt fate, or to inherit the bad luck of its previous owners, by taking it over, and it had turned tumbledown, abandoned and derelict, as he told Geneva that evening. "It's like looking at broken fragments," he said, pensive and quiet. "Sometimes I can piece them together and see what the whole must have looked like, nearly as well as if I was there, and others, all I can see is the debris. Sometimes, our time apart seems only a brief blink, a bad memory, and others, it feels like the greatest eternity in the world."

Geneva nodded sympathetically, as she had been talking (or shouting) all day, and did not have much voice left to do anything else. As well, she could tell that while he had of course agreed to accompany her, Thomas was less than enthused about spending the next several weeks in close proximity to John Silver. Nor was Geneva, but Thomas' hesitation was different. Silver was a living and breathing reminder of Captain Flint, the deeply damaged soul of the man that James McGraw had made himself, and while Thomas had heard the stories, confronting the true, scarred reality was unavoidably painful. Silver was proud of his status as the man who had known Flint the best, his secrets and his dark places and his ghosts, and would not necessarily appreciate being unseated. In this, Geneva could detect a certain – not jealous, exactly, but also not not jealous – air in Silver's attitude toward Thomas. He was clearly wondering, even if he would not admit it, if Thomas was actually worthy of everything Flint had done in his memory. If a decade of exile, anger, and grief had made an undeserving saint of a flawed and petty mortal, as if the full light of day would reveal him to possess a very small shadow instead of the long and inescapable one that had always fallen over Flint. (Not that Silver was at all qualified to cast aspersions in this regard, but that was not likely to stop him.)

"Hey," Geneva said, leaning forward to put a hand on her great-uncle's knee. "This way, at least we can have an adventure of our own, eh? Not just listen to stories from the rest of them. That should help both of us to understand."

That summoned a soft smile to Thomas' lips. "You are kind to say so, my dear. I certainly would hope we should come out with something, for any number of reasons. And for better or worse, I have missed England, for all it did to me. I had rarely left London in my life until I was sent to. . ." He stopped. "Well, it will be good to see it again. Miserable, smoky, and raining though it is destined to be. Have you ever been?"

"No, I've never seen it. Mother's from Boston, in Lincolnshire – we ended up in the Massachusetts one, of course – and Daddy's from Bristol, or at least that's where the Imperator made its home port. I've been to France, but only when I was very young, with Uncle Liam and Aunt Regina. If we can get away, I was thinking of going to Paris to see them."

"I suspect your parents, and your grandparents, shall be quite thoroughly furious with the both of us once we return," Thomas observed wryly. "First Nassau, now London, and with John Silver himself in tow, to chase down Billy Bones. Nearly the only way we could give them further heart failure is if we were to somehow summon Charles Vane back from the dead. But I hope you don't consider me too elderly and feeble to get into decent mischief with."

"Not at all." Geneva grinned at him. "As I said. An adventure it is."

They clinked their glasses and drank to it, went to bed later, and awoke the next morning to complete the final arrangements. The Rose was set to sail on the evening tide, and once Geneva had had a quiet word with her uncle Charles about feeling out the Nolans for any interesting rumors or personages floating around the Carolinas – making it clear that it was the least he could do for the favor she was undertaking for him – she almost felt as if they were starting off well, or at least not completely terribly. She had intentionally forgotten to mention to Silver that they would be bringing his estranged wife along, as she did not want him to have time to plan for this surprise or to work around it, and as they arrived on the docks late that afternoon, Silver was still looking quite confident of himself. He had brought a few men of his own, whom Geneva made a note to keep under the supervision of her more trusted crew members. Probably not enough to take over the vessel, but certainly enough to cause problems, if they so chose.

"Ah, Captain Jones. Good to see we're all punctual. Is that the Rose, just there?" Silver asked. "More or less the same as I recollect, though the paint job seems new."

"I could hardly be sailing what appears to be a Navy sixth-rater under civilian command, could I?" Geneva raised an eyebrow, as Thomas stationed himself behind her right shoulder. They watched the final sets of launches ferrying casks and cargoes out to the Rose, and hauling them aboard, as Geneva supposed it was better not to ask how a refit had been completed so swiftly. She had also spent some quality time with her uncle's collection of navigational charts, as the first challenge, even before setting a heading across the Atlantic to London, was getting them out of the Caribbean in one piece. This was not as easy as it sounded. It would be an inauspicious start to the venture if she ran them aground only three hours out of port.

Silver continued to make light conversation, which Geneva and Thomas participated in politely but sporadically, until he was clearly about to ask if they were going aboard, or still waiting for someone. It was then, with excellent timing, that a cart pulled up by the docks, and Madi Scott stepped off, dressed for traveling. She strode down the quay, affecting not to see Silver at all, as she reached Geneva and clasped her hand. "Are we prepared?"

"M – Madi." For once, even the unshakeable John Silver seemed slightly rattled. "I was not – aware you had come to see us off."

Madi gave him a cool look, as if to say that he was perfectly bloody aware that she had not come merely to see them off, and playing stupid did not suit him. "I don't suppose you were."

Silver was clearly also aware that complaining about being outwitted would be the greatest incidence of the parable of the pot and kettle to ever apply, and thus bit his tongue, though he did not look pleased. He was left with nothing to do but offer Madi a gracious hand into the rowboat, the pair of them exchanging a brief, subtle look that made Geneva think that much as their personal and emotional relationship might have soured, they were still considerably and deeply attracted to each other, and that any fight was as likely to end with kissing as with slapping. Not that this would alter anything in the long run, but if Silver was too enmeshed with Flint to relinquish it comfortably, so was he with Madi. This was going to be very interesting indeed.

They reached the Rose and clambered over the side, as Geneva paid the boatman and debated over the berthing arrangements. She and Thomas had shared the captain's cabin on the way out, and while she did not want to oblige Thomas to spend yet more time with Silver, she also thought it might not be the worst thing for them to attempt to find some common ground, over Flint or otherwise. So she sent them to the lieutenants' bunks, slightly set apart from the main crew hammocks, which she had converted into a makeshift second cabin, and took Madi into the captain's quarters with her. Then she went back on deck to ensure everything was in place for their departure, unable to repress a pang of disappointment that they were leaving again so swiftly. Perhaps there really was nothing else to be found on the island, and they had only been sent here to embark upon this as the actual adventure, but still.

Geneva silently crossed her fingers that her uncle's letters would reach her parents in Savannah, and the Nolans in Charlestown, and that he would be wise enough to take due precautions in sending them. Letters, especially those from important correspondents, could routinely be opened and re-sealed half a dozen times before reaching their destination, especially in wartime with the competing English and Spanish intelligence networks scrambling to intercept each other, and she would just have to hope that the apparently mundane dispatches of an ordinary Nassau merchant manager would seem too boring to be worth it. Not to mention that if those letters did not make it, their family would be very worried when she and Thomas failed to return after their promised fortnight. That could lead to something – well, rash.

However, none of this was under Geneva's control, and as she would need all her wits to survive at least three weeks at sea with John Silver and come out the other end without any (or at least any major) catastrophes, she decided to focus on what she could. She ordered the anchor up and the sails raised; the wind was good, at least, and she was more or less confident of her calculations from the charts, but went them over one more time just in case. Better to spot a mistake now than when they were well out in the Atlantic, but at this point, she was still expecting to end up in London instead of, say, Timbuktu. After that, they would just have to see.

Geneva took a final look at Nassau over her shoulder as the Rose began to pick up speed, passing between the prows of the headland and toward the open water beyond. She was still far from sure that this was not a terrible mistake, but that was a part of the allure. Of the two younger Swan-Jones children, she was generally seen as the settled and responsible one, whereas her fat-headed little brother was the adventurous (and rather flighty) one, but she possessed the same deep-grained desire for it as the rest of the family, and this was her first real chance to find it. Whatever was out there, whatever was coming, she would meet it on her terms. And whenever she returned, she would not be mistaken for merely some wealthy heiress larking on her father's ship. Oh no. Captain Geneva Jones would write a few legends of her own.

Geneva glanced over the sea one more time, smiled to herself, and went below.

Sam did not sleep much for the next several days. Despite the appearance of friendship he had managed to forge with his captors, mostly by reminding them of that large pot of treasure which would very soon be theirs if they played their cards right, he was not about to forget that letting his guard down, or sharing too much information, could very easily lead to them deciding to cut out the middleman, and deliver this dazzling news to Güemes themselves, thus enabling them to take all the credit. Given as they kept trying to get him to drop seemingly innocuous details, often after having plied him with generous portions of whatever godawful grog they drank on this tub of swill, Sam could not help but suspect that was exactly what Da Souza was after. See if this brash English lad with his big stories about convenient family connections and vast lost fortunes could be trusted an inch, or was merely spinning sh*t out of his arse to avoid some unpleasant demise. They also separated him and Nathaniel whenever they did this, so Sam guessed they were questioning them independently, seeing if stories or claims matched up. Leave it to him to fall into the hands of the one small-time, no-account Portuguese trading vessel where the captain was a bloody evil genius. He had been confident, almost smug, in his ability to outsmart this lot, but he was no longer quite so sure.

At least the wind had been good. They were deep in Spanish waters, and if it stayed steady, would be arriving in Havana no later than tomorrow morning. That meant, therefore, that tonight was Sam's last chance to decide if he really wanted to come ashore with this lot. There was the fact that if he and Nathaniel washed up on Cuban shores by themselves, they would probably be shot long before they could remotely cadge an audience with the governor, and at least Da Souza could provide some apparent legitimacy to their presence. The obvious explanation for the captain of a no-account supply tub being so good at political wheeling and dealing, therefore. . .

. . . was that this was not a no-account supply tub, that these were not merely some enterprising rustic fishermen who had decided to seize the boys in hopes of a score, and Sam had just confided some extremely dangerous and consequential information to the head of a Spanish spy network. Indeed it was not out of the question that the man he was after, Montiano's agent taking the intelligence to Havana, was also on board, posing as one of the crew, and that it was only a debate of whether they shot Sam before or after they made sure he delivered it safely. They seemed to have satisfied themselves that Nathaniel did not know anything useful, as they had resorted to only questioning Sam, and that night at supper, which Da Souza seemed to know was a guaranteed way to get Sam to turn up, the Portuguese captain said, "So, my friend. Between us. What did your grandfather tell you about this Skeleton Island?"

Sam chewed his chicken leg, thinking that it was news to him that they were friends now. "Not much. Just that there's still half the treasure there, from the haul Vane and Jennings stole." He had never met either pirate, as they had both died several years before he was born – Vane hanged in Nassau by Robert Gold, and Jennings killed in Charlestown by his uncle Liam, a subject the family did not like to speak of. However, he knew that both of them, particularly Jennings, had been infamous for brutality, feared across the Caribbean, and that while Vane had been an ally to the pirates' cause despite his personal hatred for Flint, Jennings had been a terror of pure destruction, only out for himself and his own enrichment, a mortal enemy whose memory still haunted them from beyond the grave. "And since that was twenty-five years ago, it would now be worth as much as, what, the whole 1715 lost treasure fleet?"

"Perhaps." Da Souza took a sip. "So much money just sitting there, a man like your grandfather, and he never went back to fetch it?"

"Well," Sam said. "It was a long time ago. It probably sank with the Walrus."

"But earlier you said that, while not much, he did tell you something." Da Souza considered him mildly. "How old are you, Samuel Jones?"

"I, er." Sam sensed a trap, but he wasn't sure of what sort. "Nineteen."

"So you were born in – 1720? 1721? And your grandfather was reported to be hanged in Savannah in – 1724, I believe was the first time, yes? So for you to remember anything he said to you at the age of three, that would be quite remarkable."

"Yeah," Sam said. "It was memorable."

"Unless of course, that was not your grandfather then, but at one of the later dates?" At last, Da Souza seemed to have dropped the pretense that he was only the master of a humble trading tender. He leaned forward, eyes intent. "1729, Port Royal? 1732, Barbados? 1737, Wapping? Or the most recent one, 1739, Virginia? That is at least five times men claiming to be Captain Flint have been captured, questioned, and executed. All of them had some wild tale about Skeleton Island that transpired to only be fantasy. If none of them were your grandfather, of course, that would explain it. Or are you merely the next in this line of liars, Samuel?"

Sam's eyes flickered to Da Souza's eating knife, which lay casually close to his right hand, in case he was about to pick it up and insist on better answers. "I don't – "

"Let me be clear." The captain leaned back in his chair, crossing his boots. "Yours is not an unfamiliar tale. Every so often we have someone come along and promise to lead us to the lost 1715 treasure. None of them ever have. So tell me, then, why I should believe you will?"

Sam's throat was dry, but taking a drink would seem too obvious, show that he was starting to crack. He had a definite sense that his and Nathaniel's chances of getting off this boat alive hung on how carefully he chose his response. Finally he said, "You're no fisherman."

"You are wrong. I am a fisherman, among other things." Da Souza smiled. "Though fishing is only part of what they pay me for. I am a trusted servant to the captain-general. I can have you in front of Güemes tomorrow. Or you can lie to me one more time, and go overboard tonight."

Well then. That was rather clear, as such things went. Vying for an appearance of control, Sam mirrored the captain's unconcerned posture. "My grandfather isn't – "

"Perhaps you would like your friend to go first?" Da Souza raised an eyebrow. "There are sharks in these waters, you know. You could watch."

Sam grimaced. Nathaniel could be a right pain in the backside, sure, but they had been friends since the age of six, and getting her brother chucked off a boat and eaten by sharks was not any way to convince Isabelle to improve her opinion of him. "Fine," he said at last. "None of the Captain Flints they've killed have been my grandfather, no."

"That is good to know." Da Souza nodded cordially. "Unless, is as rumored, he has nine lives?"

Given his grandfather's previous escapades (and escapes), this was not out of the possibility in Sam's opinion, but probably not relevant to the question. "I don't think he does, no."

"And when did you last see him?"

Sam hesitated. "Three years ago," he lied. That seemed close enough to prove that Flint had been alive fairly recently, but not enough to mean that he had any useful intelligence.

"Where did you see him?"

"Here and there. Around."

Da Souza smiled, revealing a slightly pointed canine. "Does your friend want to go swimming?"

"Georgia." Sam felt a stab of disloyalty, a terrible anxiety that despite taking on this mission to protect his family, he was single-handedly endangering them instead. It was – at least for the moment – still an English territory, so it wasn't as if the Spaniards could just send in a squadron to drag Flint out by his heels. Not that they would not try. God, he hoped Oglethorpe wasn't being chased up the coast by the Spanish invasion. "It wasn't a long visit. He wasn't in good health." This was true, only insofar as Flint had nearly cut his thumb off while chopping wood during that visit, and was in a grumpier mood than usual. "He could be dead now, I don't know."

"Surely someone would have sent word if that was the case?" Da Souza drummed his fingers lightly on the table. "Unless you were too far away to risk it reaching you?"

Since this sounded like a slightly less certain fish for information, and Sam was not about to give up anything unless directly confronted with it, he settled for smiling unhelpfully. He watched Da Souza consider what question to ask him next, supposed bitterly that trying to strangle him with a napkin would not work, and thought as well that Nathaniel had been right when he insisted at the outset that he did not trust the bugger. But since Sam was the one used to taking the lead and making the decisions in their adventures, and Nathaniel always came along after a token protest or two, he hadn't seen it as a reason to jump ship right then. If you don't get him killed by Spanish spies or sharks or God bloody knows what, maybe you should try listening to him more.

"You were not abroad simply in hopes of telling someone about Skeleton Island," Da Souza said at last. "And you came from the direction of the English camp. Did Oglethorpe send you?"

"No," Sam said. "I deserted. Just like I told your men the first time. Half of them probably don't know you work for Güemes, do they? If not all of them. No reason to risk that cat getting out of the bag, when the quality of their information depends on not having to ask them to act innocent. They might slip up, say something inadvertent, boast about it in their drink. Easier if they just never know. And several of them wanted to make the Spaniards pay a ridiculous price for me, or not sell me back at all, so I don't think they're as loyal to Madrid's cause as you. Might feel a bit cheated, in fact, to learn that they'd been assisting it all along. Be a shame if someone accidentally yelled it, when, say, they were trying to drown my friend?"

That caught Da Souza, for the first time, by surprise. He was not slow to take Sam's implication, and a look of anger flashed across his face – followed by an even more misleadingly genial smile. "You're not quite as stupid as I thought, are you?"

"Thanks," Sam said. "I think."

"Very well, then. We understand each other. We can make a bargain, like gentlemen." Da Souza reached for the decanter and poured Sam another glass. "You give me more information, I can return the favor. For example, we helped smuggle someone out of the Castillo San Marcos a few hours before we caught you – one of Governor Montiano's agents. Coincidentally, also bound for Havana. You would not be looking for this man by any chance, would you?"

Sam's heart lurched. "Dunno," he said, casually as he could. "Why would I be?"

"You would not be, of course," Da Souza acknowledged. "If you were simply an English deserter. If you were not, well. Then you might have more interest."

Sam debated whether to take the risk, as he had a sense that despite threatening to feed him to sharks and/or any other number of picturesque fates, Da Souza rather liked him, and had just enough incentive as a Portuguese sailor that while he might be serving the Spaniards faithfully, there was a certain amount of room for other interests – namingly, himself – to be satisfied. Finally Sam said, as offhandedly as possible, "Could be I want to talk to him, yes."

"Ah." Da Souza looked as if he thought this might be the case. "Well, he went ahead on the other boat. Likely we will both be arriving in Havana at the same time. I can tell you more, but I would expect repayment in kind."

Sam was not quite so desperate to catch the bastard as to pay for it with sensitive information about his family, though his heart did lurch again at the thought that he might still have a shot at it. "Make me an offer," he said, striving to sound cool and authoritative. "I keep my mouth shut to your men about your little side job with Güemes, and you – aside from not using myself and my friend for chum, obviously – do what?"

"Don't forget," Da Souza said, "you tell me about Skeleton Island."

"I've told you everything I know." Sam let a bit of his irritation show, as this was the truth. "You know my grandfather's the real Flint, so you can trust it's the truth. So – "

"Your grandfather is the real Flint?" Of course Da Souza had caught that slip, f*ck him. "So he is definitely still alive?"

"I didn't say that."

"Of course you did not." The captain carried on looking disconcertingly smug. "Very well. I will take you and that dim-witted sidekick of yours ashore in Havana tomorrow. Once you have told Governor Güemes everything you have told me, you will be free to go. If you can find the man you are looking for, that is for you to sort out. If your intelligence proves fruitful for the Spanish crown, it will be remembered. If it does not. . . that will be remembered as well."

This did not sound like a terribly reassuring proposal to Sam, but he was also not certain how to leverage a better one, and at least it assured them of living through the night, as well as having a shot to catch up to the Spanish agent. That, strictly speaking, was all he needed to do. Oglethorpe had charged him to prevent the intelligence from being delivered, but if it was, well, Sam could not be faulted for trying his best. There could be a chance of crossing paths, of overhearing something valuable in return (assuming his sh*t Spanish was up to the task, which was doubtful) or something else to please the governor even if Sam failed in his original objective. Besides, Oglethorpe was likely to have bigger problems at the moment than hunting down his family.

"Fine," Sam said again. "It's a deal."

Once he had grudgingly shaken Da Souza's hand and returned to his quarters belowdecks, thus to find Nathaniel snoring in a pile of grain sacks, he felt a brief and unaccountable resentment that protecting his friend had forced him to give up so much information on his family. He was not, of course, about to do anything differently, as they were in this together as they had been since they were boys, but to barely sleep these three days and try to think his way out of Da Souza's traps and be the one whose neck was decidedly on the line if this went bad, then to come here and find Nathaniel in blissful slumber. . . it was just frustrating, was all. Sam settled himself down with a small huff, watching the boards rock above him, and tried to quiet his restless thoughts. He'd need all his wits and then some for tomorrow.

Despite himself, he must have finally dropped under, because when he opened his eyes, pale-grey light was leaking through the cracks above, he heard talk and pounding feet, and once he had crawled into the bow to peer out the eyelet, he could see that they had just entered the narrow strip of water between the imposing stone watchtowers built to protect Havana bay, the capital of Nueva España and the formidable heart of the Spanish Indies. The Bourbon coat of arms and the Cross of Burgundy flew over the headland, and as they drew closer to the harbor walls, Sam could spot Spanish caballeros in their belted blue jackets and broad-brimmed hats, pacing the ramparts with muskets at the ready. Heavy cannon poked their iron snouts through the crenels, and the half-dozen men-o'war at anchor, sails blazoned with matching red crosses, could have blasted the tender boat sky-high with a single volley. Sam took a moment to be grateful that he had not gone ahead with the half-baked plan of jumping overboard and swimming here. Clearly the Spaniards did not, especially when war was involved, f*ck about in the least degree.

That reminded him of the difficulty of what he was going to try to pull off in hostile territory, and once they had been approved as a friendly vessel and allowed to tie up at the quay, Da Souza appeared with rather too much excitement for Sam's liking. He and Nathaniel shouldered their packs and followed the captain onto the docks, glancing from side to side as they walked. Sam had to admit it was very beautiful. Red-tiled roofs and white-washed buildings, clay churches with wooden crosses and bronze bells, palm trees and sparkling fountains, colored mosaics and gated villas, merchants and animals and sailors and servants and the other traffic of any port. Nobody who looked like the Spaniard who had been shooting at him in St. Augustine, not that Sam expected it to be easy to find him. He reminded himself that he had no actual proof that that was who had couriered the intelligence here, but it didn't matter. Just thought that was the bugger. No real reason why.

They climbed the steep, filth-splattered cobbles to the top of the hill, where the captain-general's elegant mansion held pride of place. They passed through the gates (more guards, more guns) and were admitted into a cool foyer, where Nathaniel was showed off into a side room by a maidservant. Sam might have thought this was a gesture of hospitality, if not for the fact that he knew it was a warning. He was going to visit Güemes by himself, and if for any reason the man became suspicious of his story, he changed something he had already told Da Souza, or otherwise demonstrated himself untrustworthy, Nathaniel would be killed on the spot.

Sam was shown into a smaller parlor, lavishly furnished but bloody hot and stuffy as Satan's own drawing room, and told to wait while someone went to see if the captain-general had finished the morning business and was available for an audience. The divan was upholstered in extremely slippery red-gold silk, which Sam kept sliding off every time he tried to sit on it, and besides, he was broiling alive. So he got up and went to see if the windows could be opened, and was annoyed that the locks appeared to be fat little naked cherubims. He just wanted a bit of a breeze, not to palm some statue of a baby's arse, and was cursing the proclivity of the Spaniards to go overboard on the Catholic theme when he heard the door open behind him. Figuring it was the servant returning, Sam immediately let go of the cherubim's nether aspects and whirled around, flashing a winning smile. "Buenos días, soy – "

At that, and all at once, his voice dried up in his throat. He wanted to say something else, but he just made an odd croaking noise instead. Well, then. Well. It was definitely him. f*cking hell.

For his part, the Spaniard seemed just as surprised to walk into a room at the captain-general's residence in Havana, preparing to deliver his intelligence free as you pleased, and instead being confronted by the English soldier he'd been taking potshots at, back in St. Augustine. At this close range, Sam could see that the other man was not much older than him, twenty-three or twenty-four, and he also wore his hair in a long black ponytail, with a half-healed scar on his cheek and a dark shadow of unshaven stubble. In fact, there was something almost damnably familiar about him, though Sam had no idea what. The greatest shock, however, came when the Spaniard opened his mouth and said in an English accent, "You?!"

"You?!" Sam thought that the surprise was damn well entitled to go both ways. "Bloody hell, wait. You're English?"

"No," the newcomer snapped. "Born there, unavoidably, but I left all loyalty to them behind long ago. Not that it is any of your business. How the f*ck did you get here?"

"None of your business either, is it?" Sam was quite taken off guard for the who-knew-how-many-th time in the recent week or so, and he was over it, really. "You were the one trying to shoot me. Back in Florida. I promise I didn't volunteer to give you more practice."

"It's war. Of course I was trying to shoot you."

Sam supposed he could not, at its essence, argue with this, although he continued to wonder why he had had that sense of such familiarity – and hatred. That whatever quarrel this was, it was personal. Still, though, he didn't have time for that. "You haven't seen Güemes yet either, have you?" He wondered briefly if they had been put in the same room on purpose, the Spaniards sitting back to watch them brawl it out and see who got the honor of an audience, but that was probably too much of a stretch. "You haven't told him – whatever you're supposed to tell him, the letter you were carrying from Montiano."

"And?"

"Well," Sam said. "It's a bit awkward, really. But I can't let you do that."

"Oh, you can't?"

"No. So if you'd just like to hand it over to me instead, that'd be easiest."

The other man stared at him, then barked an incredulous laugh. "Wait. Did you actually think that was going to work?"

"Nothing to be lost by asking, was there?" Sam thought fast, or at least he tried. His adversary was several years older and several inches taller, but he could still punch him if he needed to. Grabbing the letter, he could probably also manage that. It was the "retrieve Nathaniel, break out of the governor's mansion, and escape through the streets of Havana while not being shot by a lot of very angry Spanish soldiers" part of the plan that was the problem. "Look. Believe me, I am no cozy chum of the English crown either. In fact, they'll do something bad to my family if I don't get that letter before Güemes sees it, and I'd really rather they didn't."

Muted surprise flickered in the other's dark eyes. "You were fighting with them."

"Yes," Sam said impatiently. "I was. It's complicated, all right? But like I said, I definitely did not volunteer for this. My family – "

"I don't care about your family."

"Well, I do." Sam shot a look at the door, wondering if someone was listening on the other side. "And since, as I said, it's the English who'd be punishing them, and you're very insistent about hating them, I think you'd be a bit of a hypocrite, frankly. If that was so."

"Why would the English punish your family?"

"I don't know." Sam turned back to him frankly. "Why'd they punish yours?"

It was just a guess, a stab in the dark, trying to come up with a motive for why another young Englishman would have conceived such a burning hatred against his native land so as to take up in active service of their mortal enemies, but something about the way the other flinched told Sam that he had struck a bit too close to the mark. His family's reasons for falling out with England were, of course, of a certain and specific breed, and at that moment, a sudden, unformed suspicion crossed Sam's mind. But before he could get around to clarifying it or voicing it, the door opened again, and someone who looked like Güemes' aide stuck his head in. "Señors? If you will come with me?"

Sam and the Spanish agent – he still hadn't gotten a name, not that he thought it would be the real one if he did – did a double take, looked at each other, and then back at the aide, as if to ask if he knew that they needed to see Güemes for exactly opposite reasons, and that if one of them started to speak, the other would resort to vigorous and inadvertently comical efforts to shut them up. But that appeared to be inconsequential, judging from the expectant look the aide was giving them, and so they were forced to snap their mouths shut, step forward, and embark on the world's most awkward stroll down the corridor, through a set of handsomely carved double doors, and into the office on the far side. It had a broad balcony overlooking the harbor, an unlit chandelier dangling crystal droplets, an ornate claw-footed desk with several high-backed red velvet chairs, and the usual clutter of an overworked colonial official with too many things to do and not enough time, or hands, to do them. The official in question – Don Juan Francisco de Güemes y Horcasitas, governor of Havana, captain-general of Cuba, and the highest-ranking Spanish dignitary in the Caribbean – turned from the window and said, "Ah. Yes."

The two young men exchanged a further baffled look, both obviously wondering if one of them should speak up and correct the governor before this got, if such a thing was possible, even more awkward. Güemes was a severe-looking man of about sixty, with a curled silver wig, prominent dark eyebrows, and a Bourbon nose, a career public servant whose hereto impeccable reputation for loyalty, fairness, and efficiency had gotten him appointed to this lofty post. He wore an elaborately brocaded red waistcoat, a blue silk jacket with ruffled cuffs and bronze lace, breeches and silver-buckled shoes, and regarded the decidedly less impressive sartorial ensembles of his guests with clear but considerately unspoken judgment. He beckoned them to take the chairs across from his desk, and looked surprised and slightly suspicious when neither of them moved. "Is there a difficulty, gentlemen?"

"Ah – Excelencia?" The agent coughed. "Which of us exactly are you expecting to see?"

"I was informed that there was important intelligence for me to receive from Governor Montiano in St. Augustine, and from a man that Captain da Souza picked up there as well. That is you?" The governor glanced skeptically between them. "A pair of Englishmen? I am very curious to hear this story, though I am not certain I should believe it."

"Excelencia." The agent inclined his head. "You can trust me, I swear. Montiano gave me this letter himself, concerning the future plans of the British army after their humiliating defeat at St. Augustine. See – " He added something in rapid Spanish which Sam did not understand, probably a passcode or secret phrase or something, because it made Güemes relax slightly. There was then a hideous pause as the governor held out his hand, waiting to be given it, and the agent, seeing Sam eyeing him like a hawk and prepared to pounce if he took it out, stalled.

"Madre de Díos, what is wrong with the pair of you?" Güemes demanded, once more back on high alert about this whole utterly bizarre situation. He looked, in fact, on the point of calling for his guards, which would be a very bad thing indeed. "Did you steal the letter from Montiano's actual courier and torture the password out of him? I swear, if this is some English trick to plant misinformation or waste my time, neither of you will live long enough to – "

"My name is Jack," the agent interrupted hastily. "You can ask any of Montiano's men, they know me."

"Jack?" Güemes did not look particularly mollified, even as Sam noted it with interest. "Well then. Give me the letter, and we'll see."

"I. . .. cannot do that, Excelencia."

"And why in hellfire not?"

Jack nodded at Sam. "Because I fear he might try to snatch it, Excelencia."

Güemes swung on Sam with renewed mistrust. "And you will claim that you too are an English-born Spanish agent? I don't think – "

"You're right," Sam said. "I'm not. I'm also not a deserter, which is what I told Captain da Souza and his men. I was sent by Governor James Oglethorpe of Georgia, to prevent that intelligence from reaching you. Hence why our mate Jack here is being dodgy about giving it to you, since he thinks I'll try to jump on him. Frankly, I probably would. But I'm open to suggestions."

"Are you drunk?" Güemes sniffed the air as if in search of a telltale whiff of alcohol. "If you were from Oglethorpe, why would you ever come out and – "

"Because Oglethorpe blackmailed me." Sam had no idea what exactly he was doing, but it was keeping them both off balance and with nothing to say, and he was going to have to improvise like all hell to get out of this anyway. "If I didn't stop that letter from getting to you, my family would pay the price for it. Well, sir. Just so you know, you don't want that to happen."

"I don't, do I?" Güemes could not have been more skeptical if Sam had wrapped up in a bedsheet, put a saucer on his head, and told him he was the Pope. "Why not?"

Sam looked at him straight. "Because Captain Flint's my grandfather."

That got a noticeable reaction out of not just Güemes, but surprisingly, Jack as well. Probably the only sensible reaction to such an outlandish statement, but there was something else too. Sam clearly did not need to explain who Flint was to either one, as one rarely had to in the Caribbean, and Güemes must have spent plenty of time brooding over plots to uncover the truth of him. He stared at Sam with the same startled expression that had generally been the norm, blinked, then demanded, "The man who stole our treasure? Why on earth would that be a good thing?"

"Technically," Sam pointed out, feeling obliged to defend his grandfather's dubious honor, "he didn't steal it. He just borrowed it after it had already been stolen."

"Aside from the forty thousand dollars he did steal before that?"

"Yes, well." Sam coughed. "Aside from that."

"The robbery of the salvage camp by the scoundrels Vane and Jennings is well known," Güemes went on, "but the pirate captains Flint and Bellamy robbed it first, and disabled our warship, the Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asuncíon. Is this the lineage you commend to me?"

Sam was aware of that family story, as his mother and godfather had distracted the Asuncíon by getting the men drunk before blowing up its mizzenmast, while his grandfather performed a smash-and-grab of the treasure chests on the beach, but he decided it was best not to find it as funny as he usually did. He also noticed that Jack had an extremely odd look on his face, but now was not the time for questions. Instead he looked back at the governor, as coolly as he could. "Captain da Souza told me to tell you what I told him, so I did. No reason to call me a liar. As to whether it's the real Flint, well, da Souza took care of the questions on that end. Aye, it is. And I'm guessing getting back that money would be a big help for Spain, wouldn't it?"

Güemes' mouth was still open, so he shut it. He whirled away, had to pour himself a stiff tot of brandy, and drink it before he ventured a response to this extraordinary proposal. Finally he said, "Even given that any of that is at all true, you'd lead us to it. . . why?"

"I'm not loyal to England." Sam shrugged. "I'm not loyal to Spain either. One of you will likely win this war, though, and when that happens, I'd like to see it sure that my family will be safe. I work for Oglethorpe now, that builds me some goodwill on the English side. I help you find your biggest lost treasure stash, a triumph on all sorts of levels – well, that should build me some goodwill on the Spanish side, shouldn't it?"

"Or we can hang you as a petty thief and public nuisance," Güemes pointed out, with considerable asperity. "If the fate of your forbearers is truly what you aspire to."

"What have I done?" Sam asked. "What crime have I committed, exactly? I didn't think that coming here and offering to solve one of your longest-running mysteries was one."

That, despite himself, Güemes had no good answer for. His thin lips turned even more severe, he took another sip of brandy, and paced back and forth across the office. Clearly, as much as he hankered to bring down the hammer on Sam for being, if nothing else, so utterly brazen and annoying, his own goose would be cooked if word got back to Madrid that he had finally had a viable lead to recover the lost riches of 1715 fall into his lap, and arrogantly threw it away. Finally he said, "You would want a deal, yes?"

"Yes." Sam was tired of standing, and since somebody should take advantage of those chairs, he sat down and put his boots up on Güemes' desk. Just on the carved bit, not on any of the papers. "Full protection from the Spanish crown for my family, whichever way the war goes, and a percentage of the treasure recovered. We don't need much. Just, say, ten percent."

"You would ask us to give our own money back to the pirates who took it in the first place?"

"Well," Sam pointed out, "seems to me, without us, you won't get any of it back at all. But maybe that's more useful, I don't know."

"You are a very insolent boy."

"Runs in the family." Sam could not deny that despite everything, he was starting to enjoy himself. His grandfather would either be pleased that he was finally developing some piratical abilities, or furious that he was proposing to let Spain recover the wreck of the Walrus and her priceless cargo. At least theoretically. There was a large amount of water between here and there, in any sense of the word. He still had only a vague idea of where Skeleton Island even was, much less if the treasure was recoverable, and Spain was not about to appreciate being further played for a fool by pirates, especially these pirates. And yet. Needs must.

Güemes chewed over this for a tenuous moment. Then he swung on a startled-looking Jack, who had clearly been hoping to be forgotten about. "You. You claim to be a loyal servant of the Spanish crown, no matter your own English blood and heritage?"

Jack blinked. "I. . . I do, Excelencia."

"Very good," Güemes said, with grim satisfaction. "You will go with him, then. If you succeed in this, I will no longer doubt you, and you will receive the same generous settlement as him. If not, then. . ." He shrugged. "Much will also depend on whether the intelligence you brought is good, as regards the future plans of the British. I will take that letter now."

Jack hesitated, then reached into his jacket and removed the letter, rather crumpled and battered, but still sealed with an unbroken dollop of scarlet wax and the Bourbon crest. Sam tensed, but could not stop it, as Güemes opened it, read it, and frowned. Then he said, "The Navy is planning a full-scale invasion of Cartagena? Thirty ships of the line, ten thousand men?"

"That is what the prisoners said, yes." Jack nodded, as Sam struggled to look as if this was not news to him either. Cartagena de Indias was the largest city on the Spanish Main, the beating heart of Spain's Pacific and Atlantic trade alike, and thus a favored target for repeated conquest attempts by the British over the years, none of which had been yet entirely successful. To commit thirty rated ships and a huge attack force meant the sharp escalation of the war, and – if the Spanish had not been forewarned – possibly a fatal one. They would have to scramble to get sufficient resources in place to meet the threat, but they still could. For the moment.

Güemes considered for a long moment, lips pursed. Then he folded up the letter, scraped off the old seal, and poured fresh wax in its place, incising it with his signet ring. He held it out to Sam with a look expecting him to take it, and, quite baffled, Sam did. "Excelencia. . .?"

"There," Güemes said. "To all appearances, and if the English ask, you have intercepted the letter before I read it. You can hand it back and retain their trust. For both of you, however, your chief charge is to discern the precise location of Skeleton Island, and to convey that information to me as swiftly as possible. To ascertain that you do not forget your task or treat it lightly, your friend – Nathaniel, his name is? – will remain here, as my honored guest. If, however, you do not return in six months, with either the treasure or the full coordinates of the island, that will be. . . re-evaluated."

Sam flinched. "Excelencia, that will not be – "

"I think so, yes," Güemes went on, as if he had not spoken. "If Captain Flint is your grandfather, and if he is still alive, surely it would be a question of simply sailing home and asking him for the bearings? Six months is quite generous, though we must allow some space for potential difficulties or delays engendered by the war. But then, your grandfather would wish to know what you were doing, and there is, of course, the possibility that without any charts, he does not remember the location either. In that case, six months might be somewhat tighter."

"I – "

"Six months," Güemes repeated. "And since you will need, of course, a ship and a crew, I will see to it that Captain Da Souza is given a suitable vessel. That, I think, should be the final piece to ensure your cooperation. Yes?"

Sam had to bite his tongue, as his first reaction to the thought of spending more time with that bastard was not suitable to be uttered in polite company, even for him. But since Da Souza was at least someone he could work with, if in an arse-backwards way, he nodded. "Yes," he said tightly. "It's a bargain."

"Good." Güemes held out his hand. "I look forward to doing business."

Dusk was falling by the time they finally made it out of the governor's mansion. "They" in this case meant not Sam and Nathaniel, as they had arrived, but Sam and Jack, his enigmatic and clearly unwilling new ally, who had not stopped casting Sam silent and judgmental sidelong looks since they left. This had been a habit shared by Nathaniel, who was justifiably aghast to hear that he was stuck in Havana as a hostage for the foreseeable future, and that Sam had gotten himself mixed up in the devil of a mess without him. "So I'm supposed to sit here and what, learn the rosary while you go off to find an island that you don't know where it is and a treasure that might be bloody hundreds of feet sunken or lost or God knows? That's just bloody wonderful."

"Shh!" Sam had not wanted anyone to go overhearing that just yet. "I know it's, well, a bit of a flimsy plan, but I'm trying to protect you, all right? You and everyone else."

"Why do our plans somehow always involve you doing something stupid while I have to sit back and wait until it's over?" Nathaniel sighed. "You know I trust you, Sam. Despite all good evidence to the contrary, at times. But this is pushing it."

"I. . . know." Sam couldn't pretend not to be aware of the danger he was in, and which he had deliberately and consciously increased, even in the name of ensuring protection for his family no matter who won the war. "Learn Spanish, court some beautiful señoritas, take up, I don't know, pinochle. But I'll be back, I'll get you out of here, and we'll go home. Swear."

Nathaniel looked at him with the expression of the boy who had followed Sam up tall trees, down dark caves and through fast rivers, out to sea, along the marsh, and every sort of adventure in between. He had broken or cut or sprained several limbs, nearly sneezed himself to death, been sunburned the color of a radish, got bitten by an alligator, stuck in a salt flat in a rising tide, and suffered all the other bodily injury that being friends with Sam Jones entailed, and barely ever complained about it. He was always there for the next adventure, and to let Sam choose it, even knowing how it might end up, and Sam was forced to wonder if he had taken advantage of that too much, simply knowing that Nathaniel would go along because that was the way of things. "Hey," he said again. "I'll get us out of it."

"You always say that," Nathaniel pointed out, with a wry grin. "Although, admittedly, you usually do. Fine, then. I'll stay here. But if you let me die, I'm killing you."

With a final promise that he wouldn't, Sam had taken his leave, the words still whirling in his head as he descended the street next to Jack. After catching one too many of those furtive looks aimed in his direction, and never being someone with much patience for deception and concealment and dishonesty (also rather to the dismay of his spectacularly manipulative grandfather), Sam stopped short and said, "Do I have a huge spider on my face, or are you just staring because I'm that pretty a bloke? Because if neither, you can stop."

A faint flush touched Jack's sun-browned face. He appeared to be mulling several possible responses to that, but then said abruptly, "Captain Flint is your grandfather?"

"Yeah, mate. I've told the whole Caribbean now or thereabouts, I should just write it up on a piece of paper and stick it to my forehead." Sam kicked a broken paving stone. "Why?"

"They were friends, weren't they? Flint and Bellamy?"

From what he had heard – rarely directly, as the subject of his godfather remained a sensitive one – Sam reckoned that his grandparents and Captain Bellamy had been quite a bit more than friends. "They were. Like Güemes said, took down the Asuncíon and had a few other adventures, fought in the pirates' war against Woodes Rogers and Robert Gold. Bellamy was killed, though, in a storm off Cape Cod, he never – "

"I know." It seemed as if Jack had not quite meant to say so, but could not stop himself. "Sam Bellamy is – was – my uncle. We never saw any of that money he made. It all drowned with him. I was barely a year old when it happened."

"You're his – " Sam stared. "His nephew?"

Jack nodded curtly. "He had four older sisters. My mother was the youngest of these. The Crown punished us for having a pirate in the family, took what little we did have left. While you got to grow up rich and happy and untroubled by any of it, didn't you?"

"Hey. I didn't have any choice in my life, same as you." Sam had never met his namesake, who had died several years before he was born, but his parents always spoke of Sam Bellamy's kindness, his strength in facing the darkness that had just as much reason to claw into him as anyone, but which he never let get a foothold, never allowed it to change him from the good and generous and fearless soul he was. Yet now, the younger Sam had the oddest feeling that he was staring at a Bellamy who had not been able to resist it, had less ability to say no to it. Who possessed the same gifts of person and charm and talent and disregard for the rules, but who did not temper it with Black Sam's mercy and chivalry and wisdom. Not an evil man, not even necessarily a bad one, but absolutely a dangerous one, and one who, despite their tender, tangled, half-familial, half-intimate connection, clearly did not feel any inherent loyalty or affection to Sam, who sprang from the exact same pirate stock but had seemed to avoid all the suffering that came with it. I will have to keep my eyes open around him.

"So," Sam said at last, when the two of them continued to stare at each other. "Jack Bellamy, is it? Or some other surname?"

"My father was. . ." Jack's lips went thinner. "Never mind. It's that, yes. But I tend to go by Jack Bell. The full name is. . . conspicuous."

"Sam Jones. I don't think we've actually been introduced." Sam held out his hand. "Pleasure."

Jack's dark gaze flickered. It was plain that he could guess where this name had come from, but just as plain that this did not necessarily give him any warmer feelings toward the partner in crime he had somehow been stuck with. For that matter, Sam wasn't sure if Jack admired his uncle and viewed him as a model for defiance of unjust English tyranny, or as a selfish, flighty git who had taken himself off to be a pirate and never thought about how it might affect his family on their poor farm back home, vulnerable to any reprisals the vengeful Crown cared to exact for his outlawry and rebellion. Jack, after all, had not decided to be a pirate; he had joined the Spanish. His uncle's legacy was not something he seemed particularly proud of.

The atmosphere remained tense for a moment longer. Then Jack smiled, not entirely reassuringly, and shook Sam's hand. "Aye," he said. "Pleasure."

Chapter 4: IV

Chapter Text

It was close to dawn by the time they reached the house, searched it up and down for any skulking killers, and settled Flint and Miranda into Sam's currently unused bedroom, but nobody felt like sleeping. They congregated at the kitchen table as Emma cooked breakfast, everyone glancing up sharply at any small noises, and Killian poured the coffee, trying to think how in damnation to go about making any sense of this. Presumably, whoever had paid for the assassins would be suspicious when they failed to return, and what was more, they had posed as applicants for the household positions. That either meant someone on the packet boat had read Emma's mail, decided it was time to go ahead with the hit, and used it as a convenient pretext, or they had been watched for quite a while even before that. Killian was not sure which option he disliked more. Though it doesn't matter. Someone knows we're here, and wants us dead.

The four of them ate without speaking, appetites sharpened by their brush with mortality, until Miranda dabbed her mouth and put down her napkin. "Very well," she said, with her usual brisk, practical air. "What are we going to do next?"

"I was going to capture the master of the packet boat and hit him until his ears ring," Flint suggested. "See what he might cough up about who he's informing for, if so."

"Seeing as we've just killed two men, mate, we could possibly leave the grievous bodily harm until later." Killian raised an eyebrow. "That's already enough to hang us, you know."

"Aye, exactly. So what's a bit more?"

Emma and Miranda exchanged a resigned look, then turned back to their respective husbands. "I agree the packet boat is the best place to start," Emma said, "but it's already left. It travels to Charlestown, then Williamsburg, then back here, so if we wait for its return, that would be at least another week. Which, given recent events, I'm not entirely sure we have to spare."

"Well then." Flint clearly thought the solution was obvious. "We should go after them."

"Forcibly capturing a boat at sea will absolutely count under the heading of piracy, James," Miranda reminded him, with more than a slight warning in her voice. "Even assuming we were able to find a vessel of our own. This isn't some desire to relive the old days while Jenny and Thomas are on Nassau, since you could not go yourself, is it?"

Flint shot her a ruffled look. "Someone just tried to kill all of us. I think some bending of the rules is justified in this case, don't you?"

"It's not the bending of the rules I object to," Miranda said. "It's the potential consequences. You and I and Thomas, all of us, we've made a good life here for many years, the life none of us thought we could have again. We can't just – "

"Aye," Flint interrupted. "We have. And I'm not about to let anyone or anything take it all from us for a second time. So I intend to do whatever I have to. Jones, back me up on this."

Killian looked at his father-in-law with a blend of affection and exasperation, as they had become genuinely family in the several decades they had lived together in Savannah, and so far as it went, he did agree with Flint's sentiments. He knew that the women were objecting not because they disputed the necessity or the methods, as both of them had been pirate queens in their day and in their way, but because they had been relieved to see the last of Captain Flint and Captain Hook, and could not help but fear for the souls of the men they loved if those ghosts were summoned out of the grave again. Emma and Miranda would fight just as fiercely, and then some, to stop that from happening, but the fact remained that none of them were the young rebels they had been. They were flawed, mortal, aging. Had weaknesses and limitations that they had not before, a settled life, something to lose. It was always easier to commit to total war when it was all you knew and you had no good reason to do anything else, when you were immortal and invincible, or at least did not care much if you died. This was different.

"We can handle finding a boat," Flint said, when nobody else moved to break the silence. "That's not a difficulty. If we have to chase them down at sea, dead men tell no tales."

"Someone absolutely will notice if the packet boat doesn't arrive," Killian pointed out. "I agree we need to catch them, but we have to be clever about it."

Flint snorted, but could not deny this fact, and polished off the rest of his coffee. "Any chance we can send word to Thomas and Jenny? I'd feel easier if I was sure they knew about this."

"I can write to my brother," Emma said. "It will take a few days to get to Nassau, though, and if someone's intercepting my letters, that would be quite a risk. We'd have to find someone to carry it who's not associated with us, who could escape whoever is on the lookout for us. Or, well. . ." She hesitated. "As I said, the packet boat stops in Charlestown before it goes to Williamsburg. David and Mary Margaret Nolan live there. They would certainly have a way to correspond with Nassau quickly and reliably, and without any reason to suspect it came from us. If we followed it there. . ."

"Charlestown." Flint's nostrils flared, even as he reached reflexively for Miranda's hand, which had shaken enough to nearly drop her porcelain teacup. "You do remember what happened the last time we set eyes on that godforsaken – "

"Of course I remember." Emma looked at him with a pained expression, clearly trying to tell him that she had not in the least suggested it for some sort of cruel joke. Killian took her hand as well, squeezing it under the table. "You know I don't have many good memories of that place either. But if the packet boat is going there and we could catch it, and if we could be sure of getting word to Thomas and Geneva. . . as well, David and Mary Margaret have connections that we don't, in the colonial legislature and the governor's office. I know you don't want to go there."

Flint's lips went even thinner, seeing as the last time he, Miranda, and the governor of Carolina Colony had been face to face, untold woe and havoc had been the result, which still echoed down the years and in their very flesh. He was very evidently in favor of the "rush out, sink the boat, kill the bastards" approach to problem-solving, which was not surprising, but which was also somewhat less than ideal. Finally he said brusquely, "And we trust the Nolans, do we?"

"I do," Emma said. "They've been good friends to us for many years, and you know David helped us defeat Gold, with absolutely nothing to gain from it except doing the right thing. They didn't need to send us shares of the money from Nassau, but they did. Charlie works with him. And he was the captain who fought to free Sam from the Navy and what Hume – you know. He's a good man. If someone is indeed trying to kill us, he'll help us find out who."

Flint flinched at the mention of Sam. He clearly still did not like this plan at all, but as it was vastly more sensible than his, he was forced to at least consider it in mulish silence. Then he looked at Miranda. "Surely there's no way we could countenance taking you back to – "

"If the rest of you are going," Miranda said firmly, "I do not intend to be left behind. I'll manage, James. It's more than my own safety, it's the future of our entire family. That is worth whatever discomfort, of any sort, I might be asked to suffer."

"You've suffered enough." Flint's voice was gruff, but the tenderness in it was undeniable, and the fear. "I – I can't watch you go through that again."

"Then we shall plan that I won't, shan't we?" Miranda touched his cheek, and the two of them looked into each other's eyes for a long moment, almost having forgotten about Killian and Emma. Then she recollected herself and turned to them. "I'm sure Jenny has some friends with ships who would be willing to do a favor for her kin, wouldn't she? We'll have to start looking. Discreetly, of course."

That was true, and also easier said than done. They could hardly send Flint door-to-door (or rather dock-to-dock) in search of a ship to hire, and the packet boat might not be the only one ordered to keep a lookout for Emma. Miranda was the least suspicious choice, as nobody knew her by name or face and nobody could quarrel with a genteel old lady out for a stroll by the seaside, but as nobody wanted to send her out alone, Killian finally decided to accompany her. With his false hand fixed on, he too could pass for a prosperous gentleman, and he would be able to defend her in the event of a reappearance from any of the comrades of their unwelcome visitors. Everyone hoped not, of course, but no sense in tempting fate.

Thus, leaving Emma and Flint behind for what was certain to be an interesting few hours at the house, Killian and Miranda rode into town, stepped out, and did their best to affect a casual pace down into the busy dockyards. Miranda kept a tight hold on his arm, as the boards were slippery with salt and fish and oil and turpentine, and Killian experienced a brief and considerable wish for his bloody son to come home. Not only to stop Emma worrying, although that of course would be a happy side effect, but because it would be much easier to carry out this sort of thing with a young and sprightly nineteen-year-old around. Killian rarely thought of fifty-three as all that old, and usually it wasn't, but at the moment, he felt like an ancient geezer pottering his way out for a brief reprieve from his quilt-draped chair on the porch. It was very disconcerting, this facing-your-own-mortality lark. But who the devil knew where Samuel James Jones had ended himself up now. He took after certain male relatives in far more than his names.

After an initial perusal, they finally found a captain who was heading up to the Carolinas to do some business in the next fortnight, and saw nothing wrong with taking a few paying passengers along. It was at that point, however, that Killian had to prod him into possibly leaving faster – say, tomorrow. Their engagements there were really quite urgent. Suitable compensation could more than be arranged. They would be grateful. Very grateful.

It took some haggling, but the captain finally agreed to expedite his preparations and leave the day after tomorrow. "You with Lord Murray?" he asked, co*cking his head curiously, as he and Killian shook on the bargain. "He's had a number of important errands running back and forth, recently."

"Lord Murray?" Killian blinked. "Who?"

"New governor of Carolina Colony. Arrived from London just a few months ago, really making his mark on the place. Course, he'll have his work cut out for him. Been a few decades, but you never know. Captain bloody Flint could pop up and sack the place again." The captain guffawed.

Miranda winced. She managed to turn it into a gracious smile before the captain looked at her, and Killian, already battling his own nerves over the advisability of a return visit, felt a matching qualm. The sack of Charlestown was clearly something that would remain notorious for years or even decades to come, and if someone was still there who had seen Flint and Miranda the last time. . . Jesus, this was so dangerous. Sitting here like fat ducks for a homicidal and well-funded gang of bogus footmen likewise was, so there was a risk either way, but still. "Lord Murray?" he said again. "No, haven't heard of the man. Day after tomorrow?"

"Aye." The captain considered them again, then nodded. "Nine o'clock."

With this transacted, Killian and Miranda decided not to press their luck any further, and made a smart retreat back to the buggy. As Killian clumsily gathered up the reins, she said, "Lord Murray, is it? And that look the captain gave us – it was as he quite supposed that of course men associated with him would deny it."

Killian glanced at her sharply sidelong, as he had had something of the same impression, but was grateful for Miranda's unerring instinct to confirm that he hadn't been simply imagining it. "Do you know anything about a Murray family that we should be wary of?"

"No," Miranda admitted. "Not more than any other English gentry, and any of my detailed information would be nearly forty years old. But any man who has taken up that post is one who will be well aware of its history, and one who likewise we'll have to be wary of."

Killian nodded grimly, hardly able to deny it, and they drove home in pensive silence, thus to be relieved that no more assassins had appeared in the meantime, and to acquaint Emma and Flint with their transportation arrangements. They all agreed that, offhand joke by the captain or not, it was far too dangerous for Flint to travel openly, and finally (much to his protestations) it was settled that he should be an old man in a wheeled chair who could not speak. Flint was agog at the idea of having to hold his tongue for anything, even in pretense, though everyone else thought it would be soundly good for him. He would also have a blanket pulled over his head, and be expected to spend his time nodding off or otherwise looking frail and harmless. Killian felt that no matter the scale of the other difficulties they faced, this must be the greatest.

Killian and Flint took turns sitting awake that night while the women slept. During his shift in the wee hours, reminding himself that the house creaked when it settled, Killian nonetheless jumped out of his skin when it did so directly behind him, and whirled around, on the brink of drawing his pistol, to see Emma, holding up her hands and looking alarmed. "Easy! It's me!"

"Christ, Swan, you scared me spitless." He hastily tucked the gun back, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb Flint and Miranda down the hall. "What are you doing? It's late."

"I know. I woke up, and you weren't there. I was lonely." Emma padded toward him, and he reached out to pull her comfortingly against him. Nobody, he thought with a mix of wryness and tenderness and pride, would reckon them married for nearly a quarter-century with three grown children. She tucked her head under his chin, and he rested it on her hair, absently stroking her back. Then she said, "Do you think we're doing the right thing?"

"I'm. . .. not terribly sure we have a choice, love." Killian blew out a breath. "We have to find what's going on, as you said, and we have a responsibility for Geneva and Thomas. Charlestown is the best way to do it. Though I know none of us want to linger an hour longer in that blasted place more than we must. It will hardly be a happy homecoming for you either, will it?"

"The last time I saw it was as I was getting aboard the ship that I thought would take me back to England, to find work after Walsh's death." Emma did not speak much of her first husband, though more than enough for Killian to thoroughly dislike the ape. "The ship which, of course, was attacked by the Walrus, and how I ended up on my way to Nassau. It feels. . . I don't know. I don't want to risk James and Miranda there, of course, but I don't. . ."

"You're not sure about returning either." Killian felt a faint pang, that of course Emma would think of her adoptive parents' pain in returning to the site of their greatest trauma, and discount her own. Just because it had not involved blood and fire and death and staggering betrayal did not mean that it rankled any less, that it did not still hurt her and haunt her in ways that she had almost – but never entirely – moved on from. Returning to such a place would be certain to flare up old insecurities, in more ways than one, and he hugged her hard, trying to shield her with his body and his words alike. "I love you, Emma. I love you. You're not alone any more, eh? You never will be. I'll be there with you the whole time. You know that, don't you?"

"I know." Emma looked at him with steady, deep, unspeakable adoration, brushing a lock of silvered dark hair out of his eyes. "I know, Killian. And I do want to know what's going on, so of course we have to go. I just hope this isn't tempting fate."

"Me too, love," Killian agreed fervently. Something terrible had not personally happened to him, yet, in Charlestown (though it certainly had in numerous other locations across the Americas and the Indies) and he was not at all eager to add his name to the roster. "You think Flint can bloody keep his mouth shut for ten minutes, much less the whole voyage? That would help."

Emma snorted. "Doubt it," she said dryly. "But there's no harm in trying."

Killian hummed a small noise of agreement into her hair, pulling her to sit down with him. They kept watch together for a few more hours, until the light began to turn grey, there was a rustling at the bedroom door, and Flint emerged. "I'll take over," he said. "You two sleep."

Killian nodded gratefully to him, they went in to nap until midmorning, and then got up to finish their own preparations for the voyage. Once they could be more or less certain that the only calamities they were not equipped for were the ones they could not avoid anyway, they sat down for dinner together, did not speak much, and retired early. Both Killian and Flint did so this time, as they had a long day tomorrow, but both of them likewise took a considerable quantity of weaponry to bed, so that Emma, with a raised eyebrow, remarked that it felt like sleeping in the Tower of London armory. "I'll try not to blow anything important off, if I roll over too quickly."

"Just being thorough." Killian wondered if their house would still be standing when they got back, or if someone would creep up and set fire to it in the night, thinking it a less obvious and more direct way to stage a seemingly tragic and accidental death. f*ck, why hadn't he thought of that before? Perhaps he should get up and prepare a few buckets, just in case –

Emma pulled firmly at his arm as he started to rise from bed, he sighed, and let her tug him back down. He did not, however, take his eyes off the large blunderbuss lying on the chest nearby, which he had modified to be able to operate with one hand. If he was this jumpy before they'd even left Savannah, he shuddered to think what he might be like once they got in sniffing distance of Charlestown, but too much caution seemed a decidedly better option than too little. He should try to avoid blasting almighty bejesus out of a poor innocent servant or lurking housecat, yet he would make no promises.

Despite his conviction of their imminent horrible deaths, Killian finally slipped under, woke at sunrise still-unmurdered, and they got up, dressed, ate breakfast, and made sure they had their things together, before locating the wheeled chair and worn quilt in which Flint would make his deeply unwanted acting debut. They seated him in it, wrapped him up, added a bit of flour paste to his beard and hair to make it whiter and cover up most of the ginger, and Killian – biting his cheek – suggested that Flint could drool a time or two, in the name of method accuracy. The look he got in return nearly scorched his hair off.

Emma herself wore a broad-brimmed hat with a gauzy veil, as they did not want her spotted at an inopportune moment, and they loaded their portmanteaus into the buggy, along with Flint's chair, and drove down to the docks. There was a stable and coach house at which departing travelers could leave their conveyances for safe-keeping, though most had servants to drive them home again, and Killian supposed this was another field in which it would be useful to have a butler who had not earlier tried to kill you. They would have to attend to that later.

They went down the quays, Killian pushing Flint in his chair and Emma and Miranda arm in arm as proper ladies, located their ship, and went aboard. Killian handed over the promised handsome fee, remarked that his father-in-law was feeble and would need the cabin, and ignored the baleful green stare being thrown at him from under a slitted eyelid. Flint could stew all he wanted, but they needed to get to Charlestown without raising the hue and cry.

It was not long until the preparations were completed, the anchor was winched up, and they backed water, lucky that the weather was fair and the wind was fresh. It was not that long of a voyage up the coast, less than a hundred miles, and indeed if this kept up, they could be there by this evening. As much as he did not relish actually facing the bloody place, it was better than just agonizing in suspense, and he'd prefer to get it over with. Never much one for waiting for the blow, was Killian Jones. Would rather it just fall, and work out the rest later.

Killian wandered the deck, rather awkwardly deflected the captain's attempts at pleasant small talk, and made sure Flint had not yet blown his cover. They skimmed north, the green coastline appearing and disappearing, sometimes paired with sand shoals or murky mangrove-choked swamp, the hot summer sun pouring down like golden oil. The sea breeze cut the worst of the heat, and Killian felt a brief pang of delight, despite himself. God, it felt good to breathe salt again, to watch the hands climbing the shrouds, to hear the creak of rope and canvas and feel a ship cutting the water beneath his feet, rushing freely toward the open horizon. He had been settled on land a long time, and he was happy with the life they'd built there, but that did not mean he had lost all yearning for the sea, for the part of his soul that it would always hold in sway. He always felt freer out here, truer, more settled. Perhaps they could actually pull this fool's errand off after all.

This optimistic notion was somewhat less shared by the rest of his traveling party, when he paid a visit to the cabin. Flint clearly wanted to jump out of the chair, prowl all over the ship, and shout at everyone aboard it if they were not up to his exacting standards, Miranda was not about to sit and mollycoddle him, and Emma was pacing, which she appeared set to do for the next six hours to their destination. Conversation was therefore a futile pursuit, and Killian went on deck again, feeling rather as if he was backing out of a den of hibernating bears very quietly to avoid waking them up. He managed to pass the time by talking of knots and sheets and angles of sail and the fine points of charting with the captain, and it was very late afternoon when they came about and tacked into a handsome harbor, stretching before an equally handsome city that was almost, but not quite, completely rebuilt from where it had been burned down twenty-five years ago. The co-culprit of that was sitting in his chair below, doubtless thinking up all sorts of colorful epithets for the occasion. As long as thinking was all he did.

Even Killian felt a brief ancestral frisson of dread as they cut through the glassy green water, reached the quays, and moored up. With a thank-you and another sack of silver for the captain, they went ashore, rolling Flint down the gangplank with a thump and bump over knotted boards that made him swear, and Killian look up sharply to be sure that nobody had heard it. "Can I get out of this infernal contraption yet?" Flint groused, as they navigated their precarious way through the usual industry. Clearly, as much as it chafed his arse to be vulnerable in the ordinary course of things, having to keep up the charade in bloody Charlestown was almost too much to tolerate. "Or are you expecting me to soil myself for maximum authenticity?"

"James, do be quiet for five minutes."

"I've been quiet for considerably longer than that."

Miranda bestowed him with an unmistakably marital look of chastisem*nt, which allowed them enough time to make it up to the street and hail a fiacre. Killian asked for the Nolan residence, and they rattled off, with Flint still looking extremely judgmental. Not that this was surprising, or unexpected, and part of him couldn't blame the grumpy old bastard for it. But given as they were going to be attempting some rather delicate diplomacy, to say the least, now was less than the ideal moment.

Conversation was minimal as they bumped through the crowded, cobbled streets of Charlestown, with Flint's blanket pulled well over his head despite the heat of the day. Even the slight risk of recognizance was one they were not willing to take, and as Flint had been exhibited to the public at large before his intended execution, from which Vane had rescued him, it was not at all out of the question for someone who remembered the notoriety of twenty-five years ago to spot him and raise the hue and cry. Public panics, after all, never needed evidence or solid grounding or rational basis to ignite and spread like fever.

At last, they pulled up in front of the handsome gates of the Nolan estate, and Emma went pale again. It struck Killian a moment too late that it must have belonged to Mary Margaret's parents, Leopold and Eva White, before her, and that this was the very house where Emma had worked as a maidservant – her last sight of it being turned out through those gates with her younger brother and a pittance of money, after they discovered she was pregnant. Killian scrambled across the seat to grab her hand. "Hey, love, it's all right, eh? It's all right."

"I – I know. I'm fine." Emma swallowed hard, managed a smile, and nodded. "I'm fine. It was a long time ago."

Killian nonetheless kept a tight hold on her as he offered her down from the fiacre, then helped hoist the wheeled chair down; they would need to keep up the pretense of Flint's decrepitude at least until they were inside. They paid the fiacre driver, then made their way up the lawn. Once they reached the colonnaded portico of the main house, knocked, and were greeted by an extremely supercilious butler, they informed him that Mr. and Mrs. Jones, and Mr. and Mrs. McGraw, would very much appreciate an immediate audience with Captain and Mrs. Nolan.

It was rather late for polite visiting hours, as the household was sitting down for supper, but the butler finally sniffed and made his put-upon way off to enquire. Killian pondered whether snobbery was an innate job requirement for a butler, or just bred up after a while like maggots in hardtack. But in either event, the individual in question looked slightly (if only slightly) deflated when he returned, and told them that the Nolans would see them shortly, in the drawing room. If they desired libations while they waited, that could be arranged. If the elderly gentleman wanted warm milk or a posset, that could as well.

At that, Flint stood up, kicked the blanket off, and demonstrated his concrete interest in all things non-posset-related, clearly startling the butler. The four of them made their way inside the cool, airy house, took seats in the drawing room with its large windows overlooking another broad green lawn, and waited in tense silence, until the door opened and David Nolan – somewhat older, somewhat greyer, and somewhat more hard-worn, just like the rest of them, but still the tall, dashing Royal Navy captain who had fought with the pirates in the battle of Nassau – stepped inside, his matronly, dark-haired wife behind him. "Captain Jones? Is it you?"

"Aye." Killian rose to his feet, offering his hand, and the two men shook, as Flint was induced to make at least some gesture of polite acknowledgment, though it was only a curt nod. He and Nolan knew each other just in passing, when David had arranged for Killian and Flint to be smuggled into Fort Berkeley in Antigua, to rescue Sam, in exchange for a promise for the rest of the island to be spared. "It's – good to see you, mate. You'll recall my wife, Emma, and her parents, James and Miranda."

"Of course." Whatever he thought of two notorious ex-pirate captains sitting in his drawing room and in Flint's case at least, looking like a cornered cat, David did not let on. "We weren't aware you were coming, is everything – "

"There's a reason, yes. Our apologies for disrupting your supper. Is it safe to talk privately here?"

David looked startled, checked that the door was shut, and sat down on the divan, as Mary Margaret paused, then did the same. "Yes. What is it?"

As straightforwardly as he could, with occasional interjections from the other three, Killian explained their far too eventful past week, their interest in sending word to Thomas and Geneva in Nassau, and the possibility of taking advantage of the Nolan connections to sniff out who might have tried to have them killed. David and Mary Margaret were appropriately shocked, volubly sympathetic, and agreed that they could certainly stay for a few days, there being plenty of room, while they went about an investigation. "I can arrange a visit to Lord Murray, if you want," David offered. "He knows most of what passes through here, and elsewhere."

Killian, Emma, Flint, and Miranda exchanged a look. "Audiences with the governor, especially the governor of Charlestown," Killian pointed out, "are unavoidably a bit difficult for us, mate. Any way you can just ask a few questions, and not bring our names into it?"

"I'll try, of course," David said. "And do understand the, ah, delicacy."

Mary Margaret made a small disapproving noise in her throat. While she had agreed to let them stay, and indeed seemed to be getting on well with Emma and Miranda, she could not fail to hold certain opinions of the man who had burned the city down, and her look at Flint was less than warm. He stared challengingly straight back at her, clearly daring her to say something, and the tension was briefly quite uncomfortable until Miranda laid a hand on Flint's arm and smiled cordially at their hostess. "Your gracious hospitality is most appreciated, Mrs. Nolan. We've had a long day of traveling. Is it possible we could take advantage of those beds?"

Mary Margaret started, nodded, and had the servants show them upstairs to a pair of bedchambers in the back corner of the house. Killian and Emma shut the door and collapsed onto theirs, and Emma stared at the high plastered ceiling, momentarily lost in contemplation. At last she said, "It's very strange to be back here. I used to clean this room."

Killian devoutly hoped that it wasn't one in which the wealthy and irresponsible Mr. Neal Cassidy had pursued his intrigues with the pretty young maidservant of the White household, but that was not at all a question he wanted to ask, or to make Emma have to answer. He shifted up to take hold of her, pulling her head onto his chest, and kissed her hair. "How about we make some new memories for you in it, then?"

Emma rolled over atop him, her smile turning flirtatious, and despite their weariness, they passed a very pleasant interlude before sleep, entangled together in the deep blue evening light. She dropped under first, her breathing turning even and slow, and Killian lay awake a while longer, watching the shadows change on the walls. Well. Their first night in Charlestown, and they were not yet dead. That might not be the most encouraging benchmark, but at least it was something.

He slept soundly when he finally did, though his dreams were unsettling, and woke early, the two of them tumbling out, getting dressed, and making their way downstairs for breakfast, Flint and Miranda arriving shortly thereafter. Flint had washed the flour paste out, so his hair and beard were their usual blend of white and ginger, and the resemblance to his younger self – despite the obvious extra wear and tear – was obvious enough to make Killian grimace. "Mate, are you really sure it's a good idea to be walking around Charlestown bold as brass?"

"I'll wear a hat," Flint said irritably, as if this item's disguise properties were the most miraculous in the world and could not be grasped by ordinary mortals. "Pass the marmalade."

"Your funeral," Killian muttered, exchanging a look with Miranda in which they silently agreed to deal with this problem later. They had not gotten too far into breakfast, however, when David Nolan made his entrance with what appeared to be the morning post. Catching something odd about his expression, Killian frowned. "Hey, is everything – ?"

"To speak of news from Nassau." David sat down at the head of the table and distractedly sipped the coffee that the servant poured. "I've just had a letter from Charles."

Everyone sat forward in sudden attention, as Emma looked nervous. "He hasn't written to say that something went wrong with the voyage – ?"

"No, they arrived. It just seems, well." David sounded slightly uncomfortable. "It appears that Geneva and Thomas have been recruited for an important venture of his, which also required the use of Geneva's ship. It appears that they have set sail for England."

"England?" That caused a communal uproar. Flint looked openly apoplectic, slamming a fist down hard enough to cause the porridge to jump out of the bowl. "What the f*ck for? Who thought that was possibly – "

Emma reached out, trying to get him to sit back down. "James, we did allow them to go to Nassau, I'm sure there's a good reason for – "

"It was not to allow your halfwit brother to recklessly endanger them with his business ineptitude!" Flint looked as wrathful as if he was set to spread wings and fly straight down to the Caribbean himself. "Charles just thought it was a grand idea to – what? Get Thomas and Jenny to run an errand to England, of all the f*cking – "

"I don't think it was his idea," David cautioned. "It seems to have been on the instigation of, and to settle Charles' debts with, one John Silver."

If the name England had spurred a tumult, this one resulted in abrupt, icy silence. Flint choked on his toast, put it down, and appeared to have, for once, nothing to say. Then he said, sounding strained, "Silver? He – met Thomas? And Jenny?"

"Oh my," Miranda murmured. "That will be a fascinating encounter."

"Apparently so. Charles isn't quite clear on the details, but Silver apparently coaxed them into, or coerced them into, helping him on some errand. And there's more on that as well. It – this is just a rumor, mind, but still – seems to be in pursuit of a Billy Bones."

"Billy?" Flint and Emma said at once, both looking shocked. "Billy's dead."

"Rather less than everyone thought, if Charles' information is correct." David glanced back at the letter. "He says that Geneva urged him to write before they left, and furthermore. . ."

He trailed off.

"What?" the table demanded, agitated. "What?"

"He says that the story she gave him," David said slowly, "is that Bones was recently here. In Charlestown. That he met with someone, and then immediately took passage for England."

"You might have seen him?" Emma asked. "Tall, blonde – he's hard to miss."

"Not that I can recall." David shook his head. "If he was here, he was keeping it carefully under wraps. Which means, therefore, that if anyone does know about it, it'll be Lord Murray."

"Or he could have been the one Billy met with," Flint pointed out. "The governor of Charlestown and an ex-crew member of mine with a particularly venomous grudge could find considerable common ground. Billy betrayed us to Rogers. Surely nobody here has forgotten that?"

"Of course not." Killian almost wanted to point out that Billy had also attended Flint and Miranda's wedding, on that middle-of-nowhere sandbar where Geneva had been born and the news of Peter Ashe's treachery revealed by Lord Archibald Hamilton, but that was a very long time ago, and much water under the bridge. For his own part, he was less than convinced that Billy meant any of them well – possibly Emma, if he knew about her, but certainly not Flint. Apparently, nobody who was supposed to die on Skeleton Island had actually done so, and now after so many years, they were being inexorably drawn toward each other again. f*ck.

"Either way," Emma said, into the continued uneasy silence. "We need to find a way to at least make Lord Murray's acquaintance. I don't think either James or Killian can go, so I will."

"By yourself?" Killian instinctively disliked that plan.

"With David," Emma suggested. "In that case, I doubt the governor, no matter who he is, can get away with shooting me on the spot."

Flint and Miranda both winced at the idea of the governor shooting anyone, and Emma put a hand over Miranda's. "I need you all safe," she said. "I'd rather face him by myself, rather than put any of you in danger. Besides, I was a friend of Billy's. He asked Rogers for my safety as a condition of that bargain. If I can convince Lord Murray that I am likewise to be trusted with the knowledge of Billy's whereabouts, I could get somewhere."

This was true, but absolutely nobody cared for it any more. Nor could they, however, propose an alternative, and unhappy looks were exchanged down the breakfast table. "No," Killian started. "Hang the danger, I'll go with you, I'll – "

"No," Emma said, quietly but firmly. "I do this by myself."

That, therefore, and with great reluctance on the part of the three left behind, was what happened. Once breakfast was finished and Emma and David were dressed for visiting, having allowed a decent interlude to pass so that it would be in business hours, they went out to the carriage house and waited as the coachman hitched up. Emma kept having to resist the urge to fiddle nervously with her hat. Despite the fact that she was a mature lady of means, a daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother, she had felt seventeen years old again ever since she arrived here, and not in a good way. As much as she assured Killian that it was long ago and it could no longer trouble her, it did, and her preferred method of managing it was to sit tight and hope that it went away. It must, surely. It usually did.

In any case, however, she must not have been quite as discreet as she thought. As David handed her up into the coach, and then stepped in after her and shut the door, he said, "This must be extremely uncomfortable for you, mustn't it?"

"It's not terrible." Emma did her best to smile. "Leopold and Eva were kind to me, for the most part. I was always paid on time, and they were fond of Charlie. Treated him as their son."

"For the most part." David looked at her wryly, sadly. "Until they weren't."

"It's not their fault." Emma glanced down as the footmen climbed onto the running board, snapped the lines over the horses' backs, and the coach jolted into motion, down the sweeping drive. "It's only what anyone in their position would have done. I had. . . caused a liability with Neal, and they were justified in dismissing me."

"It was wrong, nonetheless." The conviction in David's voice made her turn to him, startled. "If they treated your brother as their son, they should have treated you as their daughter. And if you were my daughter, I would never have done that to you."

Emma opened her mouth, then shut it. She was unsure how to respond to something that she had always hungered so badly to hear, but never considered herself worthy of, the rationalizations she had run through for the chain of events that had led her from Leopold and Eva's house to Walsh's, Henry's birth, her decision to try to return to England and then her descent into piracy, all the things she had simply not thought of for years, in having first no desire and then no need. It worked out. I met Killian, I had Geneva and Sam, I have parents in James and Miranda, and a good friend in Thomas. Henry is married, I have grandchildren, Charles is doing well for himself. I have family now. Friends. A home. It doesn't matter any more. It's past. It's done.

"I," she said at last, voice less steady than she might have wished. "Thank you, Captain Nolan."

He waved a hand, almost diffidently. "I think David suits well enough, don't you?"

"Thank you." Emma looked at him. "David."

He nodded, as if he still felt personally responsible for what his wife's parents had visited on her long ago, and neither of them said anything as the coach rolled into Charlestown, through the morning hubbub, and up toward the governor's mansion. It gave Emma a considerable unpleasant swoop to approach it, knowing what had happened to Flint and Miranda the last time they were here, but she steadied her nerves as best she could. It was easier to face danger by yourself than to sit and wait for others to do it for you, and she did want the truth of what had, literally overnight, turned into a much deeper and far more worrisome mystery. They rolled to a halt, David once more politely offered her down, and after a quiet word on his part to the governor's footmen, they were shown inside.

The mansion had evidently been refurbished between occupants, and the design scheme now seemed to favor elegant blue and gold, along with bouquets of white roses. Emma and David sat on the davenport, politely sipping the offered tea, until the drawing room door opened and a young man in a smartly-tailored velvet coat stepped through. He had brown hair cut short, an appealing, boyish face, and dimples when he smiled, as he was doing presently. "I am Lord Murray, governor of Carolina Colony. Good morning."

"Ah – good morning." Emma and David got to their feet to clasp hands and exchange courtesies, as well as to thank him for receiving them so promptly – provincial bureaucracy was not the most efficient operation in the world, and he could have strung them out for days or weeks. He graciously waved them off, noting that as the Crown was overstretched in any number of directions due to the war, the least he could do was to make life easier for everyone else in the meantime. On that note, he offered his best wishes for the safe return of whichever of Emma's menfolk was doubtless off fighting – oh, it was her son? Surely a capital young man. Her concerns, however, must not be this alone.

"No," Emma admitted. He did seem well-disposed, engaging, and friendly, but that was different from openly prying into sensitive matters. She decided to test the waters first. "Governor Murray, are you aware of the Nolans' business interests on New Providence Island? And its. . . history?"

"I am," Murray assured her. "They were outlaws in the past, of course, but the place has been at peace for twenty-five years now. I am certainly not about to punish it arbitrarily, Mrs. Jones. Or, for that matter, you."

Emma was startled. It had been rather naïve of her to suppose that he would not know who she was, though it wasn't something she put about. "Oh?"

"Aye." He looked at her forthrightly. "Captain Swan, wasn't it? Mistress of the Blackbird?"

"It – it was, yes." He couldn't be older than thirty, so he was either not yet born or a very small child during the invasion and overthrow of the pirates' republic, and Emma thought that some of the odd expression on his face must come from meeting a living legend, a piece of history stepped out of the storybook, which suddenly made her feel quite old. "But like New Providence itself, I have been a loyal subject for twenty-five years."

"Of course you have," Murray said. "You are not on trial here, Mrs. Jones. If men's – or women's – past crimes could never be forgiven or atoned for, society would not function. Our lives would indeed remain in the state in which Thomas Hobbes sees them, and that, like Hobbes, I have no wish to be the case. Can you then, in confidence of your safety, divulge the nature of your errand? It does not, I assure you, go beyond this room."

Emma and David exchanged a final considering glance, but the young governor did seem sincere enough, and if he was trying to turn over a new leaf in Charlestown's relations with pirates, there was the fact that it benefited – ironically – from the Nolans' connections and commerce with Nassau. Murray must have little wish to spill such profitable milk in his first months on the job, and with that, Emma finally asked whether he had heard of a Billy Bones, or man of similar alias, passing through the city recently. He might have had meetings with person or person(s) unknown, and then was believed to have departed for England. She and Bones were old friends, but had not seen each other in many years, and if he was at all nearby, she would welcome any tidings of his whereabouts.

"Billy Bones?" Murray leaned forward. "The name sounds familiar. Will you refresh my memory, Mrs. Jones?"

"He was a member of Captain Flint's crew, on the Walrus. He was believed to be long dead on Skeleton Island, but if he made it off somehow, his information would be very valuable to the highest bidder. As the island is, of course, a repository for at least half the Spanish treasure stolen from the salvage camp in 1715, aboard the Walrus when she wrecked."

"Indeed. Very valuable information would be quite understating it." Murray chewed that over. "And you think he might have shared that intelligence with someone here? Why?"

"We're not certain. The news is at least third-hand. It came from my brother, in Nassau. As well. . ." Emma hesitated. "Before this, back in Savannah, there was an incident with two individuals who tried to kill us. We were wondering if that might be connected somehow."

"Us, Mrs. Jones?"

"Yes. My husband, myself, and my aged parents." She could almost hear Flint bristling at this description, particularly the "aged" part, but best to make him sound as innocuous as possible.

"That is troubling to hear. What became of these ill-mannered ruffians?"

"They, ah." Emma tried to think of the most discreet way to put this. "We were forced to act in self-defense, Lord Murray."

"Of course, of course." He nodded. "Perfectly understandable. And no doubt a distressing incident for you. Do you have any idea where it might have originated from?"

"The packet boat that travels between Savannah, Charlestown, and Williamsburg – it might have had some role in passing the information. We followed it here. If it's in the harbor, we want to speak with the master." For that matter, Emma wondered if Flint and Killian, rather than sit on their hands at the Nolan estate, had sallied forth to find the offending vessel themselves, and obtain answers by one means or another. It was not at all out of the question, especially for Flint.

"I see." Murray nodded again. "Well, Mrs. Jones, you have given me a great deal to cogitate on, and I will be making a number of enquiries. It is most likely that you will stay in Charlestown while these are being carried out – assuming Captain Nolan consents to continue hosting you, of course. Indeed, if the rumors of the Crown's defeat in Florida are true, it is also likely safer for you to remain somewhat further up the coast, in the event of a Spanish invasion. I know that Charlestown has been hostile to your kind before, but I hope that it may now prove a refuge."

"Thank you." As he rose to his feet, signaling the audience to be at an end, Emma and David did as well, and she took the governor's offered hand. "You've been very kind, Lord Murray. We are in your debt."

"Please," he said, and smiled at her, brown eyes crinkling at the edges. "Call me Gideon."

It was not yet dawn, and the light on the bedroom wall was deep grey, no longer full night but a good way off as yet from sunrise. It was almost quiet, as even the many servants of Paris were only just rousting themselves out to begin the day, and the air was still as glass. It was hot enough in deep summer that they might have cracked the window in search of a breeze, but as that would allow the foul miasma of the night air, redolent with the stench of the city's filth baked in the daytime, to get in, they instead slept with only gauze curtains and a light coverlet. Or rather they had, but Liam had kicked it off again. Not that he was terribly surprised, as this was as much part of the morning routine as the particular hue of the light and the stuffy, breath-held stillness. He was quite familiar with this moment, it generally being the one at which he awoke with a jerk from his nightmares. He knew exactly how long it would be until the bells of Notre Dame and the city churches began to call Prime, and the spell would break, the life return.

Careful not to disturb Regina, he sat up slowly, rubbing a hand over his face; his beard grew in like a bloody werewolf if he didn't shave each morning, and as of late, there had been considerably more grey in it than even recently before. Liam was entitled to this distinguishment at the age of fifty-eight, but it seemed as if much of the remaining brown in his curls had vanished within the span of a few months, and that was disconcerting. He grimaced, working his left shoulder and his back, as both of his old stab wounds were prone to feeling as if the Devil had jabbed them with a hot poker when he first woke, and leaned forward with a grunt of discomfort, trying to loosen the seized-up muscles. Christ, he was getting old.

After a few rounds of this, he managed to get his body at least somewhat interested in cooperating with him, and straightened up with only a slight groan, padding his barefoot way across the floorboards to the chair by Regina's vanity. From here, he could look down into the narrow cobbled street that their townhouse was perched on, just a few minutes' walk to the Collège de Sorbonne of the Université in one direction, or down to the Seine waterfront, and the Île de la Cité, in the other. It was a respectable enough neighborhood, though far from wealthy, as the individuals of consequence lived in expansive estates well away from the crowds and grime of the city. Not that Liam cared. He had no intention of being one of the powdered, gilted fops who danced attendance on King Louis at the pleasure palaces of Versailles – at which this monarch, fifteenth of his name, generally spent his time. He had inherited the throne at the age of five, after the death of his grandfather the Sun King, and generally seemed interested in doing anything but applying himself to actually sitting on it, having gotten his childhood tutor, Cardinal Fleury, to rule the country instead. This was not entirely for the bad, since while England and Spain were interminably at war, Louis provided token support to his Bourbon cousins but was otherwise too indolent to go to the bother of involving France in any major operations. That, Liam supposed, was what passed for peace these days. For anyone.

He opened a drawer on the vanity, removed brush, bowl, razor, and strop, thought briefly of doing this mornings on the Imperator with Killian, and worked up a rich soap froth. Despite living in France for almost three decades, and becoming mostly accustomed to their idiosyncrasies, Liam still had not figured out what the deuce they had against facial hair. It did not trouble him much, as he was in the habit of keeping at least mostly clean-shaven from his days in the Navy, but if a gentleman stepped out with any shadow upon his jaw, he could expect looks as if a close friend or family member had died, and not-quite-muttering about the scandalous customs of English barbarians. To wear a beard was only for the working poor, on either side of the Channel, who could not be expected to tend so regularly to their upkeep. The morning shave it was. Liam did not particularly fancy being constantly gaped at otherwise.

He finished, rinsed, buffed his newly bare chin with the towel, and inspected the result. Should be sufficient to set foot outdoors without any nearby ladies fainting. Liam also broached convention in not wearing a wig, preferring his own hair in a queue, and most of his neighbors had resigned themselves to his savage peculiarities (though doubtless wondering if it impacted on their property values). As Fleury preferred to keep the Hanovers mostly friendly, Liam was not spat on – much – or had rotten vegetables chucked at him, as he sometimes had when they first arrived here. He still spoke French with an English accent, so his heritage could never be disguised, but he was fluent to the point that he tended to think in it more often than his native tongue, so it was usually overlooked.

Shaving complete, Liam dressed, leaned over the bed to kiss his wife lightly on the forehead – she stirred and murmured, but didn't wake – and showed himself out, descending the creaking stairs as quietly as he could. Their household staff (a cook, a butler, two footmen, and Regina's lady's maid) had also gotten used to Monsieur embarking on solitary peregrinations at unsociable hours, from which they had tried in vain to dissuade him. Liam took down his hat and walking stick – the danger he encountered on these walks was usually no worse than a shambling drunk or a street whor* desperate for a paillasson before the night was through, but he was not unmindful to the possibility of others, and a rapier was concealed within – opened the door into the cool morning, and stepped out, shutting it behind him. Regina tended to rise considerably later, anyway, so she'd likely still be asleep by the time he got back.

Drawing a deep breath of air damp from an overnight rain, Liam set off to the coffeehouse, Le Cochon Tacheté (or as it was generally known, Le Cochon) where he usually took his morning meal. Despite its somewhat unflattering name, it regularly played host to some of the salons that took place in the city, in the great intellectual climate of enlightenment. Émilie du Châtelet, mistress of the satirist Voltaire and a formidable genius in her own right, had discussed her project of translating and expositing Isaac Newton's Principia mathematica, and just earlier this year, the inventor Jacques de Vausancon had debuted his clockwork-powered carriage, which he claimed would eventually allow them to run without horses. His optimism was not shared by everybody, but Liam could appreciate a dreamer. It was nice to know that someone still did.

He reached the establishment after about fifteen minutes, delayed only by a legless decrepit inveigling for alms – Liam tossed him a sou – and stepped inside. Coffeehouses were regarded narrowly by the authorities, on account of their reputation as meeting places to arrange political activity, to share scathing broadsheets and newspapers, and otherwise for a younger and less-grey clientele, but Liam was a regular here, and they had finally stopped suspecting him of being an inspector for the Bureau of Morals. Indeed he was greeted, poured a steaming black cup from a pottery kettle, and supplied with a sweet roll still warm from the ovens out back, fresh and flaky. He took his usual seat in the corner, and started to eat.

A few more patrons drifted in as it continued to get lighter, though Liam did not pay much attention to them. He finished his breakfast, considered that he should be getting back home, and was just about to reach for his walking stick, when someone stepped up beside him and touched his sleeve. "Excusez-moi. Monsieur Jones?"

Startled – and even more so to be addressed by name – Liam turned. "Oui? Comment puis-je t'aider?"

Apparently satisfied that it was the right person, the man, who had the look of a messenger in household livery, inclined his head and spoke in accented English. "Monsieur? If you would come with me. My mistress hopes that you will do her the honor of a visit."

Liam was somewhat irritated at what appeared to be the universal French assumption that anyone who did not natively speak the language should not be taxed to hold any actual conversation in it, but this was quickly overtaken by confusion. He and Regina had a few standing engagements and supper invitations, but they were far from especially desired guests in Parisian high society, and he had not been expecting a solicitation. "Your mistress?"

"Indeed, monsieur. She is an Englishwoman recently arrived in Paris, and was given your name. She is most interested in arranging a call. Are you available?"

"I – " Liam blinked. Married gentlemen did not usually call alone on presumably respectable gentlewomen (at least only to appearances, as the entire bloody so-called devoutly Catholic country was, to Liam's disapproving view, furiously engaged in extramarital fornication to every direction). "Now? It's hardly calling hours, is it?"

"Are you not available, then? When would be more convenient?"

"I – no, I am, but – "

"Splendid, monsieur." The messenger looked to be in imminent expectation of Liam getting up to follow him. "Her carriage is outside. If you will?"

Thoroughly baffled, Liam was left with nothing to do but cram on his hat, grab his stick, and follow the messenger out to where a full coach-and-six – highly impractical for the crowded, narrow Paris streets, but clearly chosen to make an impression rather than for convenience – was waiting. There was a gilded crest on the door, but he didn't get a good look at it as he was smartly ushered inside, wondering if this was a social call or a very well-mannered kidnapping. The interior was gloomy, windows shielded with black faille curtains, and thus it took him a moment to realize that someone was sitting across from him. He had expected to be conveyed to some stately residence or other, and then to wait anyway, as upper-crust Paris, to say the least, did not rise with the lark, but apparently this mysterious lady had decided to cut out the middleman. She was dressed in a very modish black gown, shiny dark ringlets piled high on her head and fixed with a beaded onyx comb and two plumed feathers, and while she looked, at first glance, quite a bit younger than him, Liam thought he could detect paint and powder and a carefully made-up mask to disguise considerable age. Seeing his general bewilderment, she smiled. "Ah. Captain Jones, is it not?"

"Yes." He politely removed his hat and set it on the seat next to him, as the messenger climbed onto the standing post with the footman and the carriage rolled forward with a creak of heavy wheels. "May I know to whom I have the honor of addressing myself?"

She smiled, rather coyly. "You may."

Liam stared at her in expectation of a name. None was provided.

"Later, at any rate. We have more important matters to discuss. You are the Liam Jones who was once commander of HMS Imperator before she went pirate, aren't you?"

"Yes." Liam's spine stiffened. Whoever she was, she had clearly done some digging. "I was informed that you were an English gentlewoman recently arrived in France."

"Oh, I am." She giggled. "Partly, it must be confessed, in search of you. You see, I have recently come into possession of some intriguing intelligence, Captain Jones. Can you guess what?"

"No, my lady?" This faux-little girlish act was already beginning to annoy him. "One would suppose that was the purpose of secret intelligence."

"Indeed." She co*cked her head, regarding him with a cool, appraising stare that belied the apparent coquetry. "Well. Does the name Skeleton Island mean anything to you?"

"Only as much as it means anything to anyone," Liam said, successfully concealing a brief start of surprise and unease alike. "A byword for a place full of mythical treasure that everyone dreams of somehow retrieving, but which it is in no way feasible to actually do. An El Dorado, a Shangri-La. I trust your ladyship was not placing too much stock in fairytales."

"It's not a fairy tale." She continued to look at him with that too-intent gaze. "I have someone who can take us there, or so he claims. Isn't that curious?"

"Very convenient for you, if true," Liam said. "I fail to see what business it is to do with me. I have never been there and I know nothing about it."

"Oh, I know. But you are related to people who do know, aren't you? Your sister-in-law, your brother's wife. Emma Swan – or Jones, I suppose it would be now?" The dark-haired woman leaned forward. "Possibly the only living person, aside from my source, of course, who has actually been to Skeleton Island and knows the details of its location and difficulties. And as well, the persistent rumors that Captain Flint is not as dead as one might think. He, of course, would be the biggest prize of all. Do you know?"

"I have not seen my brother and his family for years." Liam was caring less and less for this conversation, and for this woman, by the minute. "If you have a plan in place, then I wish you good fortune of it, but leave me out of it. I have no interest in and no need for this venture."

"Oh, don't you?" She smiled again, though it failed to reach her eyes. "I'm glad you think so, Captain, but I disagree. Your expert advice is very useful to us, and the man is currently in a place you have considerable familiarity with. You see, we have not actually met face to face. Merely corresponded by letters. I have need of, as it were, a native guide."

"You may," Liam said, more or less politely, "feel free to find yourself another one."

She giggled again, something high and cold that gave him a brief, unaccountable flash of unpleasant memory, though to who or what he could not have said. "I don't think so."

"What makes you think I'd know anything about any godforsaken backwater where some babbling lunatic has washed up, claiming to be able to lead you to a miraculous treasure? Or do you – "

"It's not a backwater." She still seemed amused. "At least, not much of one. Bristol."

"What?" That caught Liam on the hop. Bristol was the closest thing to a permanent home that he and Killian had ever had, the Imperator's home port, the place where their purser, Hawkins, was from, and where his wife ran their inn on the waterfront. Where Liam had made his infernal bargain with the fraudulent Mr. Plouton, to get the Jones brothers out of slavery. "This man you think can lead you to Skeleton Island, he's in Bristol?"

The woman nodded. "Recently arrived after a journey from the Colonies. We'll be leaving shortly to meet him there. I've a ship waiting in Le Havre."

"Wait, you – " Liam was outraged. "You can't just bloody abduct me off the street and expect me to help you in this madness! My wife is at home, my life, you can't – "

"I can." She smiled, more kittenish than ever, revealing small white teeth. Rapped on the roof to order the coachman to keep driving, rattling out on the road that led north to Normandy and the sea. "You work for me now, and you'd better not forget it. And in case you were wondering, as I know you were, my name is Fiona. Lady Fiona Murray."

Chapter 5: V

Chapter Text

The water was a color Geneva had never seen before: the rich, unearthly green of deep open ocean far from any land to interrupt its endless, slow-motion tumbles, with waves that reminded her of slumbering giants stirring and rolling in their sleep, rather than the sharp and vigorous crash of shore waves or reef breakers. She had been on and around the sea as long as she could remember, but even she had felt a brief stab of apprehension when the distant shadow of Eleuthera – the last island between them and three thousand miles of the Atlantic – had fallen permanently astern. They were bound north by northeast, would stop over in Bermuda in about a week, and then, assuming good weather, strike out on the major leg to London. It was mid-July now, and the very best estimate put them there no earlier than Daddy's birthday, on Saint Bartholomew's day in the last week of August. Add in any storms or delays, and that could easily become the first fortnight of September. Then add in whatever the blazes Silver wanted to do once there, how long it took them to track down Billy Bones, the fact that setting back across to the Americas any later than October at the tail end was regarded as too dangerous for most shipping assurance agents to underwrite, and it looked quite likely that they would be spending the winter in England. Where this would be, or who was going to provide for this, or if they would be reduced to begging door to door for ha'pennies, Geneva had no notion. Considering who she had aboard, she didn't think so, but still.

It was almost dusk, the red-gold orb of the sun spilling into the waves behind them as the Rose pointed her bow into the deepening night, and Geneva pulled her shawl tighter as she stood at the rail, the ship's lanterns flickering to life as the crew lit them. It would be time for supper soon, but she would eat later in her quarters with Madi. At least nobody had killed anyone else yet, although the arrangement could not be said to have been rigorously tested when it was only three days old. And that was also not to say that Geneva did not expect –

"Captain Jones?"

Geneva grimaced to herself, managed to control the expression on her face, and turned instead with a pleasant smile. "Good evening, Mr. Silver. Did you require something?"

His own smile was wry, as if acknowledging that she had likely been enjoying said evening more before he appeared to further darken its doorstep. He moved up next to her, gazing out at the distant, cloud-veiled horizon, grey-black curls whipping loose from their thick ponytail. At last he said, "I did not need something, per se. I was only hoping that you and I could establish ourselves on more cordial terms. After all, we have a good deal of time to spend together, and it is always easier to do so in amicability. As well, I realize – understandably, of course – that you do not trust me, and I thought that too should be addressed. There is a great deal of indirect history between us, and. . . well." He shrugged. "Perhaps I too am curious."

Geneva regarded him coolly. "Trying to befriend me so as to decrease the chances of Madi and myself continuing to remain allied together against you? Is that it? You never do anything or approach anyone without half a dozen ulterior motives."

"I deserve that," Silver acknowledged. "And it was quite clever of you to bring her, I was impressed. And not ungrateful. Madi and I have had our differences, but I. . ." He paused, almost open and sincere for the first time. "I have always hoped that one day we could reconcile. I have only ever wanted what was best for her, though perhaps at times I have lacked something in carrying it out. But you know about doing what you must to protect your loved ones without asking their permission, don't you, Geneva? You're doing it right now."

"To speak of permission, I don't recall giving it to you to use my first name, Mr. Silver."

"Captain Jones, then," he corrected deferentially. "But you came to Nassau in search of your family's past, didn't you? I can help. I was there. I can tell you."

"And can I trust whatever you would tell me?"

Silver's shrewd blue eyes studied her face. After a long moment he said, most unexpectedly, "I knew your father, and your uncle Liam, briefly, when we were all boys. They were indentured servants on my father's ship – also John Silver, a grain merchant out of Bristol. That particular association ended. . . tragically, though not undeservedly, for him. So now we once more have a Jones and a Silver aboard the same ship, and with questions of our survival at stake. I ran away before your uncle Liam did what he did, but your father long held a grudge against me for it. Felt as if we might be friends, that I could help free them as well, and then I didn't."

Geneva wasn't sure what to say. She knew that her father and uncle had been sold into servitude at a tender age, and remained in such state until they were young men, and that Liam had done something drastic to break their bonds and enable them to join the Royal Navy. She had not known what, nor that Silver was involved – though this did make his comment about indirect history take on a new and slightly sinister dimension. "What happened with that? Exactly?"

"I'm none so sure you want to know."

"I do. Am I supposed to trust you? Prove it."

"You'll think that I'm lying, to cast your family in a bad light."

"My family were pirates, I know they weren't angels. Tell me."

Silver paused, then shrugged again. With that, he informed Geneva briefly and efficiently of the particulars, that her uncle Liam had made a devil's deal with a Mr. Plouton to sabotage Captain Silver senior's ship, thus ensuring that it sank and he and his crew all drowned, in exchange for the Jones brothers' freedom, money to pay off their indentures and buy their commissions, and smoothing everything over with the local Admiralty board to get them assigned to HMS Imperator. Geneva had suspected it was something bad, but hearing it confirmed rocked her onto her heels. She did indeed have an urge to accuse Silver of lying, as he otherwise did so habitually, but knew that this time at least he wasn't. At last she said, rather faintly, "Oh."

"Aye." Silver's hands tightened on the rail. "Your father's freedom, for my father's life."

"And. . . did you. . ."

"Did I seek revenge? Or want it? No. I'd run away already, as I said, and my father was. . . not a good man. I did not feel his death to be any particular tragedy."

"What happened? To you?"

"It's not important." Silver's voice was very quiet, almost faltering, and he did not look at her. Despite herself, Geneva had the sense that sharing even this much information about his past was unprecedented, and that while her grandfather wore his tragedies on his sleeve and freely used them to fuel his rage, there were similar heartbreaks somewhere inside Silver that he kept utterly shut up in a small box somewhere far from the light of day, training himself to become as glossy and valuable and impenetrable as his surname, that he transformed into his manipulations as Flint had fed his war. There was no sound for a long moment but the wind keening through the shrouds and sails – if this kept up, they could make it to Bermuda in record time. As long as it got no stronger, as the waves were likewise blowing white. Then Silver said, "I did suppose you deserved to know that much at least."

"Thank you." Geneva meant it, though her feelings on him had not otherwise changed. "And is that all you wanted? To fill me in on some sordid family history?"

"No." Silver turned from his intent contemplation of the twilight. "I did want to ask you how your grandfather is."

"You've shared a cabin with Uncle Thomas for three days."

"Thomas is. . . being very careful about what pieces of Flint he parcels out to me. I daresay he feels quite protective of him, and wary of what my curiosity could mean, though I promise it is nothing untoward on any account. It is like standing at a well, trying again and again to draw up a bucket of water to drink, and yet every time you pull it out, a hole has been staved in the bottom, and it is empty."

Geneva glanced at him with an arched eyebrow. "Isn't that what it's like dealing with you?"

Caught by surprise, Silver laughed. "I suppose that could be truthfully said, yes. Yet as you are curious about what you missed, about what has changed, so am I. I like your great-uncle, for the record. I'm not entirely certain I expected to, but I do. Yet he is a man accustomed to keeping his mouth shut both as an experienced politician, and in regard to all the secrets he has lived with the cost of bearing. Even I could not wear him down or break through his armor, at least not quickly, and frankly, I have no wish to do so. The man has suffered enough for who he chose to be, and I am not a monster. Sometimes I ponder what he and Flint could possibly have had in common. Thomas is ever-gracious, gentle, courtly, kind, idealistic and eloquently spoken, and he even does not seem to hold much of a grudge for the bitter ordeal that he too must have been through. And then I run up, again and again, against that immovable wall of granite, and I understand precisely."

Geneva could not argue with this observation, nor with Silver's acumen in reading people, though this was doubtless the reason that he then knew where to find each and every one of their weak spots. "So all you want is to know about Flint?"

"Am I not allowed to miss him too?" Silver's face was half in shadow, the wind blowing his hair into his eyes, so she could not make out his expression. "I used to have a pet bird, several years ago. A macaw, with red feathers, rather like your grandfather. To be sure, it was not my pet at first. I've rarely seen a living creature more determined to hate me. Scratched me, squawked at me, ruffled its wings whenever I came near, tried on multiple occasions to sh*t on me. Yet – I doubt either of us were quite sure how – I began to leave food for it, and it would come to take it, however grudgingly at first. When it broke its wing, I mended it back to health, as much as it would allow me. After that, it ceased being quite so cantankerous when it saw me, though it would still cluck disapprovingly, and finally consented to come and sit on my shoulder. It learned to speak a few phrases, as parrots do. Its favorite word was 'No.' So I ended up, therefore, calling it Captain Flint, as there truly seemed no other more fitting name."

Despite herself, Geneva snorted. "And so what happened to him?"

Silver paused fractionally. "He died. I suppose he did, at any rate. He would come at a certain time every evening to be fed, and one day he simply no longer did. I called for him, left out some of his favorite treats, asked around the marketplace if they'd seen him – he was rather infamous there, always tried to steal their wares or their food. Someone would have shot him long since, if I had not made it clear that there would be consequences. Possibly someone did exactly that. Found him alone in the jungle, and solved the problem quietly. At any rate – much like your grandfather – I never saw him again."

Geneva glanced at him sidelong. Finally she said, "Grandpa is. . . he's fine. Good, even. He has Granny and Uncle Thomas, and they're happy."

"Not haunted, then? By the man he left in the sea?"

"I suppose he is. In his way. Though it's not something he would speak about with me. But for better or worse, he's managed to let Flint lie, however unquietly at times, in his grave. He loved someone more than this life. I'm not sure you did."

Silver flinched. "I did not want the war to go on forever," he said at last. "I wanted peace, however it could be found, for all of us. What passed between Captain Flint and myself, at our last meeting on Skeleton Island – "

He stopped.

"Yes?" Geneva tried not to be too obvious about prodding, as this was the one great mystery which her family still knew nothing about. "What was that?"

Having caught himself at the brink of a considerable slip, even if he might want desperately to finally speak of these things again, Silver smiled, politely and utterly unrevealingly. "It will be time for mess," he said. "I'm quite certain I just heard the bell. Good night, Captain Jones."

And with that, and Geneva quite certain she had not, he went.

The wind stayed good, and they reached port on Bermuda by the end of the week – St. George's Town, on the northeastern tip of the island, which had been an English territory since a shipload of settlers bound for Jamestown in 1612 had wrecked there, washed up, founded a new colony while they were at it, and then (mostly, at least) continued on their way. Bermuda was now a vital shipbuilding yard and halfway point for voyages between the Americas and England, and a great deal of the reason for their visit, aside from topping up on fresh water, was to see if Billy Bones had also passed through here en route, and if it could be tangibly confirmed that they were doing anything more than chasing smoke and shadows. So Geneva, Thomas, Madi, and Silver went ashore, more or less a united cohort for the moment, to make enquiries.

St. George's was a pretty, hilly seaport with striking pink-sand beaches, not terribly different from Nassau, and indeed, given Bermuda's reputation as a hotbed of privateering, it had plenty of its own less-than-legal history. As they climbed the steep street, stopping periodically to account for Silver's slower time on his crutch, Geneva glanced at her great-uncle. "How has it been?" she asked in an undertone. "The two of you haven't strangled each other yet, at the least."

"No." Thomas chuckled wryly. "I will say that the man is not completely unlikable when he puts his mind to it, though that is so clearly what he is doing that it leaves me to conclude that there is another purpose to it. I sense that he might have some genuine regard for me, despite himself. But it is not easy to come across someone who has shared a loved one, yet on precisely the opposite side of things. I know about Silver and he knows about me, but only in what James has told both of us individually and in drastically differing circ*mstances. No wonder that that fails to fit easily or comfortably into a flesh-and-blood reality."

"Aye, I can see that." Geneva did not want to pry into private business, but as Silver had raised it, and it could potentially be relevant to their enterprise, she had to ask. "Did Grandpa ever tell you and Granny what happened on Skeleton Island? How long he was there, how he got off?"

Thomas hesitated. "He was there for nearly a year," he said at last. "Rather, that is the version which I believe most likely to be true. Other times he has claimed it was closer to two years, or three. It cannot have been any longer than that, as he and Miranda were reunited in 1720, and they found me about six months later."

"Other times?" Geneva repeated, surprised. "He hasn't given you one story?"

"James rarely does. Even to those closest to him." Thomas smiled, softly and sadly. "And as well, we were apart for many years, and suffered many tribulations. Secrets become part and parcel of the life we share now. Not due to any lack of trust, or diminishment of affection, but merely because there is little point in digging up an old wound to be chewed over, when hearing of the pain would cause all of us more, and we wish to think instead of the future. So no, James has never told myself or Miranda the full, unabridged, completely truthful account of his last confrontation with Silver, or his sojourn in the wilderness, or how he returned from it to a world he but dimly recognized. I have not told either of them everything that happened to me in the asylum in England or the work plantation in Georgia, and I do not doubt that Miranda has not told us everything she underwent after she and James were ripped apart in Charlestown, her long convalescence in Paris, and all that she did to return to the Americas in such slender hopes of finding us. We share parts and pieces, my dear. Enough to ask for help when needed, and that in itself is miraculous. But the full burden and tragedy of it is best left elsewhere than our home and our bed. We have suffered enough."

Geneva opened, and then shut, her mouth. She could tell that, gently and patiently as this was phrased, it was nonetheless a quiet rebuke, a reminder that if Thomas had known he felt might be useful and able to be divulged, he would have told her already, and he was not keeping vital information back on a whimsy. It was also a reminder that while the McGraw-Hamiltons loved their family and their granddaughter very much, some things remained beyond the remit of what they were willing to discuss with her, and this, for its part, seemed to be one. Sensing this, and as if to soften the blow, Thomas said, "His account of how he got off the island is likewise that he bartered passage on a trader. Went to Philadelphia first, then made his way back south."

"A trader? So there must be ships that pass at least somewhat close to the island?"

"He said that he built a small ketch and sailed some way out to sea, so I don't think it was near the island, no. As for the ship, she was a repurposed Indiaman, the Nautilus, and her master was a man known as Nemo. I am not sure, however, that this was not some sort of jest, either on the part of James or of his supposed rescuer."

"Why is that?"

"Nemo means no one in Latin," Thomas explained. "As indeed James was then, no one, a man without a name or a past, returning from months or years of exile on a remote island. At any rate, that is all I know. I admit that at times my curiosity has driven me mad wanting to ask Silver, but I do not want his side of the story first, or to betray James' confidence in what he chooses to tell me. He may do so one day, and he may not, but it remains his story and his right to tell."

Geneva could not think of anything to say to this, and Thomas likewise seemed to want to be done talking for the moment, so they made their way up the rest of the street and into the public house at the top. The proprietor, taking Geneva, Thomas, and Silver for the traveling party, and Madi for their slave, had to be curtly corrected of that mistake, and explained that they did not often see free Negresses on the same standing as well-to-do white gentry (this comprising Geneva and Thomas, at least, as Silver did not look terribly reputable either). Madi continued to stare daggers into his head as Geneva purchased two rooms and supper for the night – and then, as the proprietor counted her change back to her, something caught her eye among the coins. When they had taken a seat in the common room, she pushed it forward and said, "Isn't this a Spanish piece of eight? D.G. Hispan et Ind., Rex Philip V. . ." She flipped it. "1713."

Looks were exchanged. Philip V of Spain was still on the throne, having abdicated for eight months in 1724 to let his son take over and then forced to return to the job when said son died, and thus it was not impossible for older coinage of his to be in circulation, especially with Bermuda's status as a center of English privateering activity, sending out sloops and crews to prey on and disrupt Spanish shipping to support the war effort in Florida. It was curious, however, that this coin did not look at all as it should, if it had been struck twenty-seven years ago and in regular usage since. It should be clipped, tarnished, worn smooth, even split into bits, but it remained intact, shining, and silver as if it had just come hot from the mint. As if, say, it had lain unused and hidden for a long time, was retrieved, then spent, which meant –

"Excuse me." Geneva got up and wove her way back toward the front of the tavern, waited until the proprietor had attended another customer, then turned to her with a look clearly expecting more chastisem*nt. "Did you give lodging recently – within, say, the last month or two – to a man named Bones? A man who paid for his bed and board with older Spanish currency?"

The proprietor blinked at her, baffled. "Mistress?"

"This coin," Geneva said impatiently. "Are there more like it?"

"Are you asking to inspect my purse and takings, mistress?"

"Not at the moment. Just this." Geneva put the coin on the counter. "Are there others?"

"Is it. . . entirely your business, mistress?"

"Yes, it presently is. Other coins. Like this. Spanish pieces of eight minted before 1715, possibly even a golden escudo or two. Spark your memory?"

The proprietor's gaze flickered to Silver. "Mistress, your companion has one leg."

"And what in damnation does that have to do with anything? It's not his leg that causes the most trouble, believe me."

"Is there some difficulty?" Thomas had come up behind her, light blue eyes pleasant but sharp. "Are you refusing service to my niece, sir?"

"I'm – " The proprietor looked cornered. "I was instructed not to – "

Thomas reached into his waistcoat pocket and produced a golden guinea, which he slid deftly under the proprietor's account book so not as to attract the notice of any passersby; it was more than many of them would earn in months. "Has your memory improved now, perhaps?"

Geneva watched this exchange in some admiration, even as the proprietor wavered a moment longer, then gave in. "Fine. Yes. A man named Bones passed through here, about on six weeks ago, and paid in older Spanish coins from a locked chest he had. Tall fellow, maybe five-and-fifty, sort as has had a hard life. Insisted that if for any reason a one-legged man was to come asking for him, I was to say nothing about it."

"And compensated you well for the service, I suppose." Inside, Geneva felt both pleased and unsettled. So Billy Bones was alive, did have a stash of the Skeleton Island treasure with him as proof of his story for whatever skeptics he might have to convince, and furthermore, had known or at least guessed that his old and former friend, John Silver, might catch wind of it all and decide to go after him. "Did he say where he was bound?"

The proprietor hesitated.

"My great-uncle can give you another bribe," Geneva said, "or I can punch you in the nose. You decide."

The poor man was so taken aback at the idea of a well-dressed young lady threatening to practice violence upon anyone that it startled him into answering. "He. . . Bristol."

"Bristol?" Geneva and Thomas glanced at each other in surprise. While this, if true, would shorten their journey slightly – they only had to make it to the west coast of England, rather than through the Channel and up the Thames to London – it meant their working notion of what was going on would have to be completely rejiggered. They had assumed that Bones was traveling to Westminster to sell the intelligence to the English government directly, but his potential aims in Bristol were far less obvious. It was the center of the Crown's maritime trade, the biggest Royal Navy base in the British Isles after Portsmouth, and Killian and Liam Jones, John Silvers senior and junior, and Woodes Rogers had all lived there at some point (as well as the pirate Blackbeard, in his days as Edward Thatch), so certainly Bones could find somebody or something to his interest. What that was, however, had been rendered once more a total mystery.

Sensing that the man had legitimately told them all he knew, and not wanting to press their luck, Geneva and Thomas nodded, turned on their heels, and went back to their table – where, in the three minutes they had been left alone together, Madi and Silver had managed to get into an argument, from which they desisted only belatedly at the reappearance of their companions. "What?" Madi said, seeing their faces. "What is it?"

"We've had an. . . interesting development." With that, Geneva tersely recounted what they had learned, including the course change for Bristol, at which she eyed Silver pointedly. "You're the one who conceived and coerced this entire enterprise with the threat that Bones was going to sell all of us out. If he's not in fact going to Westminster, then what's he doing?"

"He is alive, isn't he?" Silver pointed out, obviously choosing to circumvent her question. "And going to England. I would say that substantially vindicates me. It hasn't been all smoke and mirrors. And as he can cause quite as much trouble in Bristol as in London, if not more, I would say our duty to catch up to him remains acute. If it was six weeks ago he passed through, he will be there by now, and that means we must – "

"No opinion on returning to Bristol?" Geneva regarded him coolly.

"Should I have one?"

"You're from there, aren't you? Your father's ship was based there. And you ran away."

Silver's look said that he clearly did not appreciate her airing whatever he had told her in confidence to the rest of the table, though in practice that only meant Thomas. Madi knew at least that he was from Bristol, though Geneva wondered if she knew anything else. Perhaps Silver's objection was because he presumed Thomas would use the information as he himself would, to probe it for profitable avenues and potential weaknesses, and did not want to expose himself in such a way, to whatever strange sort of rival he fancied Hamilton to be. In that he was wrong, but Geneva saw no call to tell him just yet. Keeping Silver uncomfortable and off balance factored significantly into her plans, so he was welcome to think that Thomas was Niccolo Machiavelli reincarnated if it caused him a few sleepless nights. At least it might explain, in Silver's mind, what had attracted Flint to him.

"Yes," Silver said after a moment, forcing a pleasant smile. "I am, actually. So that gives us some advantage, as while I've not been to the place since I was a boy, I still know a thing or two about its underworld. How's the mercury? Can we be on our way tomorrow?"

"I'll check it when we return to the ship in the morning." Geneva caught Madi regarding her approvingly out of the corner of her eye, and could not help a certain small satisfaction. The lot of them remained shackled to each other for the time being, and she was aware that none of them could push hard enough to topple the whole house of cards until Bones' mysterious motives were in fact divined, but it was still enjoyable to tweak Silver's nose, pettiness or not. Instead, she raised her glass. "I'd say I've done well, gentlemen. Surely we can drink to that."

They did so, if somewhat reluctantly among certain (Silver) individuals, went upstairs to their rooms, and slept more or less restfully, awaking the next morning to a more-or-less clear sky with wispy contrails of white cloud obscuring the eastern horizon. However, when they packed up and made their way back to the Rose, and Geneva inspected the mercury, she found that it had performed a significant plunge overnight. Not entirely enough to be alarming, but still indicative of some potentially interesting going, and she chewed her lip, mulling her options. The dog days of summer were ripe hurricane season, and she was not so eager as to pull one over on Silver as to willfully sail into a tempest, but she had dealt with some plenty nasty storms in the Indies, and already had a reputation as a solid foul-weather captain. It was true that the hourglass was dangerously running while Billy Bones was larking about in Bristol uncontested, and after her own cogitation failed to reach a firm answer, Geneva went on deck to put it to a vote.

"I'll trust your choice, my dear," Thomas said. "If you think it's something you can manage, then I say we proceed. It won't do anyone much good for us to idle at anchor in Bermuda."

"What did you think it was?" Madi asked. "A thunderstorm?"

"Aye," Geneva reassured her. "Bit of rain, bit of wind, perhaps, but nothing too terrible."

"Very well," Madi decided. "I also say we go."

"And?" Geneva turned with an arched eyebrow to the last member of the group. "Mr. Silver, what do you say?"

"It pains me to have to once more cast the dissenting vote," Silver said after a moment, "and is not at all what I myself wish to do, but I vote we stay. I've weathered a few storms that by rights should have killed me, and I have no wish to tempt fate by discounting this one ahead of time. It is plain, of course, that I would like to get to Bristol as quickly as possible, so I hope my vote can be seen in the appropriately serious light. I'm sure you've come through several Caribbean squalls, but an Atlantic gale is different. So yes. I vote we stay put until the mercury rises."

Geneva had half-wondered if he would swallow his pride and agree with the consensus, as his desire to catch up to Billy seemed genuine enough, but that, of course would be too simple an outcome. It was also to Silver's benefit to have more time to think of a plan or God knew what else he was up to, as well as subtly getting back at her for challenging him last night, and she could sense the underlying desire to thwart her, ever so slightly. He wanted her to reconsider, to listen to him, to show that she still deferred to his greater experience and his depth of knowledge – in short, that no matter what she liked to think about being able to go toe-to-toe with him, he remained in control of the enterprise. "Is that so, Mr. Silver?"

He shrugged. "You asked me for my opinion. I've given it. I believe that in such matters, however, the final call is customarily the captain's. If you say we go, I can't stop you."

Geneva and Silver stared at each other for a long, crackling moment, as Thomas and Madi both took slight steps in the former's direction. Back down now, and she would lose face, as well as some respect on her crew; they were quite used to sailing with a young woman for their captain, and proud of her for fearlessly facing whatever came their way, but might revise their opinion if they saw someone able to back her into a corner. They were all watching now, and she was not about to let Silver publicly defeat her like this. Besides, it was just a bloody thunderstorm. If she was scared of getting a bit wet, she might as well turn around right now and go home. And that, to be sure, Geneva Elizabeth Jones was not.

"Aye," she said. "We sail."

As they left the governor's mansion, considerably relieved that things had not gone nearly as pear-shaped as feared, Emma turned to David before he could help her back up into the waiting carriage. "Do you mind if I make my own way home? I have a few old places where I used to trade for information, and much as I appreciate Lord Gideon's efforts on our behalf, I'd prefer it if we did not have to completely rely on his version of events. I should be back by evening."

David blinked at her, taken aback. "Are you sure, Emma? Charlestown has changed a great deal since you lived here. I wouldn't want you to get into any trouble by yourself."

"I appreciate the concern, but I was a pirate captain," Emma pointed out. "I handled myself alone in far rougher places than this. Besides, you're a well-known public figure, pillar of the community. I doubt anyone will think they can pass potentially compromising intelligence if you're standing there right behind me. Go back and tell the others what we've found out. As I said, I won't be longer than a few hours."

"Aye, but – "

"I'm quite sure," Emma repeated. "Thank you, Captain Nolan."

The slight curtness of the tone and the formality of his title made David swallow whatever further objection he was about to utter, clearly aware that the conversation was over. He did not look entirely convinced, but he tendered a politely correct bow, nodded to her, and climbed up into the carriage himself, as Emma watched to be sure that it had rolled away down the drive before she took the back route down toward the town and the harbor. She had cultivated a few useful contacts around the merchant locales she had visited both as Leopold White's maidservant and Patrick Walsh's wife, and while they were all liable to be dead or retired by now, some of the younger ones might still be around, or have children succeeding them who might be persuaded to do a favor for an old acquaintance of their parents. Murray might indeed be putting a good-faith effort into sorting things out, but Emma was not about to let her guard down. Not here, not in Charlestown, not with this much at stake.

A preliminary canvassing, therefore, yielded mixed results. Most of her old crowd were, unfortunately, long out of business (she tried not to think whether or not they might have perished in the sacking), but the mistress of a notorious local pot shop was still around – it was known as a good place to get a cup of cheap and savory soup, as long as you did not ask what kinds of meat possibly went into the cauldron. If the woman had a Christian name, Emma had never heard it, for everyone had always referred to her as the Blind Witch, and she was older, greyer, and more demented than ever, but still both alive and devoted to collecting all the scurrilous docklands gossip. "Lord Gideon Murray, eh?" she said, picking her snaggle teeth with a dirty fingernail, which she bit off, chewed on experimentally, and then spat out. "Oh, I suppose there's a thing or two I could tell you about that young rooster, did I have a mind."

Emma reached into her pocket and removed one of the guineas she had taken from the body of the assassin Killian had shot. She handed it over, let the witch bite it to confirm it was real gold, then pulled it back. "Could be that's yours, if you did have a mind."

The witch regarded her shrewdly through cataract-clouded eyes, not that she could actually see her, and stirred her bubbling pot. Evidently, she decided that the opportunity to turn this much of a profit did not come along every day, so she relented. "Arrived from London a few months ago. He's the son – adopted, at any rate, of Herself. And folk call me a witch."

"Herself?" Emma repeated, frowning. "Herself who?"

"Oh, her ladyship. Fiona Murray. You'll know all about that one, I'm sure." The witch turned to feel her way for a cracked brown-glass bottle containing some glutinous dark liquid, which she upended merrily into the stew. "Just like her brother, isn't she?"

"Her brother?"

"Well, her maiden name was Gold, wasn't it?" The witch kept stirring, inhaling the slightly mangy fumes with apparent relish, as Emma choked for more than one reason. "Married a Lord Malcolm Murray, a good deal older than her, then kept his name, his title, and his fortune when he conveniently keeled over a few months later. Think there've been a few more husbands after that, but they don't tend to last long. Runs in the family, then. Wouldn't you say?"

"Wait, her brother – " Emma felt a large chunk of ice run down her back. "Lord Gideon's adoptive mother's brother was. . . Lord Robert? Lord Robert Gold?"

"Oh, he was. Nobody knows what's become of him, though, once he had his hide tanned by the Nassau pirates those years ago." Apparently – or rather hopefully – not knowing that she was speaking to one in the flesh, the witch sampled her cooking on the spoon and offered some to Emma, which she hastily refused. "Dead, could be, but I doubt that old lizard died easily."

Emma opened and shut her mouth, suddenly feeling considerably less sanguine about Lord Gideon Murray's good nature than she had that morning. If he was Gold's adopted nephew, raised as the son of his evidently just as notorious sister, that allowed for any number of hidden motives to be pursued beneath the friendly and affable exterior. Indeed, if Gold had had any weakness, it was that it was so plainly a foolish idea to ever trust him that it at least put you on guard to always expect the worst from him. If Gideon had been instilled with his own healthy share of the family's manipulation and danger, while managing to cloak it beneath the appearance of a decent and caring man, that made him a formidable opponent indeed. Everything he had said about forgiving old grudges, about not unduly persecuting the pirates. . . had that been true, or just a clever front to get Emma to freely confess all that sensitive information to him, thinking herself protected from reprisal? sh*t. sh*t.

"That's worth a guinea, I'd say," the witch prodded, when Emma remained silent. "You going to hand it over, pretty, or no?"

"Are you sure about this? That Fiona Murray is Robert Gold's sister, and it. . . is as you say?"

"Sure as sunrise. It mean something to you if she was?"

"No," Emma lied reflexively. Rattled, she distractedly gave the witch the guinea, made a mental note to never eat anywhere even near here in future, and headed out of the cluttered dockyards. It was getting on in the day, and she had, to say the least, plenty to report. Not wanting to trudge all the way back to the Nolans on foot, she hailed one of the public fiacres and climbed in.

It turned out, of course, that it would have been faster to walk. There was congestion caused by a runaway cow bottling up the main thoroughfare, they had to interminably sit and wait while the various carriages were cleared out by a bailiff with a large stick and a loud voice, and by the time they were finally rolling up to the estate, it was nearly dusk. When she got out, Emma found her highly agitated husband in his jacket and sword, a lantern on his hook, on the brink of setting out to look for her. When he saw her, he stared, briefly overcome with relief, and then gripped her arm hard with his good hand. "Bloody hell, Swan! I've been worried sick! Where on earth have you been?"

"I know, I'm sorry." Emma took the lantern off his hook and set it on the ground, but he did not look at all mollified. "I was just out asking questions."

"Asking questions?" Killian nodded up to Flint, who was also dressed as if he was about to join the search, telling him it wasn't needed. "All day?"

"Aye, I'm sorry I worried you. I thought – "

"David came back and said you'd insisted on going off by yourself, visiting your old haunts." Killian loosened his grip somewhat, though he didn't let go. "You just disappeared by yourself in Charlestown for the whole day, and thought we wouldn't worry?"

"I – I just. . ." Emma trailed off. "I didn't want any of you exposed to the danger, I wanted to handle it without risking you. I thought if I could just – "

"Seeing as both of us were about to go out looking for you, we would have been on the streets, at night, anyway." Killian finally relinquished her arm, blowing out the lantern as they started up the walk toward the house. "I know it's been hard for you being here, Swan. That it's flaring up all your old instincts to go it alone. But that's not true, and it's no excuse for shutting us out and foraging off by yourself with no word at all. Come inside and at least apologize to Miranda, if not to me. She was more than half convinced you'd already been shot."

Emma flushed, went to reassure her mother of her still-living status, and once she had the others safely in the parlor, divulged what she had found out. The effect was as drastic as she could have dreaded. Flint bit back a scorching oath, Miranda looked even paler, and Killian turned to stone on the spot. Finally he said, sounding strangled, "Christ. Murray is Gold's nephew? I knew it! Of course everyone was right when they said we couldn't trust the bastard!"

"They never said that," Emma countered. "They only – "

"They said it clear enough, if we'd been wise enough to listen." Killian's nostrils flared. "We'll have to do something about this, we can't just let this stand. If Gold's still alive, if he's in league with Murray somehow, we'll have to handle this, we'll have to – "

"Are you actually advocating going after the governor of Charlestown in cold blood?" At this, it was Emma's turn to be angry. "You scold me for investigating him by myself, but if you think he deserves to be killed just because of some tenuous – "

"I didn't say he should be killed," Killian said tightly. "I said he should be handled."

"And what exactly did you mean, then?"

"Break down the door?" Flint suggested. "Bag over the head? Private chat, somewhere dark and quiet, with plenty of guns at the ready?"

"No, both of you," Emma snapped. "It would seem I'm not the only one falling back into old habits, if you're both so ready to grasp for revenge at the thinnest of pretexts! We have no proof that Murray actually believes in anything Gold did, much less is trying to carry it out! I know who Gold was, you know I do, and the danger he posed – but Gideon is innocent until proven guilty. And if you think leading a witch hunt in this city of all places is going to work out well for us, then I'd seriously question what you wanted from it."

"Robert Gold destroyed my life, and Peter Ashe destroyed Flint and Miranda's. With those two for predecessors, I'm not sure we can sit around and wait until Murray proves himself to be a treasonous, faithless son of a – "

Voices were being raised enough to rattle the gilted mantelpiece, and at the sound of a concerned rap on the door, were modulated with an effort. Emma felt even more off balance and unhappy – she rarely argued with Killian, especially not this vehemently, and it was worse since neither of them were entirely wrong. Both had valid grievances about the other's old self-destructive behavior, but were already so on edge by being here that it was hard to put those passions aside and view the situation clearly and objectively. Emma agreed that it was unwise to naïvely sit and hope for Gideon's cooperation and good nature, but she was far less sure that that extended to a midnight ambush and kidnapping attempt, or whatever in the blazes else Killian and Flint had in mind. She loved her husband and her foster father very much, but in some dangerous ways, they were alike as two black peas in a pod, feeding into each other's old tragedies and vengeful impulses. Get that stone rolling, and it would be quite difficult to bring to a halt, especially without any damage to either. She would do much worse to prevent that possibility.

The silence in the drawing room continued to ring, loud as a shout. Then Killian spun brusquely on his heel. "I think I need some air. I'll be back in a bit."

"What? You're angry at me for running off alone, and now you're going to – "

"I won't leave the grounds." Killian's voice was very short. "Don't wait up, Swan."

"Killian – "

He gave her a searing blue look as he pointedly unbuckled his sword and dropped it on the davenport, as if to prove that he would confine himself to a few heated circuits around the Nolans' expansive back lawn. The drawing room door slammed behind him, as did the French doors on the veranda, and Emma caught a glimpse of his dark shadow marking a sharp clip away across the grass. She watched him go, feeling leaden, then turned back to Flint and Miranda. "Tell me you don't agree with this reckless course of action. We have no proof. If old family connections were enough to convict a man on the spot, all of us would fall under the axe. We've fought this long to prove that our past does not define us. It's hypocritical to then turn around and do it to Gideon Murray, infamous uncle or otherwise. I'm not saying he's our friend, but if we react in haste to make him our unquestioned foe, we'll pay for it."

"Aye," Miranda said, after a moment. Her voice sounded strange, quiet and raw. "That's logical, my dear, and compassionately put. You have always wanted to believe the best of people, no matter how few reasons they sometimes give you. Even when you were a pirate, you never quite lost that impulse. It was a gift shared by few in that world, and I always admired it."

Something about this made Emma uncertain that it was entirely an agreement. "But?"

"But," Miranda said, still more quietly, "I am not sure that in this place, in this circ*mstance, we can afford to be quite so munificent. I agree that it's a fool idea to move against Murray openly, but we cannot sit and wait for solid proof. And if you defend the rights of your enemies against the sensibilities of your family, high-minded and generous as it is. . . well, you may only wish that you had had the opportunity to do differently."

Sensing Emma's objection, she put up a hand. "I know Murray is not clearly our enemy, not yet. I think, however, that Killian and James are correct in surmising that he will have to be considered one. Someone here was informing on us to Billy Bones, according to your brother's letter. Someone with the clout and ability to hire two assassins and send them to Savannah. If Murray's influence is as strong as it is said, I have great difficulty believing that this transaction could have taken place without his knowing of it. If he had nothing to do with it, I am more than happy to eat my words. But I scarcely need add that Robert Gold's nephew would have a considerable personal motive to do us ill, over and in addition to whatever Bones told him."

Emma had been about to say something else, but stopped. Finally she said, "We'll discuss it when Killian comes back. In the meantime, it's been a very long day, and I could more than do with some sleep. Good night."

With that, she made her own exit, angry and worried and feeling more like the frightened, alone seventeen-year-old than ever. She undressed and got into bed, but could not sleep well without Killian, and flopped from side to side on the mattress, doing nothing more than disordering the bedclothes. Where was he, anyway? It was becoming quite a long storm-around to blow off steam – unless he had been so angry that he had simply carried on straight to the ship and –

No, no. Emma shook her head hard. She and Killian had been married for twenty-five years, and had certainly had disagreements and fights before, which they always made up in due course. He was not about to be so petulant as to leave her over one like this, even if it was more serious than their usual. Though considering that he evidently felt that rushing out and hitting Gideon Murray over the head with a candlestick was a bloody brilliant idea, who knew, perhaps he was.

Unhappy and heartsick, Emma dozed uneasily and sporadically for a few hours, before waking up with a jolt in early predawn and realizing that Killian still had not come in. At that, her combination of anger and anxiety finally sharpened into fear. She threw off the covers, pulled on her dressing gown, and went downstairs. Questioning the Nolan servants revealed that Killian was not in the house, nor had they heard him return at any point in the night. They had not heard any disturbance or signs of a struggle in the house or grounds, so they did not think he had been taken anywhere against his will. Either he had become distracted with some vital midnight errand and would return shortly, or. . . well, would Mrs. Jones care for breakfast?

Emma was not at all hungry upon receipt of this news, and went to find Flint and Miranda, who were just coming downstairs, looking as if they too had passed a restless and unpleasant night. "Something's wrong. Killian never came back."

Flint opened his mouth, winced as Miranda stepped hard on his foot, and forbore to offer whatever he had been about to. Instead he said, "You're sure?"

"Aye, quite. I asked the servants, and he. . . he's gone."

"That's not at all like him." A fine line creased Miranda's brows. "Even if you had quarreled."

"I know." Emma struggled with the words, but forced them out anyway. She had to find some way to defeat the evil thrall this place had on her, the darkness it was creeping into her thoughts, the insinuating whispers that he had just up and gone anyway, that no matter how long or how intimate the connection was, it was still doomed to end in abandonment and heartbreak. "I. . . I know Killian wouldn't leave willingly and make me worry. But if not. . ."

"But if not," Miranda completed. The line drew deeper. "Then something has happened to him."

Saint Kitts and Nevis was one of the richest jewels in England's West Indies crown. The twin islands, part of the Leeward archipelago and barely fifty miles from the Royal Navy and provincial government headquarters on Antigua, were responsible by some reckonings for almost twenty percent of all of the Crown's lucrative sugar production in the Caribbean. Indeed, it had been the colonial capital until 1698, when the seat was transferred to Antigua, and it was terraced with plantations and sugarcane fields, requiring a slave population nearly as vast as Jamaica's to keep the wheels turning and the knives threshing. Accordingly, its mountains were likewise rumored to host their own hidden colonies of Maroons, and there remained much public unease about their presence, despite the fact that it was the African slaves who, in 1706, had fought off an attempted French invasion. Sugar production had been somewhat dented by this incident, but remained the place's chief lifeblood, and as Sam stared at the distant harbor, crowded with ships rocking at anchor, he could not help but think that most, if not all, of them were slavers. This was one of the first ports of call for vessels arriving from the Gold Coast of Africa, laden with their human cargo, who were taken straight out of the hold, sold at market, and sent to work on the plantations. They were here neither for sugar nor for slaves, but it still made him feel sick.

Why they were here, and if it would actually work, remained a point of serious question. Sam was not remotely about to sail home with these dangerous lunatics in tow, and considering how delicate the subject of Skeleton Island was, his grandfather – even if he somehow remembered the exact bearings after twenty-five years, which was signally unlikely – was not in the least about to happily yield them up to a Spanish spy. Besides, they could not get so far back into English territory without difficulties, and whatever tenuous protection Sam had bought his family with this entire wild gamble would go up in smoke if Da Souza knew where to find them. He could not, at all costs, go back to Savannah. So instead he would have to – yet again – madly improvise.

The one (hah, one) difficulty in this, however, was that Da Souza and Jack were under the impression that Sam – if not quite certain on the particulars – had at least a middling-to-decent idea of where Skeleton Island was, how to get there, and whether or not the treasure was salvageable. In fact, Sam had absolutely no blinking, bleeding, blue-hell clue where the damn place was, except "well east of Nassau, out in the Atlantic," and that, to say the least, was something less than a specific direction. If his companions, who clearly had far more in common with each other and did not seem excessively fond of him, cottoned onto that, his use to them was negligible, and in fact his presence became an active liability. It would be easier to just eliminate him, via whatever handy method presented itself, rather than dealing with his entanglements with England and all the other danger he brought with him, just track Skeleton Island down themselves, and return to Güemes as conquering heroes. It was only their belief that he knew something important that was currently saving his neck. If they learned otherwise. . .

Sam had thus concocted this plan in hopes of improving the standing of his various endangered body parts, and he would have to proceed carefully. He remembered his sister saying something about a man on Nevis who sold charts, navigational equipment, and other sailing miscellany, often purchased from scrapped ships for wholesale prices. Geneva had acquired a number of useful items here, and while Sam knew that it was pushing his luck to the utmost to think that the dealer would just happen to have a copy of the incredibly rare chart that Captain Henry Avery had used to select the location of his treasure stashes back in the day, it was also better than nothing. Even if not that exact chart, there might be others, books or documents pointing toward the unmapped parts of the Caribbean, hidden islets that swashbucklers had used for secret bases. Skeleton Island was a real place. Sam's mother and grandfather had been there. It had to be able to be found again. And after over a week on the voyage from Havana, Sam was more than ready to stretch his legs and get off this smelly, lurching tub. He really was not at all fond of sailing.

"Well," he announced. "We're here, so that's good. I'll just pop ashore and check that – "

"You think you're going by yourself?" Jack co*cked an exceedingly skeptical black eyebrow. "Not everyone is as chronically dim-witted as you, you know."

Sam was insulted. True, this whole secret and subtle politicking bit did not appear to be his bag, but he thought "chronically dim-witted" was going a bit far. "I don't recall asking for the pleasure of your company, no."

Da Souza rolled his eyes. He had been subjected to a great deal of chunter in this vein for the past nine days, and could have been second-guessing his decision to be so keen on the whole "lots and lots of money" bit. (Then again, probably not.) "Filho de mil putas, the two of you should just go have a drink and punch each other until you get tired. But yes. You, Jack Bell, you go with him. You are English, you draw less attention."

"And you?"

Da Souza smiled, revealing that sharp canine that always looked in search of a nearby neck to bite down on. "I am sure I can do some good business of my own, yes?"

"Er, right." Sam was about to ask, then decided that whatever a Spanish spy would be up to in one of England's most vital economic centers was a question better left unexplored. They were currently anchored in the Narrows, the thin spit of water that separated Saint Kitts and Nevis; true to its name, it was only a few miles wide, and the steep-sided cliffs of either island rose closely to either side of the Senaita, which was the name of Da Souza's vessel. It sounded almost pretty, though Sam had quickly learned that it was in fact a vulgar Portuguese term for a woman's private parts. It was just a bit south down to the coast to Nevis' capital and largest settlement, which was called (ironically) Charlestown. But as Da Souza could not approach and enter openly, Jack and Sam would have to take the launch and row.

It required more arguing over the logistics, but this finally managed to occur. With a murmured word in low-voiced Spanish exchanged between Jack and Da Souza, which Sam watched with narrowed eyes, they climbed into the small boat, put the oars in the locks, and set off across the tranquil blue water. It was still early, and mist drifted in spiraling, ghostly columns like the Israelites' pillar of cloud, seabirds soaring and cawing in the updrafts. Sam could feel sweat beading on the back of his neck, shoulders straining as he pulled the oars. "What'd you say to him? Planning to stab me in a dark alley and make it look like an accident?"

"If I stab you, believe me, it will not be an accident."

"You know, mate." Sam let go long enough to wipe his forehead with the back of his arm. "You ever considered lightening up?"

Jack glared at him. "I can't believe I'm stuck with the worst bloody pirate in the history of pirates."

"Thought you didn't like pirates." Sam resumed rowing. "That's the sense I got, anyway. Though you sometimes don't sound far off from one yourself, what with English tyrants this, angry at the world that. So why would you care if I was one or not?"

"If you were a pirate, at least you might be useful." Jack pulled his oars without a pause, probably just to show that he could. Prick. "Instead you're – I don't know what you are, but it's not looking likely to get me out of this alive, and I do happen to care about that."

"Güemes stuck us together, that's not my fault. As for getting out of it alive, might be easier if you worked with me a little. I might not be a genius, but I'm also not a terrible bloke. Try it, you might like me."

Jack snorted. "I don't think I'm in any danger of that."

"Why not?" Sam was stung. People often liked him, and he was proud of that. He might not have the same skills as the rest of his family, but then, they weren't overflowing with friends (especially certain ones of them). "Just going to write me off at the start, for whatever you have against me that isn't my bloody fault? You chose where you were born and how, eh? Well, neither did I. So find a legitimate reason to dislike me, or sod off to your precious Spaniards, not that they actually trust you or ever will. Your neck's on the line as much as mine, as you yourself have noted, so all your toadying isn't going to do you the fat lot of good."

Jack's dark eyes flared. "It's not toadying."

"Oh yeah? Then what is it?"

"I've – " Jack started to say something else, realized that he had no call to account himself to Sam, and stopped. Tersely he said, "I've made choices, just as you have, not that I expect you to understand. You're fighting for something? Well, so am I. Leave it there."

Sam regarded the older boy for a moment, as they entered the breakwater of Charlestown harbor, sculled past the anchored slavers, and drew close to the piers. They looked enough alike – both tall and rangy, with long black hair and sun-browned skin – that it was possible to mistake them for brothers, not that he thought Jack would agree to such a demeaning subterfuge. Not if it means pretending to be related to me, anyway. He experienced another unwelcome prickle of insecurity, his ever-present fear that his family was ashamed of him, and did not want to feel it in regard to someone he had just met, who had a stick wedged very far up his arse and a streak of darkness that it would better not to cross. Sam wasn't afraid of anyone, as noted by his habit of impertinence to very important people, but he was nonetheless a bit apprehensive around Jack. He didn't even know why. Jack hadn't done anything, yet, to pose an open threat. It just hung around him somehow, the sense that pissing him off or pushing him too far would have unforeseen and dangerous consequences. Sam was generally adept at that sort of thing, somewhat too much for his own good, but he didn't want to tiptoe around the bastard, especially when he preferred to be friends with people rather than expend the unnecessary energy to hate them. If Jack was going to make that complicated, well. He'd deal with it later.

They reached the piers, bumped ashore, tied up the boat, and headed up the street, which was just beginning to open its shutters and hang out its shingles for business. Sam attempted to look authoritatively as if he knew where he was going, though all Geneva had said was that the man was on Nevis. He noticed that most of the people going about the morning routine were slaves, and swallowed another pang of anger. Slavery was a subject particularly close to his family's heart, and Sam's namesake had been known for his passionate fight against it – the Whydah had been a slaver before he took her, he had a number of free Negroes on his crew, and the slaves of Nassau had risen up against Rogers and Gold in his name and that of the Maroons who had perished with him in the Whydah's wreck. Sam Bellamy would not have been the slightest bit accepting of this setup, therefore, and Sam Jones could not help but wonder if he was also failing in the honor of the name, especially with Bellamy's bloody nephew striding alongside him and giving him occasional judgmental looks. Who knows, it might be a good thing if I die. That way at least I can't co*ck it up any further.

At the top of the street, they found something that looked vaguely like a bookshop, though the legend painted on the sign was J.A. Hamilton, Scrivener. Sam considered it, decided it was a good place to start as any, then shrugged and pushed through. "Good morning. Anyone here?"

Inside, the property turned out to be a small and narrow clerk's cupboard, the sort of place where people would go to have legal documents drafted – wills, marriage contracts, property deeds, shipping registers, and doubtless several dozen bills of sale for slaves. Vigorous ringing of the tarnished handbell finally produced the clerk, a rather pale and sneezy-looking young man with red hair and a strong Scottish accent. "Ah, good mornin' then, can I be helpin' ye at all?"

"You sell charts? Or know the man who does? Sailing charts."

J.A. Hamilton blinked. "Er – sailin' charts? No, I dinna think we have those. If you're needing a scrip of credit, though, I can – "

"My sister told me about a man on Nevis who sold them." Sam wished he had paid more attention, but it had been another one of Geneva's sailing stories, and he'd heard plenty. Hence his oversight was now biting him in the arse, since of course it was. "Listen, Jimbo, if you can just point us in the right direction, we can – "

"James," the clerk said indignantly. "My name's James, son o' the laird of Grange, in Ayrshire."

"The son of a laird's stuck out here as a clerk in the West Indies?" Sam raised an eyebrow. "What'd you do to cheese him off, mate?"

James Hamilton was clearly not interested in answering questions of this nature, though Sam vaguely recalled that the laird of Grange was one Alexander, some or another of the various Hamilton family cousins – which included Lord Archibald Hamilton, former governor of Jamaica, notorious Jacobite, and first employer of the privateer Henry Jennings, and the late Lord Alfred Hamilton, his uncle Thomas's father (and equally notorious sh*tweasel, by the sounds of things). It seemed they fancied names with the letter A, for sure, but in any event, that was beside the point, and James would not be deterred. "D'ye want a legal paper or not?"

"No," Sam said, exasperated. "Charts. Maps. Sailing bits. Know where the bloke went?"

"Oh, ye mean auld Donald Kerr." At long last, comprehension lit in Hamilton's eyes behind the pince-nez. "He died, a few months back. His collection got auctioned off, dinna ken where all the rubbish went. Sorry, hope it wasna important."

"Hope it wasn't important?" Sam suppressed a very strong urge to scream. "Well, you're just brimming with useful information today, aren't you?"

Hamilton gave him a sniffy look, as if to ask what he was supposed to personally do, which might have been true, but was detrimental to Sam's aims of being annoyed about it. Seeing as they were not about to get anything else, he turned and marched out the door. "Totally crap excuse for a relative, that one," he remarked. "Nice change for it not to be me."

"Relative?" Jack looked at him strangely. "How on earth is he related to you?"

"He's not, technically speaking. He's some son of a cousin of my great-uncle's father. Though I think Grandpa killed him – the father, that is, because he was terrible, but never mind. He made their life hell since Granny and Great-Uncle Thomas were married, and he definitely – "

"Wait, what?" Jack was even more confused. "Your great-uncle is married to your grandmother? Isn't she married to, you know, your grandfather? And isn't that incest?"

"Yes, she is, but she's also married to Uncle Thomas – he's not really my uncle, it's just what me and Geneva and Henry always called him. They were married first, but Grandpa and Granny got married later on, and once they found out Uncle Thomas was still alive, they all got together again – Grandpa and Uncle Thomas are just about married too." Seeing Jack's completely blank expression, Sam faltered. "It's, ah. It's complicated."

"Clearly," Jack muttered. "Well, who is this Kerr fellow and can we find him?"

"According to Cousin Barney in there, he's dead, so that's not going to work." Sam kicked a paving stone in frustration. "Unless we can track down whoever bought his collection, which also isn't going to work, so – "

"It could," Jack pointed out. "Our friend might even have drafted up the bill of sale. We could go over his books, though I'm not clear what exactly we are looking for."

Sam hesitated. "A map," he said, which was, after all, not a lie. "There are some copies of Henry Avery's old charts I'd like to have a peek at."

"Henry Avery's charts," Jack repeated, with unflattering skepticism. "As in the legendary Henry Avery, pirate captain, because those are just lying around."

"Never know until you ask, do you?" Ignoring the further look of deep dudgeon thrown at him, Sam flung the scrivener's door open again and ducked inside. "Oy, Brutus, we're back. Need to have a look at any bills you might have done for Kerr's collection, and make it snappy."

"My name is not Brutus, and I dinna recall you have any right to – "

"Go get the sale books, Bartleby," Jack ordered. "Hurry up."

James Hamilton looked deeply miffed, as Sam shot a covert sidelong look at his companion – was that evidence of a sense of humor, lurking somewhere beneath all the gruff? "No. Ye canna compel me to do any such thing. And if ye carry on disturbin' me like a pair of wastrels, I will fetch the constables directly and – "

Jack sighed, cracked his knuckles, and with no preliminary whatsoever, just a swift, short, out-of-nowhere movement, punched the scrivener in the face. "Of course we can compel you," he informed the literally gobsmacked Hamilton. "Go get the f*cking books."

Hamilton's mouth hung open, he sniffed back a few drops of blood, and seemed to briefly debate whether it was worth it to go mano-a-mano, at which the answer appeared to be no – he was only a year or two older than Sam, and he was considerably shorter than Jack. He shut his mouth with a click and scuttled off, as Sam eyed his companion sidelong again for a rather different reason. He appreciated the efficiency, and it wasn't as if he thought Hamilton would permanently suffer from a good whack in the nose, but that was exactly the reason why he knew he had to be careful. Jack had already said that if he stabbed him, it wouldn't be an accident, and seeing that, Sam couldn't be sure that he would at all hesitate in doing it.

Hamilton returned a few minutes later with a ledger, which he thrust at them with a baleful expression, and Sam, feeling remorseful, pulled some of his hard-stolen silver out of his pocket. Da Souza's men hadn't appreciated it, but it was legal tender here, so Hamilton likely would. "Hey. Sorry for the mess. We'll be on our way."

They stepped outside, set the ledger on a low brick wall, and paged through it, trying to decipher Hamilton's cramped and scrawling handwriting. At last, they came to the entries for the late Kerr's collection, and Sam ran a finger down the list of purchasers, muttering imprecations about the inconvenience of people just up and dying when they shouldn't. This didn't look terribly useful anyway. Just a bunch of bored rich twits, probably, decorating their drawing rooms with authentic nautical foofaraw in an attempt to look as if they knew far more about the whole thing than they definitely did not actually –

It was the last name that caught at Sam. Caught at him because as far as he knew, the man it belonged to was dead. Had been dead for a long time, and while he and Mum had been friends once, he had also been – more bitterly and notoriously – ultimately mortal enemies with Grandpa. In fact, Sam blinked once and then again, thinking he might be misreading. It could, of course, be someone else. But it was there. It stayed the same.

B. Bones.

Chapter 6: VI

Chapter Text

The city of Bristol and James Joseph Hawkins, Junior, did not get along. In fact it was some time since they had even been on terms of cordial acquaintance, and the relationship only appeared to be deteriorating. It was the general opinion that a young man of nearly five-and-twenty should have a proper and honest occupation by now, perhaps even a wife and child, but the problem with the proper and honest occupations was that they did not like Jim either. He had enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of sixteen, thinking to follow in the footsteps of his father and of his distant ancestor Sir John Hawkins, the famous Elizabethan seafarer, adventurer, explorer, and defeater of the Spanish Armada (along with his cousin, Sir Francis Drake), but the Navy was a bloody cesspool of human misery, sh*t, blood, and weak grog, and Jim's habit of disrespect to his superiors had not helped the problem. It was a mark of the impression he had made that even the Navy, which was normally so desperate for able-bodied men that the press-gangs would kidnap apprentice greengrocers if needed, decided it could not tolerate him. He had been drummed out in disgrace, sent home to the disappointment of his mother and the dismay of their neighbors, and spent a few aimless months accomplishing nothing in particular. He tried to help out at the old Benbow, the inn the widowed Sarah Hawkins ran on the waterfront, but "help" was rarely accomplished when Jim was involved. He earned a few shillings working as a longshoreman, loading and unloading the cargo of the arriving ships, fat with the spoils of the Bristol slave trade, but if he had to spend the rest of his life like this, he'd kill himself.

Jim really had not set out to be such a disappointment. He had thought several times about rejoining the Navy, as he wasn't a bad sailor and his father, James Hawkins senior, had served with distinction as purser aboard HMS Imperator, a career which had claimed his life when Jim was very young. He did not in fact remember his father at all, as Hawkins had set out to the Caribbean when Jim was only a few months old, and never returned. The story was that he had been killed by pirates, which was rather a romantic fate, but not a particularly useful one for a lonely and misfit lad whose mother loved him, but could not spare the time and effort to deal with all his troubles. It had been good for a brief pittance of money from the Admiralty, which was gone in a few years anyway, and yet one more sense that Jim had let someone else down by his failures, of hating that life so much. But not even for the sake of pleasing his father's shade could he stand to return. So he was here instead, vexing everyone else.

Most recently, Jim had tried to get a job with his uncle at the Seven Stars, the pub he ran in Thomas Lane, but as that was still close enough to the Benbow, which was located on the Narrow Quay on Prince Street, for tales of his exploits to travel, that had likewise backfired. So then it was back to the docks, from which he also managed to get himself sacked after an altercation with some miniature bastard of a cloth merchant who insisted Jim was purposefully damaging his trade goods (it was cloth, it couldn't bloody break, what was the damned problem?) That left him emphatically and, to the looks of things, all but permanently unemployed. It would be the bottle and debtor's prison for him, or something worse. At points, the gallows did not seem at all out of the question. The things he put his poor mother through, the neighbors whispered. Really, with a son like that, they did not know how Sarah stood it.

It had been the end of June when the old mariner arrived, and things changed.

Jim, put out of work and thus unhappily back at the Benbow, had been ordered to help haul and carry and otherwise make himself less than actively catastrophic. The man had not particularly caught his eye at first, as all sorts of sailors and sea dogs and old salts (and those who fancied themselves such) passed through here. Bristol was a bit of a fool place to have a port; it was seven miles inland from the Atlantic along the River Avon, so ships had to navigate the shallow estuary before reaching the sea, and you could always spot the amateurs who had come to grief in getting here. This one, however, was certainly not an amateur. He was uncommonly tall, with a grizzled grey-blonde beard, knotted muscles, and a wary, suspicious way of peering out at the world. He carried a small hardwood chest with him, banded in bronze and locked up tight, which he doted on as if it were his unmarried maiden daughter and never let out of his sight. He wore a tattered cloak and slouch hat, arrived in the Benbow's common room at nine o'clock in the morning, and was drinking in the corner by ten. The only name he gave to the startled Sarah, who had dealt with colorful customers before but not quite this, was Bones.

Jim watched him out of the corner of his eye, wondering if the urge to punch him would arise, though he hoped not; he could hurt his hand, whacking a bloke of that size. Bones' gold was good – more than good, it was some hefty old coin, etched in some old writing Jim couldn't read – so there was no reason to turn him out, but the other patrons kept eyeing him nervously. In the past, and still at times in the present, the Benbow catered to the Navy men who had been Hawkins senior's friends and colleagues, and Bones looked like the sort who, just by something in his fundamental nature, would have a problem with Navy men. Jim couldn't blame him for that, but one more run-in with the Bristol magistrate would stretch the limits of his luck to the utmost, and he wanted to avoid any dust-ups if possible. Even if he protested, truthfully, that he had not started it, they would not be surprised in the least to find him in the middle of it.

Bones drank for most of the afternoon, duly paying for each tankard brought to him, until at last, as Jim was setting down the next one – having been made to serve this particular customer, as the maidservants were afraid of him – he cracked a bleary eye and regarded Jim with a blend of curiosity and hostility. "Don't you have something better to be doing, lad?"

"No, actually." Jim picked up the empty stein. "Don't you?"

Bones looked as if he was thinking of saying something tart in response, but conceded the point with a grunt. "Ale's good," he said, evidently by way of explanation. "And I've a while to wait. You hire rooms?"

"We're full up," Jim said, which was a lie, but he doubted anyone wanted this hobo loitering around any longer than necessary. "You can try the Seven Stars, that's my uncle's pub."

"Seven Stars?" At last, something flickered in Bones' blurred eyes. "The one on Thomas Lane?"

"Aye. Why? Heard of it?"

"Was there a time or several as a lad. My parents were printers. In Plymouth. Fixed up pamphlets about tyranny and slavery and man's right to determine his own destiny. They traveled there often to hold meetings, and I'd sell the pamphlets for two groats." Bones smiled bitterly, half to himself. "That was what got me snatched by the press gangs, I always reckoned. In retaliation."

Jim was surprised, not least that this weathered old tree stump actually had parents and had ever been young. "You're from Plymouth, then? Turning up here to visit old haunts?"

"This is my first time back in England since I was kidnapped. I was thirteen." Bones' basilisk stare remained unswerving. "It still reeks of mold and sh*t."

Jim could not deny that. He shot a glance back over his shoulder, but the evening wasn't that busy (doubtless in part due to Bones himself scaring off the customers) and his mother appeared to have it under control. He hesitated, then took a seat. "So where've you been?"

"Around." Bones' mouth twisted.

"You planning to keep going?"

"What's it to you if I am?"

"If you were in the market for an assistant before you left, well." Jim shrugged. "I'm available."

Bones stared at him, then barked a laugh. "Wanting to take up with me, boy? You really must be desperate."

This was of course true, but Jim did not feel like admitting it. Affecting casualness, he plucked up one of the half-finished tankards and took a drink. "I've been stuck here ever since they th – I, ah, I left the Navy. Think it'd be better for everyone if I found somewhere else to go."

"Former Navy?" Bones' voice said that he had a number of opinions on this, equally divided between rampant hatred for the bastards and Jim's decision to ever join in the first place, and grudgingly commending him for being smart enough (or rather, troublesome enough) to leave. "Better than current, I suppose."

"My father was." Jim didn't know what possessed him to bring it up, but Bones had mentioned his own parents earlier, and this was the longest conversation he had had without being shouted at in too depressingly long a time to remember. "In the Navy, that is. I tried to make it work for his sake, but it. . . didn't."

"Father?"

"Aye. I had one too. Also James Hawkins, he was the purser on HMS Imperator. He was killed a long time ago, though. In Nassau, by the pirates."

Something definitely flickered in Bones' eyes at that. "HMS Imperator, you say? Was that before or after she turned pirate herself?"

"Wait, what?"

"You don't know? The Imperator became one of the most notorious pirate ships in the Caribbean, the Jolie Rouge. Under the command of one Captain Hook." Bones' mouth twisted even further. "Taken over by Captain Rackham after the war, or so I heard later. Your father one of those scurvy brigands, then?"

"No. He was an honorable man, a loyal one. The Admiralty specially commended his devotion to duty in the letter they sent to my mother." Jim looked down. "I was just a baby when it happened. He'd. . . probably be disappointed in me."

Bones considered briefly, then hauled himself to his feet, scooping up the chest. "I'll see your mother about a room, then."

"Ah – " Jim hesitated. "Well, er, I did say that we were full – "

Bones gave him a look as if to say that this had been so transparently a lie that he had not wasted a moment's thought on it, and that he had dealt in his day with such an advanced class of liars that Jim would have to do much better to even qualify. Wavering only slightly from the considerable quantity of ale he had consumed, he stumped off, got himself a room – the Benbow was a bit down at heel these days, they couldn't be turning away admittedly well-paying customers – and went upstairs. That left Jim still none the wiser about his full name, why he had turned up in England now after what must be close to forty years overseas, who or what he was waiting for, how long he planned to stay, what was in the chest – and what he knew about Nassau. Jim could be mistaken, but he was quite sure that Bones had registered that on considerably more than an abstract historical-interest level. He knows something. Might have been there during its glory days, with Flint and Vane and Hornigold, Blackbeard and Bellamy and the rest. (Jim had read A General History of the Pyrates several times, and was felt to have more interest in this subject than was entirely healthy for anyone's peace of mind.)

That was how it went for the next week. Bones sat in the common room, drinking steadily, or went out on hours-long errands, returning late after the doors had been locked (most taverns only had a license to operate until nine o'clock at night on working days, ten o'clock on Saturdays) and obliging Jim to go down grumbling to open them and let him in. "You do realize there's a curfew, don't you?" he demanded, after the third such incident. "You'll be swept up by the constables if you keep doing this, and I'm guessing neither of us want any better of an acquaintance with them."

Bones looked at him with a brief, guarded flash of amusem*nt. "Local miscreant?"

Jim squirmed. "I'd just like to avoid it."

Bones studied him for a long moment. Then he said abruptly, "Very well. I'll cease these expeditions if you tell me – and only me – if there's a letter or any other message from a Lady Murray. Also, if you spot anywhere, or even hear about, the presence of a one-legged man."

"A one-legged man?" Jim blinked. "What's this one called, Hopper?"

"No." Bones did not look amused. "As a matter of fact, Silver."

"Friend of yours?"

"Definitely not." Bones' tone had turned even cooler. "Just do it."

"What's in it for me?"

"Aside from avoiding run-ins with the constables? Here."

With that, he unclicked the locks on the chest with a complicated set of spins (Jim tried to follow, but quickly lost track), reached in, and pulled out a ruby the size of his thumbnail, which he casually lobbed at the startled young Hawkins. Jim managed to catch it, and before Bones slammed the lid, he thought he caught a glimpse of something rolled up – maps, or charts, or something that looked navigational of some sort. "Bloody hell," he said, turning the ruby so it caught the low light, winking scarlet in its facets. "Where'd you get this?"

Bones grunted, checking that the chest was locked again and hoisting it under his arm. He appeared set to stagger off to bed, then stopped. "You ever heard of Captain Flint?"

"Flint?" Jim blinked again. "The master of the Walrus? I've read the stories, aye. He's dead, though, isn't he? Been dead a while."

Bones did that now-familiar facial expression where he was deciding not to say anything. "Plenty of men have claimed to be him before they hanged, yes. Good night."

He headed off down the dim hall before Jim knew quite how to respond, more confused than ever. He wasn't sure that half of this was not paranoid ranting and raving; Bones wasn't exactly insensible with drink, but he was a long way from sounding sane and sensible – one-legged men, letters from a mysterious lady, that odd question about Flint as if he expected Jim to know a legendary pirate captain personally. Jim had paid a visit to the Seven Stars the other day, though, and his uncle dimly recalled hearing about a William and Anne Bones, printers from Plymouth, who had used the place for meetings many years ago. They had had a son, he was also fairly sure, but didn't know if he had ever heard the boy's name. This had all happened during his predecessor's tenure as landlord anyway, so he couldn't be sure. Why the sudden interest, anyway?

Jim had made some noncommittal noise – he thought it was for the best if word did not get around that an old firebrand and scion of subversive intellectual stock was staying at the Benbow – but it at least confirmed that Bones was, so far as that went, telling the truth. Jim could not deny that he was burning up with curiosity, and this did give him something to think about apart from the dismal prospects of his future. He could also not exactly stroll up to a merchant in the street and spend the ruby, so he would either have to get all the way to London, to the Bank of England on Threadneedle-street, and obtain an exchange into currency, or visit one of the counting houses along the docks. As he was clearly not going to London, that left the latter option, but those bastards cheated fit to outdo the Devil Himself, and they definitely also hated Jim. He'd just keep it for now. As a down payment.

The following week likewise did not stimulate any sudden desire on Bones' part to be forthcoming, and Jim decided to take matters into his own hands. It had been over a fortnight of him loitering around and drinking their casks dry, there had been a near-altercation with a snippy fresh-promoted lieutenant off HMS Glory, and Sarah Hawkins was starting to fear what rumors might attach to them if this kept up. Jim knew that he had caused her a good deal of heartache and worry already, and this at least was in his power to do something about, so he bought a seat on the public stagecoach that made the weekly circuit between Bristol and Plymouth. It was a hot, jouncing, stuffy three-day ride for the hundred and twenty miles south, stopping at various rural hamlets to collect the post along the way, sitting across from a middle-aged gentlewoman and her two frilly daughters who eyed him disapprovingly from behind their fans, but he arrived more or less in one piece.

The Bones parents were long dead, but after combing through the gravestones in St. Andrew's churchyard, Jim finally found them – put in an out-of-the-way corner and heavily grown over, with no other living relative to tend their upkeep. (Likely as well they had not made themselves popular in the community for their rabble-rousing.) But by taking the dates, recalling that Bones had said he was snatched by the pressers when he was thirteen, and reckoning him to be in his middle fifties, Jim went to the parish archives, concocted some tale about doing a favor for an elderly relative, and flipped through the dusty old baptismal registers, squinting at their bloody awful handwriting, until he finally hit on it. One William Fitzgilbert Bones IV, son of William Fitzgilbert Bones III and Anne Cranmer Bones, had received the sacrament of Anglican baptism on the thirty-first of May, 1683 A.D., eleven days after his birth on the twentieth.

Seeing as the dates, the names, and the location all matched, Jim could be quite confident in feeling that he had found his man. Searching a few years on for the confirmation noted it as being given to "Billy," and he disappeared from the records altogether after the winter of 1696. If he had been back to England at any point in the subsequent forty-four years, it had not been here.

Billy Bones, then? Jim could swear that the name was faintly familiar, though for the life of him he could not think why. He headed out and gritted his teeth for the return journey to Bristol, this time eyed up by a weedy country solicitor and a young vicar who already looked set to die of consumption, and wondered if he should confront Billy with his findings. Not that it offered any clarity on his present or future, only confirmation of his past, and nothing very helpful at that. Whoever he was waiting for, this Lady Murray or otherwise, they should damn well hurry up and get here. Either Billy did something or he didn't, but either way, Jim's patience was running short. Make a move, or bloody leave.

He finally got back to Bristol on a particularly sticky late-summer night; the trip had taken an extra four days due to the coach breaking an axle in Exeter. As Jim was climbing out, stiff and sweaty and hungry and otherwise out of sorts, he caught sight of a man and a woman making their way up the docks from a recently anchored ship. The woman was stylishly dressed in black, high-cheekboned and beautiful, and the man was around Billy's age, with brown-grey curls and a scruffy beard – not to mention a thoroughly distempered look. Something about them caught Jim's attention, and as he trailed after them, as they reached the street and set off, he realized to his considerable surprise that they were also making for the Benbow. Bloody hell, is that her? Bones' mysterious Lady Murray? Who's the other bloke, then?

He followed them at an unsuspicious distance, and once they had gone inside, waited a few minutes and then did the same. The woman was having rather demanding words with poor Sarah Hawkins, while the man was standing stock still, looking like an ox that had been hit on the head. "Christ," he muttered. "It's exactly the bloody same."

"Scuse," Jim said. "Can I help you?"

The man started, looked around – and if he had been confronted by a ghost to walk into the Benbow, it was twice that to lay eyes on Jim. He blanched. "Hawkins?"

"Wait, what? My name is Hawkins, aye. Jim Hawkins. But I don't recall we've met."

"No, we. . . we haven't." The man belatedly composed himself, running a hand over his face. "I'm. . . I'm sorry. You look very much like your father, is all."

That, to say the least, Jim had not expected. His heart skipped a beat. "You knew my father?"

"I knew him well, yes." The newcomer swallowed and glanced down, before meeting Jim's gaze as forthrightly as possible. "My name is Captain Liam Jones. Your father served as purser under me on HMS Imperator, from the moment my brother and I took over the ship. He was a good man. All but a father to us as well, in many ways."

"You're the captain of the Imp – ?" The surprises were coming thick and fast. It seemed uncouth to ask if Captain Jones was aware that his old vessel was, according to Billy, a pirate ship, but this was the first time that Jim had ever met anyone who had served with his father – much less his former commanding officer. "The devil are you doing in Bristol, then? Er, sir?"

"That," Captain Jones said grimly, "I very much want to know myself. I was removed from my home by her – " he tilted his head scathingly at the woman in black, still haggling with Mrs. Hawkins – "and have been allowed no opportunity to send word to my wife. Mrs. Regina Jones, of the Rue Malebranche in Paris. If there's any way you can help me dispatch a letter – "

"That won't be necessary." The woman in black had evidently overheard him, even though he had been speaking quietly, and turned to regard them with a pleasant smile. "Surely you recall Sarah Hawkins, Captain? Come, make your greetings."

"I – Mrs. Hawkins." Liam Jones politely doffed his hat. "It has been a. . . very long time."

"Liam?" Sarah blinked, then stared. "Liam Jones?"

"Aye, the same."

"This has been an age and then some, my heavens! Where's Killian? We did hear some dread tales about what happened to him, but I never believed them. Your brother was always such a sweet lad. Still the politest lieutenant I've ever met."

Liam's mouth tightened. "Killian is. . . likewise enjoying a quiet retirement. He lives with his family in America."

"Oh, really? America, fancy that. Whereabouts?"

Liam's eyes flickered to the woman in black, who was listening avidly. "The Colonies, someplace. It's been many years since I've seen him, they could have moved."

"That will be strange, then," Sarah said sympathetically. "The two of you were always together before."

Liam nodded, seemingly at a loss for words, and the silence was poignant until the woman in black clapped her hands. "Captain, don't you want to vouch for us to your old colleague's wife? Seeing them again after so long, it would be a shame for the reunion to go sour all at once. Likewise, insisting on sending word to your wife – we don't want young Jimmy in any more trouble, do we? Poor lad suffered enough, especially growing up without his father."

Jim was insulted at being spoken of as if he was five, not twenty-five – for all his missteps and misadventures, he was an adult, if perhaps a completely sh*t one – and thus missed the sinister undertone in this. Indeed, he only realized that there had been one by the look of pale, barely restrained fury on Liam's face. After a moment, sounding choked, he said, "Sarah, if you would see fit to provide lodgings to Lady Murray and myself for the time being, I think everyone would be grateful. We shouldn't be long. For – for James' memory."

Jim supposed that this was in reference to his father, even as his mother's eyes welled up, she came around to hug Liam, and promised that of course the Jones brothers were always welcome beneath her roof. Liam himself hugged her with such an anguished, guilty expression – which only Jim saw – that it finally clicked. Lady Murray was not-so-subtly threatening Jim, Sarah, and the entire Benbow if Liam withheld or complicated his compliance in any way, and given what he had said about being snatched from the streets in France, it seemed that he was not here of his own volition. But whatever the bloody hell the whole lot of them were cooking up, Jim had rather suddenly lost any taste to play along.

He kept trying to get a moment alone with his mother that evening, to warn her, but the supper hour was ludicrously busy, and they and the barmaids were all run off their feet. When the rush finally subsided, he tried to pull Sarah aside in the scullery, but Lady Murray – who seemed to have a dozen ears – popped up on the instant with some query about the rooms she had purchased, and Sarah was obliged to take her upstairs to sort it out. Jim stood swearing under his breath, then spun on his heel and marched into the emptying common room, where Liam and Billy – Jones and Bones, it sounded like the opening to a tuppence vaudeville – were sitting in a corner and glaring at each other suspiciously. It was difficult to imagine a meeting of two more stubborn individuals, or two set so intractably to either side of an affair and forced unwillingly into conjunction. The only question is who blows first.

"So," Jim said flatly, coming to a halt in front of them and folding his arms. "Tugging my mother's heartstrings to advance you and your lady friend's slimy little intrigues, Captain? And to think my father respected you."

It was contentious, purposefully so, as he good and damn well intended to provoke Liam into a response one way or another. In this it succeeded, as the older man's face flushed brick red. "I have nothing to do with Lady Murray, or her intrigues. I am staying, in fact, because I fear what she'd do to you and your mother if I tried to leave. But – "

"She said she'd recruit us a captain," Billy interrupted. "I bloody well wasn't expecting it to be you. And are you going to tell the landlady what really happened to your brother, or should I?"

Liam grimaced. His voice when he spoke, however, was chillingly cold. "If you put Killian, or the rest of his family, in danger for the sake of your old f*cking grudge against Flint, I swear – "

"Flint?" Jim broke in. "As in the same Flint you were asking me about, Billy?"

That caught Bones, finally, decidedly on the hop. "I – how did you – "

"Went to Plymouth," Jim informed him. "You're from there, just as you said. Billy Bones – that's you, isn't it? I haven't worked out what the hell you're up to, or how the rest of you fit in, but you leave my mother and the Benbow out of it. This old place is all she has, it's not making as much as it used to, and I, well, I've not made her job any easier. If you need headquarters for your evil plots, piss off somewhere else. I don't care if you and my father used to sail together, Captain. I tried the Navy myself. Didn't take."

That, at least, sufficiently surprised Liam and Billy so that neither of them had an immediate response. Then the former said, "Jim, I – "

"Shut it," Jim said, more wearily than anything. "For what it's worth, I did reckon that you weren't here because you wanted to be. But I want some answers, and I want them now. What's in that chest? What are you scheming? And what would a bloody one-legged man, or a supposedly dead pirate captain, have to do with any of this?"

Liam and Billy exchanged a look, briefly forced into alliance by their mutual unwillingness to explain – Liam to try to keep Jim out of danger, Billy because he was clearly a true believer with a very large axe to grind against person or person(s) unknown, and Jim was starting to have more than an inkling that it might just be Captain Flint. There was another hesitation. Then Liam said, "I scarcely know much more than you. All I have been told is that Lady Murray wanted my old connections here in Bristol, and now that evidently I am being recruited as a captain for a voyage. It is customary, in case it's slipped your mind, to tell said captain where that bloody is."

Billy ignored the sarcasm. "Leave if you want, Jones. I was confident in our ability to manage the plan without a third party, so I won't be trying to stop you. Besides, I'm the one with the bearings, so unless I give them up – "

"The bearings." At that, a dawning look of realization, and further anger, crossed Liam's face. "Oh, Christ. She told me in the carriage, but I didn't think anyone would be that foolish. You really are trying to hunt down Skeleton Island, aren't you? That's what this is about. You have – or think you have – a way to find the damn place and retrieve the treasure, and you've offered to sell the information to Lady Murray in exchange for whatever favor she's promised you. Whatever she wants the money for, God knows, but it can't be good. What's so bloody worth making bargains with her?"

"You tell me." Billy remained unyielding. "Haven't you climbed into bed with a few devils in your own day, all for your personal benefit?"

Liam opened his mouth, made an angry sputtering noise, and shut it. Jim, for his part, was still hung up on the earlier bit. "Skeleton Island? Isn't that just a story?"

"No," Billy said, still more darkly. "Trust me, it's real. I was marooned there for three years."

Just as Jim was about to remark that this seemed to explain a great deal about Billy's character and general personality, it struck him that he had not seen his mother for a while – that he had indeed let her go upstairs alone with Lady Murray, even when warning her about the woman was precisely what he meant to do. He jumped to his feet, heart in his throat, even as he thought he smelled something from neither hearth nor lantern nor lamp. Smoke.

"Son of a bitch," Jim said, pivoting around and starting to run. "Son of a bitch!"

He thought either Liam or Billy might have shouted after him, but he did not stop to hear. He crashed up the narrow stairs, heard doors opening and the Benbow's other guests hurrying out with alarmed shouts, and could very definitely see a dark cloud billowing from under the door at the end. He sprinted down the corridor and yanked and rattled at the handle, but it was locked. "Mother? Mother!"

There was no answer from within, and Jim slammed his shoulder into the latch hard enough to bruise. The smoke was intensifying quickly, stinging his eyes and searing his throat, and if he ran downstairs long enough to find something to break it with, it could be too late to make it back. He wrenched and pounded again, able to hear the crackle of flames, and was just about to try taking a running start and diving into the door headfirst when someone shoved him aside. Liam, cravat soaked in water and tied over his nose and mouth, battered violently at the wood with the poker from the kitchen hearth, until it finally splintered. "I'll get her!" he yelled at Jim. "Run!"

Jim remained exactly where he was, as he did not trust this man with his mother's safety. Yet in a few moments, Liam emerged from the eerie orange glow with the unconscious Sarah Hawkins slung over his shoulder – at least Jim hoped it was unconscious, as the alternative did not bear thinking of – and Liam grabbed him by the arm, dragging him along the corridor as it blackened behind them. They made it to the stairs and clattered down, through the common room, and burst into the dark street, just in time to hear the roar as first the wall, and then the roof, crashed in fiery fountains. Bells had started to ring in alarm, and the neighbors were forming a bucket brigade from the riverfront. Jim ran to assist, as a fire in old, wooden, crowded buildings like this was everyone's worst nightmare. The Great Fire of London in 1666, less than a hundred years ago, had started as a similar small, isolated blaze, and would have flattened the entire city if it had reached the gunpowder stocks in the Tower. There might not be a fully loaded armory here, but given his already delicate relationship with Bristol, Jim could not help but think that burning the lot of it down – even if it was not directly his responsibility – would be regarded very dimly indeed. Bloody hell. Bloody, bloody hell.

It took countless buckets, an assist from the stout brass fire engine with its pump crew, and the sacrifice of several nearby barrels, troughs, and anything else that could hold water, but they finally got the fire out before it could spread down Prince Street. This, however, came far too late to save the Benbow. It was a burnt-out, steaming husk, charred beams tilting and falling in thunders of ash and soot, embers still spitting sparks, as the neighbors gathered in anxious, muttering knots before turning their communal accusing stare on Jim. "Mr. Hawkins. Care to explain?"

"Look, for once, this is not my bloody fault." Jim shoved through the crowd to where Liam was crouched by Sarah, helping her to sit up and weakly sip some water. His heart turned over with relief at seeing her alive, as he threw himself to his knees next to her. "Jesus, Mother, are you – that bloody witch started it, didn't she? Lady Murray? Where'd she – "

He glanced around, as if expecting to see the woman, but he could not spot either her or Billy among the crowd. It was probably far too much to hope that the bloody pair of them had just up and died, and Jim wasn't normally the sort to wish that on folk – a nice crisp roasting around the edges as a sharp lesson, sure, but burning to death seemed a bit much. Still, he stood up. "Anyone seen her? Woman in black, looks like she'll eat your ballocks for breakfast? Or the other one, the big blonde bastard? Bones?"

Blank looks greeted this enquiry, as it hit Jim that his efforts to keep Bones' presence under wraps had evidently worked too well – either they did not know who he was talking about, or figured he was seizing on a harmless old drifter as a convenient culprit for his own crime. Why they thought he'd want to burn down the Benbow was a mystery, but he had to admit it was just the sort of thing they would expect from him, inadvertently or not. It didn't help that he did feel bloody responsible – if he'd not let his mother go off alone with Lady Murray – but why would he expect her to set the damn place afire, when she'd already gone to such effort to get Liam to secure them rooms? God, what a mess. Given how Jim had just about nailed shut the coffin on his chances of getting work anywhere else in Bristol, there was no obvious way of paying for the repair, or much money to support them in the meantime. He did still have the ruby Billy had given him, as he kept it in his pocket, which he'd now have to fence somewhere, but –

A brief and mad idea crossed Jim's mind, but was gone as quickly as it had come. Besides, Billy and Lady Murray were gone, literally up in smoke, so there was no way of finding Skeleton Island even if it was real. Instead, he looked back at his mother. "Hey. I'm sorry, I should never – if I'd known Lady Murray was going to do that – she did, didn't she?"

"N-no." Sarah Hawkins shook her head, eyes wide and staring in her soot-smeared face. "No. She didn't."

"What?" Jim was not remotely about to buy that this had been a coincidental accident. "What do you mean, she – "

"He did," Sarah insisted. "He did."

"What? Bones? We were downstairs with him the whole time, I'm not sure I like him either, but this at least, he – "

"No. No, he did."

"Mother, you're not making any sense." Jim frowned at her. Glancing up at Liam, he demanded, "There wasn't anyone else in the room, was there?"

"No." Liam looked unnerved, as well as rather offended at the resulting implication that he would have left them to burn alive if so. "Only her, not any – "

"He did!" Sarah raised a shaking hand – and pointed directly at Liam.

There was a brief, stunned silence, and then a murmur of anger. Jim was equally startled, as well as about to note that he had likewise been downstairs with Liam the whole time, not to mention that Liam had saved her life. But an instant of doubt caught at him – if Liam had set it somehow while Jim was distracted trying to talk to his mother, sat back and waited, and thus known to get upstairs so quickly and rush to the rescue – and that prevented him from saying anything long enough for the notion to immediately take root among the crowd, fractious and on edge and searching for someone to blame. They advanced on Liam and the Hawkinses, reaching out, as they grabbed hold of Liam and dragged him off down the street, shouting.

Jim did not think they were going to string him up from a yardarm, but it might not be out of the question. With a word to his mother telling her to wait, he managed to struggle to his feet and run after the mob. "Hey. HEY! At least take him to jail first! You can't just – "

Someone, not inclined to listen and doubtless still convinced that he was to blame somehow, backhanded him across the face, and Jim saw stars. Then someone else punched him, he had to punch back, and the whole thing devolved on the spot into a chaotic free-for-all. Jim's face hit paving stones at least twice, clenched knuckles several more times than that, and he was twisted and hauled headfirst through some reeking puddle, the citizens of Bristol finally getting a chance to vent their accumulated frustrations with him, as something else banged his chin, he bit his tongue so hard that he half-expected to spit it out, and tasted blood. Then someone lifted and flung him bodily, he hit someone else, and he and Liam Jones landed arse-first in some dismal damp cell, just in time to hear an iron grate slam shut above them. "You'll hang soon, you bastards!" someone yelled, and then they were gone.

Jim sat where he was, gasping for breath in raw, whooping gulps, a hank of chestnut hair loose and pasted to his face with mud and blood, both lips split and a fine shiner rising on his left eye. Frankly, killing someone did not sound like a bad idea after all. "I swear," he said at last. "If you did set the fire, I'll – "

"I didn't." Liam grimaced, drawing a painful few breaths of his own. "Christ as my witness, I don't know why your mother said that."

Jim wasn't sure if he should thank Liam or not, as they seemed to have gone from the frying pan, to the fire, to an even bigger fire. He worked his tongue around his mouth with a grimace, to see if any teeth were loose. "So what the f*ck are we going to do now? My mother's inn burned down, the city thinks we did it, and we'll be lucky to talk our way off a lynching. Even if your bloody friends don't turn up again, we'll just – "

"They're not my friends." Liam's voice was grimmer than ever. "And in fact, I feel more than certain that we will soon be seeing them again."

It did not take Killian long – indeed, no more than a few seconds after opening his eyes – to realize that he was on a ship. He had spent too much time in the darkness below decks not to recognize it immediately, from the reek of tar, turpentine, brine, and the stale, shut-up feel of air that never saw the sun, damp and moldering. He was lying awkwardly on his side among tightly wedged casks, wrists tied behind him and false hand gone, head still ringing from the blow that must have sent him into his just-escaped state of oblivion. The roughness of barnacled boards rasped his cheek, he could hear the slop of water as more senses slowly returned, and while he had certainly had a too-cozy acquaintance with the floor at various points in his madcap youth, it was considerably distressing, for several reasons, to find himself forced back into intimate relations with it now. Not least due to the small fact that when he had last been compos mentis, he had been on dry land, at the Nolans' estate in Charlestown, still angry but nonetheless about to go inside and hash things out with Emma. He was right about what she had done, running off alone, but she was likewise right – as usual – about him, and that instantaneous aspiration to revenge and bloodshed. No matter how long Captain Hook had been locked in his trunk, he could still pop up at inopportune and unwelcome moments, and that had been one of them.

As a result, and perhaps only fittingly, what Captain Hook was presently locked in instead was the devil of a lot more alarming than a trunk. His ankles did not seem to be tied, so either they had run out of time to properly effect his capture, or they figured that knocked stoutly over the head and hands bound was good enough to contain a gentleman of seasoned years, even a former pirate. Killian experienced a moment of intense rage at the presumption of these whippersnappers, before realizing that he had just used (or at least thought) the word "whippersnappers" in earnest, and would thus entirely deserve it if he had fallen and could not get up. This was just bloody embarrassing.

And yet, newfound sympathy with Flint's disdain for masquerading as a geriatric or not, his wits would have to step up if the rest of him was slacking on the job. The fact that they had not killed Killian outright (and who the bloody hell were "they?") and instead thrown him into the hold of a ship suggested that this had been some sort of carefully planned operation, and that he was worth more alive than dead. But the knock on his head (and doubtless, he thought blackly, general age-related forgetfulness) was making it difficult to recall any more of who might have ambushed him, or why. They had certainly made a very neat job of it. Managed to get into the Nolan estate without raising any alarm, caught Killian from behind in the dark as he never saw them or had any chance to defend himself, and incapacitated him long enough to transport him all the way aboard their getaway vessel and whatever unknown distance out to sea. Jesus, Emma must be worried sick. Unless their following move had been to storm the house and take her, Flint, and Miranda as well, along with David, Mary Margaret, and anyone else who –

At that thought, Killian began to struggle against his bonds in good earnest, twisting and grunting and swearing until he finally got his arms awkwardly wrenched over his head, found a jagged end of a beam, and rasped at the rope, back screaming, until it finally parted with a snap. He pulled off the coils and straightened up slowly, breathing hard. Being free was a promising first step, but there were probably a good deal more of them than there were of him. He would have to think this through.

Killian climbed cautiously through the barrels to the ladder, where he could just make out voices from overhead. They sounded English, not Spanish or otherwise, which increased his lurking suspicion that this had been an inside job, and when he distinctly heard the words "Lord Murray," his heart skipped a beat. Bloody hell. That was what they all got for being so merciful and forbearing and insisting that the man could not possibly be as bad as his infamous uncle. The wee bastard – unless Killian was imagining things, which he did not believe in when it came to the Gold family and their vigorous exercise of boundless annoyance – had had Killian assaulted, kidnapped, and removed to his present quandary here on his way to who-knew-bloody-where, and nobody was likely to be any the wiser. Emma must be looking for him – there was no sign of other prisoners in the hold, so for better or worse, they must have taken him alone – but if she just thought he'd up and stormed off after their fight –

Deciding that the urgency of acquiring answers was worth risking his neck, Killian started up the ladder, as a sudden hush fell in the conversation. They were afforded further leisure to contemplate their inadequacy in life when he emerged into the middle of the crew's hammocks, there was a general roll and scuffle as they dove for weapons, and Killian abruptly found himself on the business end of a dozen pistols. "Hey, lads," he remarked, holding up his hand and stump – which might have been a mistake, as it immediately brought to their attention that he was untied. "Easy."

"Get back, pirate." The nearest one – they all in fact seemed offensively young, fifteen or sixteen, though many sailors were – jabbed at him with a musket. "Or we'll – "

"Pirate?" Killian arched both eyebrows. "Well then. I've not been called that in years. What's got you all in a lather for it now?"

"We know that's what you are. Aren't you." Richard the Lionheart here administered another jab with the musket. "Hook."

"First, stop poking me with that, you fat-headed pup, unless you want a personal demonstration of why it's stupid to use a musket on a ship. Second, was it Lord Murray you kidnapped me for? Be interested to hear just what he thinks I've done."

"None of your concern, pirate. Go below and don't make no trouble, and this doesn't have to be unpleasant. Otherwise I promise, you won't – "

Killian had heard enough. These lot were utter idiots, and he wanted to get back to his wife. "Do you know why it's stupid to use a musket on a ship?"

Caught momentarily off guard, the lad blinked. "Wh – "

"Because." Killian bared his teeth in an amiable snarl. "The pirate you did a really sh*t job of snatching will wake up, come to find you, and – " Fast as a snake, he reached out, grabbed hold of the muzzle, and wrenched it out of the boy's hand, cracking the butt-end viciously over the little bastard's head hard enough to crack the stock. "Do that."

There was a brief, complete, almost impressed silence as the others regarded their dropped compatriot in considerable surprise. Unfortunately, however, they recovered quickly from the shock. They lunged at Killian as he swung the musket like a quarterstaff, managing to catch another in the gut, and a third tripped over a coil of rope. Killian ducked as a shot went off just over his head, ran for the ladder to the main deck, and encountered substantial difficulty in climbing and holding onto the gun at the same time. He had to awkwardly tuck it under his arm, nearly lost his balance, kicked out at the hands trying to grab him, and tumbled onto deck. If they were still in the harbor or even just anywhere close, he could jump overboard and swim for it. They'd doubtless shoot at him, but it was dark and in the water, they were less likely to inflict lasting damage. He sprinted to the railing, prepared to dive, and –

No sign of land. Nothing to indicate where they were or where they were bound, or how long since they had left Charlestown. Nothing but black water, and enough wind against his face to know, even without seeing, that all the sails were up and they were well underway. He could still jump, but it was as likely to end him up sucked under the keel, eaten by a shark, or just plucked straightaway out again in dripping indignity. What the bloody, bloody hell was this –

As he hesitated a split second too long, a blow crashed into the back of his head so hard that he saw white sparks, and he staggered forward, almost going over the rail anyway. The crew had, most unfortunately, caught up with him, and dragged him by the legs across the boards as he still fought to break free, getting nowhere, until another shadow fell over him. This one was a young man in a stylish coat that had once been black velvet, but was slashed and patched with red silk so as to render the garment striped, and hair that had been coiffed with bacon grease into the distinctive style that gave the Mohawk Indians their name. It looked incredibly stupid, in Killian's opinion, and he was about to express said opinion, but one of Mohawk's associated miscreants rabbit-punched him in the kidney, and he was briefly rendered unable to do so. When his spinning vision cleared, he snarled, "Who the f*ck are you?"

"Keep a civil tongue in your head, pirate." Mohawk paced nearer, evidently threateningly. He looked a bit like a Chinaman, though in this dim light, Killian could not be certain. "You know what we do to pirates?"

"Blind them with your appalling fashion choices?"

That got him a kick. "Try again."

"Ineptly assault them with your halfwit gang of juvenile delinquents?"

That got him several kicks, from all sides, as Mohawk grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head up. "My name's Rufio. Captain Rufio. This is my ship, the Pan, and you're my prisoner."

"Lord Murray sold me to the local home for troubled youths?" Killian spat out a bit of blood and regarded his teenage captors balefully. "If you were old enough to shave, I might take you seriously, but as it is – "

"You want a little moonlight swim, Hook?"

That, at least, he had decided he did not, and noxious as this bunch were, there were plenty enough of them to put him overboard. He didn't think they would, at least yet, but still. Instead of answering, he glared at them.

"Tie him up. Make sure he doesn't escape this time. Hands and feet." Rufio jerked his head at his pubescent henchmen. "If he didn't appreciate our hospitality before, I'd say he can appreciate it less. Take him below, boys. And don't feed him until I say."

And with that, and Killian utterly certain that this was the most humiliating thing that had ever happened to him in a life that had sadly not lacked them, they did.

It was six or seven hours out of Bermuda, and thus far, just as Geneva had wagered, the only trouble they had encountered were a few spits of rain, a bit of churn on the waves, and a stray gust of wind or two that sent odds and ends cartwheeling across the deck. But the Rose was stout – she kept the old girl well chinked and careened – and once she had her crew reef the topgallants and keep a careful eye on the rest of the canvas, they were even still making progress, if somewhat more slowly. Geneva herself had been on the wheel for the last few hours, relieving her helmsman, and her greatest current inconvenience was the fact that her thick dark hair had blown loose from its stylish twist, pasting in her eyes and against her sun-freckled cheeks, while she did not have enough hands to tie it back again. She was more interested in finding how it felt, a storm in deep water, just her and the ocean testing each other that bit more with each round. It was hard work. Despite the chill when the wind blew, sweat was dripping into her stays, and her arms and shoulders ached something fierce, but she paid no attention. She could do this.

The clouds were getting darker, however, and not only because it was getting on to sundown. They were in for a bouncy night, but Geneva had forewarned everyone of that already, and they could probably tell by looking anyway. She kept at it, matching the weather's considerable stubbornness with her own, until the hatch opened and her great-uncle climbed out, wearing an oilskin and obliged to use the storm lines strung up along the rails to keep his balance. "My dear, it's getting a bit foul!" he shouted. "Mr. Arrow said he'll take over, come below!"

"In a minute!" Geneva yelled back. Her first mate, Phineas Arrow, was a solid sailor and had served as her mentor as well as her parents and grandfather, but he was past fifty, and it was easier for her, at twenty-four, to take a beating. "Be careful, Uncle Thomas, the waves are nearly over the gunwales!"

Thomas, who had just been knocked hard by one, gave her a look. "I assure you, I have noticed. Not to second guess your decision, but this is a bit worse than you reckoned."

"Only a bit." It was true, however, that she should tie herself to the wheel if she was staying out here much longer. A man (or woman) who went overboard in these conditions was almost impossible to recover. Geneva started to say something else, was interrupted as a solid-white sheet of spray scalped off the next wave and soaked both of them, and finally decided that discretion might be the better part of valor. "Fine, fetch Mr. Arrow, but warn him it's exciting up here, and – "

At that moment, she was interrupted as the bottom of the world went out from under them. The Rose's prow pointed down the side of a vast green mountain, and the twenty-gun sixth-rater went sledding like a child on a toboggan in winter. That sort of sledding, however, was supposed to be fun, and this – well, this was not fun at all, even for someone of Geneva's adventuresome sensibilities. Furthermore, the crest of the wave was still rising behind them, and their sails snapped and went oddly slack as the wind was cut off. There was an instant in which the entire world was silent, and then it hit.

Pummeling, shrieking, rushing blackness engulfed Geneva to every side, ripping at her, tumbling and tossing her, until for a terrifying instant she felt herself lose contact with the Rose altogether and hang unsupported, untouched, in the utter heart of the abyss, completely dependent on the sea's whims to either drop her back on the ship, or drag her down to its depths. She kicked and clawed, lungs straining, and then out of nowhere was thoroughly winded, gulping and retching, as mercifully but unfortunately solid deck boards punched her in the chest. She flailed out, got hold of a rope, felt it burn against her palms as it was ripped away, and struggled to swipe away enough stinging salt to see. Thomas, where's Thomas, where's Thomas? Oh God, if he –

The Rose rode up another wave, down the just as terrifying far side, through it managed to avoid being completely inundated this time, and Geneva staggered to her feet. "Thomas! Uncle Thomas! Uncle Thomas!"

She heard a faint answering yell, sprinted to the side, looked down, and felt her heart stop as she beheld Thomas, clinging to the starboard strakes like a barnacle and struggling to get a grip on the soaked tangle of the shrouds. It was not at all a secure position – one even middling-size wave could knock him off with a direct hit, and to say the least, more-than-middling-size waves were too bloody plentiful at the moment. Geneva grabbed a rope and threw it to him, which Thomas managed to get hold of, and had almost finished tying it around his waist when he vanished in a torrent of whitewater. Geneva briefly and horrifyingly felt the rope go slack, sobbed in utter terror, and then saw him reappear – tied in, but having lost his grip on the ship entirely, bouncing and dragging along like a runaway kite on the end of a string. He was in just as much danger of being sucked under the keel and torn to shreds as he was from the storm, and she was hauling, heaving with all her strength, palms bleeding and the wounds burning with salt, but it wasn't enough, she couldn't, it wasn't going to –

At that moment, another set of arms seized Geneva from behind, awkwardly balanced on the sliding deck, but she was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. She and the second man pulled like Hercules, and with their combined effort, Thomas was able to somersault back onto deck, winded and wheezing, blood running down his face where he had banged headfirst into the timbers. Geneva wanted to fling herself to her knees and hug him, but they were not out of the woods yet. Instead she helped him frantically to his feet, satisfied herself that he was more or less intact, and turned. "Thank you, Mr. Arrow, that was a very timely – "

"You're welcome." John Silver gave her a half-smile, holding tightly to the capstan as his false leg slipped and skated under him. "Maybe a bit more careful next time, then? And how about we get the f*ck below before next time happens?"

"I – " Geneva shut her mouth hard enough to hear her teeth click. "Mr. Silver, I didn't – "

"I'd prefer it if Flint's granddaughter and his. . . Thomas did not die on my watch. As well the fact that you are the captain of this vessel, so – "

Silver had been yelling over the tumult, but at that moment, everything flattened out and quieted down, nearly that quickly. The Rose landed with a jerk on unnaturally calm water, even as the sea raged and thundered not far behind them, and a hazy, distant halo of rain surrounded them to all sides, a break in the furious anvils of clouds revealing a veiled moon and massive, jagged forks of lightning plunging from sky to sea in the near distance. It was as if they had abruptly stumbled into the one part of the storm that had been switched off, and Geneva, even without the mercury, could feel the pressure drop fast enough to make her ears pop. "What are we – look, we're clear of it, we can – "

"We're not clear," Silver said. "We're in the eye."

"We're in the wh – ?"

"The eye. The central point around which the body of the hurricane spins." Silver whirled, pulled out his spyglass, and hastily tried to judge the distance of the far side. "It's the worst right in the bands nearest to it, which means we'll hit the screaming wife of what we just went through in about, oh, half a bell. It's not bloody safe for anyone to be up here, I warned you we couldn't – "

"Later!" He was right, damn it, but Geneva could not spare any leisure for the realization. She ordered Thomas belowdecks at once, where he went after a worried look at her, and she, Silver, a few of her men, and Mr. Arrow desperately tried to ready the Rose for her rapidly approaching next round of punishment. There was not much that could be done, aside from double-knotting everything, making sure the cargo and guns were firmly stowed, and there were no major leaks – though even if there had been, there wasn't much to fix them with apart from spit, sawdust, and prayer. They got all the sails tied – Silver could not climb rigging, so he confined himself to management of the deck – and Geneva could hear the unearthly scream of the storm rising again as they were shoved inexorably toward the far side of the eyewall. The Rose spun like a bottle from stem to stern, pointed almost backward into the maelstrom, and Geneva thought briefly of how her godfather had died, a story nobody in her family could bear to tell much. Wrecked in one of the worst storms Cape Cod had ever seen, the Whydah driven up on the cliffs of Eastham and broken apart with the loss of all her treasure, her captain, and her men. Of a hundred and fifty souls who served under Black Sam Bellamy's flag, only two had survived.

No. No, this is not ending the same, I forbid it. At least, she could be sure of that since in this case there were no cliffs, but Geneva forced that particular morbid thought aside. She and Mr. Arrow splashed across the deck to the wheel and tied themselves in, hauling the Rose the right way again, pitching and yawing as the distance closed to only a few hundred yards. All the lanterns were out, having been doused in the last go-round, and the approaching wall of darkness felt like the gates of hell themselves, the Rose screaming and straining as her timbers were punished by the fury. Oh, Geneva thought. Oh, this is a storm at sea.

The next instant, the eyewall hit like the breaking of the world. They were pointed almost straight up, and then straight down, and then slewed around, taking the attack of the raging waves broadside, as the lifeline tied around her waist snapped like a carriage whip but held, if barely. Geneva's face smashed into the helm-housing, she was suspended upside down, and then crashed down atop it. The impact was brutal enough that she momentarily thought she had broken her back – her entire body would be covered in bruises when this was over, if it was over. She had lost sight of Silver, hoped he had been wise enough to get below before this hit – and then, as the next wave negligently flicked them off it, she saw Mr. Arrow pulled bodily across the deck, catch against the railing, and then, with a horrible sound, be crumpled like a bit of wet paper. The rope snapped, and the next instant he was not there.

"No!" Geneva was not sure if she thought it or said it or both, just that it was the only word that existed anywhere. She crawled madly on all fours across the deck, torn hands screaming, cracked ribs aching, staring into the water, waiting for his head to break the surface, for him to come back up. It hurt like the son of a bitch to scream, but she did anyway. "Phineas! PHINEAS!"

Nothing.

Geneva spat out a mouthful of salt, and had a brief and suicidal impulse to dive in after him. But it was too late anyway, they were ten or twenty or thirty feet past the place where he had fallen, and she could see nothing living in the waves. Only the heaving, howling hinterland to every side, the sleeping giant awoken and screaming, capriciously crushing the insects that crawled over it, Brobdinag and Lilliput from that novel by Mr. Swift, the one she had gotten her grandparents as a present. "MR. ARROW!"

Nothing.

He was gone.

Geneva felt as if all the bones in her body had turned to butter, sinking against the helm, as she barely heard the storm continuing to vent its fury. It lessened only slowly, in miserly increments, until it finally passed over close to dawn, the Rose spun heavily battered but still afloat into calm water, and Geneva was too terrified to move, lest this was another eye and they were in for a third repeat of the ordeal. She was coughing, sore, sodden to the bone, freezing, bruised, and bleeding, and her hands were too slashed and raw to unpick the knots of rope still holding her to the wheel. So she just sat there, shaking without a sound.

A few minutes later, the hatch banged open again, and Thomas, Silver close on his heels, bolted out, racing across the deck to her. "Jenny! Bloody hell, Jenny, are you – are you – "

" 'm fine." Geneva gave him a weak smile, despite having never felt less fine in her life. Thomas threw himself down and tried to undo the knots, but likewise could not budge them until Silver pulled out his knife and sawed through the wet rope. Her teeth were chattering so hard her jaw cracked, but she still tried to push away Thomas' arms. "Uncle Thomas, 'm fine, I – "

She took a step, just about collapsed, and he caught her, hoisting her awkwardly across his chest and making his way to the cabin, where Madi was trying to pick up the things that had been thrown everywhere. Upon sight of Geneva, however, she instantly abandoned her efforts, took her from Thomas, and helped her to the bed – which, if damp and disheveled, was at least horizontal. Then she arched a cool eyebrow at Silver, hovering by the door. "Did you also need something, then?"

"I just – thought I'd look in and see if you were – "

"If you came to gloat, neither of us wish to hear it." Madi shook out the quilt and draped it over the shivering Geneva. "You were right. You usually are, John, but that does not mean it is in a way in which you should take any pride."

Silver flinched. "Christ, I didn't come to gloat! I wanted to see if you were all right!"

"I am fine." Madi's long dreadlocks fell forward, hiding her face, but something about her voice made Geneva think that it was somehow as much a lie as when she had said it. "I will look after her now. You may go."

Still Silver hesitated, looking at his ex-wife with desperate, unguarded yearning. Then Thomas stepped up, put a hand on his arm – gently – and showed him out, the door creaking shut behind them. After the madness of the storm, the stillness rang unbearably in Geneva's head, buzzing like a nest of hornets.

Madi helped her out of her wet clothes, dried and warmed her, and brought her some broth, and Geneva dozed fitfully, on and off, hearing voices outside as the men tried to whip the Rose back into shape. Surely they must realize that Mr. Arrow was gone, that it was her decision that was to blame, that she had wanted to prove to all of them that she could handle an Atlantic storm and Silver alike, and failed decisively at both. She was cold, she was cold, she was cold, cold, cold. She wanted to be home in Savannah, drinking tea on the veranda, talking about books with Granny, about sailing with Grandpa and Daddy. She wanted to see Mother, she even wanted to see her git of a little brother. Adventure was all well and good, but at least presently, she had had more than enough of it. She had killed Mr. Arrow, she had nearly killed Thomas as well, and it was only luck that she had not. God. She would never have been able to face her family again.

At some point Madi stepped out, and when Geneva heard the door open again, she assumed it was her returning. She cracked an eye, about to say that she should get up and face the crew, even if it was the last thing she felt like doing – then stopped, going tense. "What do you want?"

Silver held out both hands, making no move to come any closer. "I'm sorry about your first mate."

The air seemed to run out of Geneva's lungs. She wanted to say something sharp, but she just stared at the white-painted boards of the rocking ceiling. At last she said, "I killed him."

"The storm killed him." Silver perched in the chair, keeping an eye on the door, as if knowing that Madi would not be pleased to come back and find him here. "You didn't – "

"I gave the order to sail into the storm. That's my fault. I know it is. Is that why you came? To remind me?"

"No." Silver's voice was quiet. "I said that I've been through my share of storms. One of them, aboard the Walrus, I was belowdecks with one of the men, a friend of mine. We were trying to patch a leak. A cannon shifted, pinning him to the hull, and I could not move it. The water rose higher and higher, while all I could do was try desperately to keep his head above it. My efforts did not make any difference. He drowned before me as I watched, utterly powerless to stop it. I have not forgotten that. I know you likewise will not with Mr. Arrow. I'm sorry."

Geneva was once more at a loss for words. She sensed, as she had before, that Silver was genuinely trying to connect with her, but she did not want his calculated empathy, not when this entire affair was of his purpose and devising. Yet she did not want to order him out either, if only because that would mean being left alone with her thoughts. At last she said only, "Why?"

"As I said. You are Flint's granddaughter. And he was also often in the habit of spurning what I said, merely because I was the one who had said it." Silver regarded her steadily. "As I also said, it would be much easier for us to be friends. To work together. When Flint and I finally did, we were all but unstoppable."

"I'm not your second chance with him."

Silver flinched again, ever so slightly, but his tone remained courteous. "Of course not. But there are similarities. If you did work with me – "

"What did you do to him on Skeleton Island?"

"I – beg your pardon?"

"You heard me. You want us to be allies, because I think you want to make up for whatever you did to Grandpa on Skeleton Island, what passed between the two of you, why you and Mother left him behind and she thought for years that he was likely dead. If you want me to trust you – and remotely believe that I would not come to the same end if it suited – then tell me. Or go."

Silver looked truly flummoxed. He opened his mouth, then shut it. "Geneva – "

She wanted to remind him that it was Captain Jones, but that took too much effort. "Well?"

Silver opened his mouth a second time, then likewise shut it. "I think I see Madi returning," he said at last. "I'll spare you another of our squabbles. If there is anything else I can do for you, please do let me know."

And with that, he went.

Chapter 7: VII

Chapter Text

"Well," Jack said, after a long moment. "Someone else bought the collection, so if there was the map you needed in there, we don't know. Splendid. Who the devil is B. Bones, anyway?"

"He's dead." Sam frowned. "So far as I know, at least. He and Grandpa didn't, uh, didn't like each other."

"A number of people don't seem to like your grandfather. Can't reckon why."

Sam decided to ignore that. "It could be another bloke with the same name, which I admit doesn't help us very much, but it could at least mean that the other one is still dead. It is strange, though, and since we've established that Hamilton probably isn't going to help us, we, er, we could. . . we could. . ."

Jack turned to look at him with an utterly exasperated expression. "You have absolutely no idea what to do next, do you?"

"That's not true, I do too." Sam straightened up to his full height, which wasn't bad – almost six feet, if not matching Jack, who had that and then some. It was irksome, really, going head to head with someone who could always effortlessly out-loom you. "We. . . just have to find the inventory registers. There was probably a more detailed listing of the collection. So if we know the map was here, we can decide if it's worth chasing up wherever Bones footled off with it, which may be a long way, yes, but – "

"Let me ask you something." Jack folded his arms and regarded Sam still more narrowly. "If you know approximately where the island is, why do we need a map at all?"

"I, ah." Sam leaned on the alley wall, trying to look calm and collected, but one of the stones slid loose and made him whack his elbow. Naturally. "Everyone needs a refresher now and then, don't they?"

Jack's expression turned, if possible, still more dubious.

"I do, all right? I do know where it is. About. I just don't know the exact coordinates, I don't think anyone does. Not even Grandpa or Mum or any of them. It's a tiny island, we could be sailing in circles forever trying to find it, and as you may recall, we don't have that long. I'm asking for help instead of trying to be an arrogant prick who thinks he can do it entirely by himself, because as is probably bloody obvious, I can't. So yes, I wanted to see if by some mad fluke of luck, the man here had a chart. Bite me."

Jack, in that irritating habit of his, arched a dark eyebrow to nearly the full potential of his forehead. Almost pityingly, he said, "This is a disaster."

"Fine then, Isaac Newton, let's hear your ideas!"

"Not my responsibility, remember? I wasn't the one strolling in and claiming to the Governor of Cuba that I could find the biggest pile of riches in the – "

"No, you were just the one handing over the intelligence about Cartagena like a no-good sneak – what'd you do, torture it out of the English prisoners yourself – "

"I had nothing to do with that. But yes, I took it because you're not the only bloody person in the world who has someone they want to protect, and your spectacular incompetence is making that more difficult than I can – "

"Yes, I know I'm the disappointment, for my family too, so it's sad that you – "

They were raising their voices, stalking toward each other with heated expressions and fists at the ready, but then – since it was still early, and likely in the name of doing their civic duty in breaking up a brawl between two blackguards in the alley, a wooden shutter banged open above them and a servant poured a bucket of used washwater directly on their heads (at least it was not a chamber pot, or that would have been simply unspeakable). Both young men snorted and spluttered, whirled around and glared evilly up at the servant, who yelled something uncouth-sounding and slammed the shutter, then back on each other, endeavoring valiantly to proceed as if there had been no affront to their dignity. Finally Jack muttered a curse of his own under his breath, scraped his long black hair out of his eyes, and redid the thong holding it back. Sam had been about to do the same thing, but instead he stood there mulishly dripping so it didn't look as if he was copying. He still did want to have a go at punching Jack, but he also knew that Jack would wax the floor with him, and it would be counterproductive to inflame the closest thing to an ally (not that that was very close at all) further against him. Da Souza would definitely kill him if they could get to Skeleton Island without him. Jack only might.

After a moment, Jack glanced back at him, as Sam was surreptitiously trying to fix his own ponytail. "Why are you out here alone, anyway? What are you, fifteen?"

"I'm nineteen, you git."

Jack raised the other eyebrow, but thankfully forbore to comment. "Well," he said. "You said you knew roughly where Skeleton Island is. So, where?"

"Why do I have to tell you?"

"Maybe so I think I have any reason to stick around with you, rather than going off and finding it myself. I'm starting to think that would be faster."

Sam hesitated. As he had already noted, there was no way he could do this himself, and he needed Jack to stay – if nothing else, to vouch for him to the Spaniards, though that was looking like an increasingly fool idea. "It's east of Nassau," he said. "In the Atlantic. No more than about two days' hard sail, since Grandpa and Mum were able to reach it in about that amount of time. So I suppose we could just wander around in the general vicinity, but even if we stumbled on it, we'd still need to recover the treasure, and I don't think we can do that with just the S."

"The what?"

"The S. Da Souza's ship."

"The Senaita?"

"Yes, that."

"Did you forget that too?"

"I did not. I just won't say it if it's a crude word for lady parts. I don't believe in disrespecting women like that."

Caught off guard, Jack stared at him – then broke out into the first actual smile that Sam had ever seen from him. It completely transformed his face, usually so wary and dark and guarded, into something that shone like a tower beacon, bright and beautiful. He shut it off at once, though not before it had time to do something peculiar to Sam's insides, and shook his head. "At least you'll have good manners while you're making a dog's breakfast of this. I'm sure your mum's very proud."

"Mum, and Granny, and my sister. Dad and Grandpa too. I'd have my hide tanned if I was ever that foul, and I'd deserve it."

"Charlotte would like you." Jack looked as if he wanted to bite his tongue for having said it. "We should go."

"Go where? Who's Charlotte?"

"She's my – never mind. It's complicated."

"I think I can handle complicated."

"Never mind, I said. If we're not standing here arguing in an alley, and if you don't have the chart, either you have somewhere else we should look or we should be on our way. If Da Souza is back yet, that is. Either way, if you don't have anything else useful to offer – "

"I suppose we can go, yes." Sam strove to sound offhand. As they started to walk, he added, "Is Charlotte your sister?"

"No."

"Why would she like me?"

"Why on bloody earth is that any of your business?"

"Maybe I'm just curious about you. You know an unavoidable lot about me and my family, but I don't know anything about you or yours. You said you are protecting someone too. Who's Charlotte then, your gerbil?"

"You're very obnoxious."

"Why's it obnoxious to make friendly conversation?"

"We're not friends, and you're an idiot. Just because you toddle around telling your life story to all and sundry doesn't mean that I'm obliged to do the same, especially when it's what has you presently bent over a barrel. You want some advice, stop expecting the world to be some kind and happy place where everyone secretly just longs to hold hands and drink tea. It will f*ck you squarely up the arse if you do."

Sam opened and shut his mouth, feeling slapped, as seemed to be his general state of being when conversing, or rather attempting to, with Jack Bellamy. Finally he said, "I'm not so naïve as you think I am. I know I'm in trouble and that bloody nobody means me well. But there's a difference between that and – whatever you imagine I am, I'm not sure."

"I have my reasons." Jack did not break stride. "You just – need a few more walls. You give too much of yourself away to everyone, no matter what. You let them see straight into you, everything you want, and let them tell you what to do to get it. You'll never survive this unless you learn how to tell a decent lie."

"And I suppose you think you could teach me?"

"I don't intend to teach you anything. As I said. This isn't my responsibility, and neither are you."

"So who is? Charlotte?"

"Yes," Jack said, very shortly. "Her and the girls."

Sam was conscious of a faint, uncomfortable prickling sensation in his chest. "Your daughters?"

"No."

"Stepdaughters?"

"No. No more questions."

"Right. Walls. Be mysterious and also a total knob, suit yourself. For the record, I'm not asking in the service of some nefarious scheme. We both also know that between us, you're – well, you're you, and I'm me. I want to help my family, you want to help yours. Don't you think that we should at least – "

"I don't want to know about your family." Jack's voice was quiet and very fierce. "So don't expect me to tell you about mine."

"Why not?" Sam exploded, coming to a smart halt in the middle of the street. "Because it's easier to hold a grudge against us, for whatever wrong you think we've done you, if you don't know us as people, but whatever abstractions you can craft to suit yourself? Your uncle was my godfather, I know you probably think he was a filthy pirate, but maybe it's more than just that. I never knew him, but I wish I did – it's his name I have to carry on every day, and at least if I had some of my own memories, I wouldn't have to see everything through old stories told by other people! I'd give everything to know the truth of a man, this man, so if you aren't willing to do the same, you can call me the incompetent one all you like, but you're the real coward."

Jack stared at him again, completely floored. He raised a hand to his face, then dropped it. "Bloody hell," he said at last. "You are nineteen, aye."

"Don't patronize me, you twit." Sam was not mollified. "You're the same age as my sister – twenty-three, twenty-four? And frankly, no matter what you think of yourself, she'd kick your arse. So don't act as if you have the secrets of the world figured out, because I'm guessing that deep down, you're just as scared as I am. I never said I was a perfect person, I've never pretended to be anything I'm not. I know too well what a lie that is."

"Sam." It was the first time he could recall that Jack had used his name, and it caught him short. "Just take a breath, why don't you?"

Sam snapped his mouth shut with a click. As it was, he really had not meant to be quite that forthcoming, but he had finally put his finger on what bothered him so much about his apparent complete inability to make any headway with Jack. Sam was the name of a ghost that his entire family had loved, and Sam himself was just. . . him. Not nearly, in his mind, whatever they thought he would be, perpetually falling short of the honor. Jack Bellamy was the incarnation of what Sam had always feared his elder namesake would be, if he ever actually met him: more than free with his opinion that Sam was an incurable numbskull far more suited for a career selling flowers or heckling men on soapboxes than anything resembling what the rest of his family did. It was stupid, it was irrational, but Sam had found that such things rarely made a difference when your head was busily convincing you that you were the worst human alive. He compensated for this insecurity by getting people to like him, to have tangible proof to the contrary, and that was exactly why his hereunto failure to do so with Jack was throwing him so much. If he could not get this person of all people to like him, perhaps all the whispering doubts were right. He did not deserve to be Sam, and never had.

They continued to stare at each other for a moment more. Sam almost wished that Jack would go ahead and actually punch him, just to get it over with, and that at least was no more than he either expected or merited. He tried to brace himself, though he was shamefully afraid that he would cry if Jack did, and that would surely destroy whatever tattered bit of tolerance the other young man could ever be persuaded to hold for him. But instead Jack sighed. "Come on," he said. "I'd rather not draw too much attention."

As clocking him in the nose on a public thoroughfare would certainly count under that heading, Sam supposed that the punching had, at least for now, been postponed. After a pause, he started to trot after Jack again, unable to repress a demented vision of what might happen if he turned up at home at some point in his theoretically still-alive future and announced that he had Sam Bellamy's nephew in tow. His sister had brought a few gentleman friends home before, which generally turned excruciating as Grandpa and Dad interrogated them over supper, and which then resulted in the gentlemen friends never being heard from again, much to Geneva's irritation. This was different, as Jack was obviously not a gentleman friend (and possibly neither a gentleman nor a friend), and the fact of his kinship to Captain Bellamy might throw even Grandpa for a loop, but Sam supposed it would go terribly anyway. Though Jack and Geneva would probably like each other. They had a lot in common. It would bloody figure.

They descended the city streets back toward their boat in what Sam would very much hesitate to term an amiable silence, as it wasn't amiable so much as it was a brief lull in their thus far ever-present need to get the last word on each other. At the quay, they climbed in, slid the oars into the locks, and started to row. They would likely have a while to wait on the ship, as Da Souza was off accomplishing villainy somewhere, and Sam felt another prickle in his chest, this one of something close to anger, at the thought of just sitting on their hands and letting him do it. Whatever could happen to these people, it was because he had brought the wolf here. Maybe we can steal the S, and give it a better name while we're at it.

It was going on midday by the time they made it back to the Narrows and the Portuguese vessel's concealed position among the wooded bluffs of St. Kitts. It was clear and hot and blue, the distant green mountains of Nevis ringed in puffy white clouds; one of them, the tallest, was rumored to be a volcano, though it had never erupted any time in living memory. Since it was the only place on the island impossible to farm, it was where any Maroons hiding from the inexorable maw of the sugarcane plantations would have fled, and Sam felt another stab of anger over all the slave ships in the harbor, not that he thought two men could do anything about those. Maybe the people deserved whatever Da Souza might do to them after all. Maybe they didn't. It was all so bloody confusing.

They had the ship all to themselves except for a few crewmen who had been left behind (in theory to keep watch, in reality to snore in their hammocks) and Sam sat in the prow, squinting against the glare off the water and trying to think what to say to Da Souza when the bastard asked for a progress report. They had, after all, acquired no chart as a result of their detour here, and he had a feeling that the captain would take less than kindly to a vague directive to set sail in a thataway direction. Sam could possibly spin this trip as an accomplishment somehow, but he would need Jack's collaboration to do it. Otherwise, Jack could just pipe up and blow a hole in the entire flimsy fable, and then, well. . .

Having failed to think of anything else over several hours of cogitation, Sam finally sighed deeply, got up, and went to find Jack, who had taken up a spot in the stern and appeared to likewise be in deep thought – it was better not to ask over what. "Hey," he said, low-voiced. "So before Da Souza gets back, the hell are we going to tell him?"

"The truth, I thought." Jack's eyes were mostly brown, but they had a lighter hazel-gold rim around the edge that gave Sam the unpleasant sensation of staring down a jungle cat. "As you assured me earlier, you know about where the place is. Don't you."

"I. . ." Sam chewed his lip. "I just think it's better if he's under as many impressions as possible about how valuable I am."

This was as close as even he dared to come to admitting that he wasn't, and by the way Jack's lip twisted, Sam had a furtherly unpleasant feeling that he had already guessed. Jack leaned back, hands clasped over a knee. Then he said, "We did find out that someone named B. Bones bought the charts. Could see if that rings any bells. Does sound familiar, outside of whatever feud you said he had with your grandfather, but I can't think why."

"That could have been because he – " Sam stopped. "Oh, sh*t."

"What?"

"I just thought. Billy Bones – he was my mother's friend, he served on the Walrus, but he and Grandpa ended up increasingly at odds, as I said. Billy was the one who sold them out to the Navy, in exchange for a chance at revenge. Woodes Rogers followed them to Skeleton Island on Billy's information, and Billy and Grandpa fought there. Everyone thought he'd died there. But if he didn't, if he's also still alive – "

Jack's eyes widened as he caught Sam's drift. "Then he also knows where it is. And if he's buying charts from the same place we wanted to, may also be presently trying to get back there. There's no way he's still hanging around Nevis, though. That was weeks ago, or longer."

"Aye." Sam considered. "There's an outside chance that he passed through Nassau at some point, as he used to live there during the pirates' republic, but if he was treasure hunting I doubt he'd want word getting out about it. We could go there and ask. Da Souza would probably fit right in. Though now that it's an English colony again, he'd have to avoid tipping off who he works for. Not that he cares."

"Nassau." Jack's mouth went thin. "That's where you'd send us?"

"What, the dread pirate haunt? Whatever you're imagining, it's not like that, these days. My uncle Charlie works there. And besides, Skeleton Island is somewhere near it, remember? At least we'd be in the neighborhood."

This was true enough that Jack could not mount an objection, though he still looked anything but keen on the idea. When he still didn't answer, Sam challenged, "Scared to see where your family comes from?"

Jack gave him a searing look. "My family comes from Devonshire. Wherever my uncle gallivanted off to, it doesn't change that."

"You hate England, you've said it at least twenty times. So why does it matter?"

Jack made a convulsive movement as if to stand up, and Sam flinched, but he caught himself, offered a rather teeth-bared smile, and sat down. "You'd have more friends, and be generally better at this whole thing, if you had any idea whatsoever when to shut the f*ck up."

"We've already established that I don't." Sam was not – in this, at least – backing down. "Will you support me when I tell Da Souza to go to Nassau, or not?"

Jack kept looking at him. The afternoon sunlight turned his eyes to chips of amber, sharp and glittering. At last he said, "Very well."

Sam held out his hand, as if expecting them to shake on it, but Jack didn't take it. One corner of his mouth turned up again. "You'll be in more trouble there than I will, anyway."

This was most likely true, even if Sam bridled at it being pointed out. Half of him wanted to ask again about this mysterious Charlotte, even if he knew he'd just run into a brick wall, and the rest of him felt as if he had had more than enough of Jack Bellamy's company just now. He returned to his observation post on the bow and waited until the afternoon ended, dusk began to fall, and Da Souza and his men returned from their felony – they looked to be in a good mood, so it had clearly gone well. "Ah, Samuel," the captain said, spotting him. "What do you have to say for yourself, then?"

"Right." Sam cleared his throat. "We – " he eyed Jack pointedly, as if to reinforce that it was indeed a we – "we've had a few ideas, yes."

With that, he filled Da Souza in (more or less) on their activities and conclusions for the day, making them sound considerably more promising than they actually were. "So," he finished, as stoutly as possible. "That's what it is. Nassau."

"Nassau." Da Souza considered that, tapping his grimy fingers on his arm. If it was from gunpowder, which it smelled like, Sam didn't particularly want to know. "Old friends of your grandfather's, then? Or old enemies?"

"Something like that. I don't know that Bones is actually there." Sam rather hoped not, since even if so, Billy almost certainly did not intend to peaceably ponder on pleasant days gone by. If they did cross paths, he would have to pray that Billy had some ancestral soft spot for Emma Swan's son. "He's our man, though. Catch up to him, and we're there in two shakes of a lamb's tail."

"I see." Da Souza considered again, then nodded. "You've done quite well, young Jones. I must say, I did not think you had it in you."

Backhanded as this compliment was, Sam nonetheless could not help taking some pride in it. Da Souza was clearly an experienced scurvy rascal and hell-raising bastard of the first order, so his endorsem*nt, however grudging, was still rather satisfying. Indeed, the captain's manner toward him became almost friendly as they raised anchor, checked that they were unobserved, and prepared to set sail. Clearly there was no point in shilly-shallying, with Bones some unknown distance ahead of them, Jack's propensity for punching scriveners, and whatever Da Souza and his horrible friends had achieved on shore. It was a lengthy northwestern haul to Nassau from here, close to a thousand miles, and that meant at least another week in close quarters, including that of the ship's bloody dog. Sam still had not discerned the reason for the presence of this animal on the vessel, except for the sole fact that Da Souza seemed fond of it. Even hardened, double-dealing, throat-cutting rogues had pets, apparently.

The trades carried them swiftly through the Narrows and out into the open sea west of the islands, receding into dark shadows on the horizon behind them. Sam was feeling almost, however unwarrantedly, optimistic – this was more how things usually went for him, when he succeeded through sheer persistence and dumb luck, or some combination thereof. He wondered about the fortunes of Nathaniel, back in Havana. Hopefully he was doing all right, or at least was not bored out of his mind or hung up by his thumbs or otherwise maltreated by the bloody Spaniards. In fact, Sam thought that this was the longest they had gone without seeing each other since they first met, and it still felt odd to be undertaking an adventure without his partner in crime. Especially when said partner had been replaced by one who probably wanted to –

A tap on his shoulder startled him considerably, and he turned to see Jack, hair out of its ponytail and blowing freely, which gave him a look like the brooding hero of some Novel doubtless unsuitable for consumption by impressionable young ladies (at least according to idiots, as Sam thought ladies should read whatever they pleased). Likewise, he seemed – at least for the moment – something less than in utter scorn and disbelief over Sam's entire existence, which was a refreshing change. "Ah," he said, and coughed. "Here, I brought you a bit of bread."

Sam was about to say that he wasn't hungry, but of course he was hungry, and he hadn't gone to supper because he didn't want Da Souza to try to pry more details out of him. So he nodded in thanks, took it, and devoured it in about one gulp, at which Jack looked arch. "Could be you won't starve if you take a breath, you think?"

"Eh," Sam said, through a mouthful of crumbs. "Can'tbesho."

Jack rolled his eyes, but smiled slightly, despite himself. He started to go, then stopped. "You're – well, you're not quite what I expected. Even if you still have no idea what you're doing."

"I think that was your version of a compliment," Sam said. "So don't break anything rushing over here to hug me, since we're such mates now."

"You're a pillock." Jack's tone left it unclear if this was a lighthearted bit of banter, or still his genuine opinion (though Sam guessed the latter). "But I suppose it would be a shame if you died – soon, that is, since you're clearly going to die anyway. Good night."

With that, he turned on his heel and vanished below, leaving Sam still hungry and wondering if it was worth hunting down the scraps in the galley, or if he should just go to bed and try to forget about it (though when he got home, if he did, he was eating the entire pantry and buttery). But before he could do either, the ladder creaked again, and Da Souza emerged into the deepening dusk. "Young Jones. You were not at supper?"

"No." Sam shrugged. "Glad we're on our way, though, and I was just about to turn in. So if you'll excuse me – "

The captain held out an arm. "Wait. Everything you discovered today, you told me?"

"Of course," Sam said, somewhat shortly. "But even if not, I don't see you rushing to tell me what you did today."

Da Souza grinned, conceding the point. "It is difficult when we cannot quite trust each other, is it not? But as you and I both know, we do share the goal of reaching Skeleton Island. So if there was anything else, anything you kept back. . . I have been speaking with Jack Bell, and he says that he can confirm everything you have said thus far, but you do not trust him altogether either. So between friends, or at least men with common purpose. . . anything else?"

Sam felt a brief surprise that Jack would stand up for him – though if it was merely a matter of providing yes-or-no answers to questions about already offered information, Jack was clearly playing enough of his own game, different from the Spaniards, to be savvy enough to venture that but no more. "I've told you everything useful. No good to prevent us from getting to Skeleton Island when I have more than enough to lose if we don't, aye?"

"Indeed," Da Souza acknowledged, putting a hand on Sam's shoulder. "And for which I must say, young Jones, I am truly sorry."

"Sorry?" Sam was startled. "What the devil for?"

"Well," Da Souza said. "This." And with one quick, strong, headlong heave, threw him overboard.

It was still early, but clearly nobody was going back to sleep. Someone went to wake David and Mary Margaret and inform them of the situation, servants were dispatched with lanterns and truncheons to search the house and grounds for any sign of forced entry or site of a struggle, and Flint and Emma went to hitch up the Nolans' cabriolet and drive it at high speed through the just-stirring streets to the docks. Neither of them could quite say why they went there, other than following an instinct that if Killian had been abducted, his captors might have wanted to transport him out of town as quickly as possible. There was theoretically a chance that they had traveled overland, but as Charlestown was a port city and the roads both south and north were muddy, marshy, and wild, a boat, rather than a wagon, would have been the best option for any quick getaway. Flint and Emma jumped down and ran from quay to quay, but if there had been mischief here earlier in the night, there was no sign of it now. I shouldn't have waited so long. I should have gone to look as soon as he wasn't back in an hour, not tried to sleep and forget about it. I lost time, and now I've lost him.

Emma was unable to ignore the thought that of course this was what she would get, returning to such a transparently hexed a place as Charlestown, that it would not count itself content in its damages until it had also taken her husband from her. She did her best to ignore the gnawing terror in her insides until they had finished the search, with no trace of him, and she stood motionless in the dawn wind, still in her nightgown tucked into a pair of breeches and boots, hair whipping in her face. "He isn't here. He's gone."

"He has to be somewhere." Flint's mouth was grim as granite. "Anyone you can think of, who knows what goes on around here?"

"I – yes." Not that there was any guarantee that a blind woman would have anything useful to report, since it wasn't as if she could have seen the perpetrators, but that one was uncanny anyway. "This way."

Within a quarter-hour, they were standing in front of the shuttered-up pot shop as Flint banged mercilessly on the door, until there was finally the sound of several curses of a considerably potent nature, the bolt slid open, and the witch demanded, "What has your britches in a bunch, laddie-me-lad? Decent folk are abed at this hour, you know."

"I very much doubt you're any sort of decent folk. You s – hear anything on the docks earlier? Round about midnight, most likely."

"Answers cost, you know."

"Your reward is that I won't kill you."

"Och. No manners at all." The witch tutted. "Well, if that's all you can offer, you can be on your way directly, unless – "

"Wait," Emma interrupted. "It's me. From earlier. I was asking about – "

"You?" The witch's voice swiveled in her direction. "What's such a nice lassie as you doing with a frightful grump like him?"

"Never mind. Do you know about anything? We can pay."

The witch's hand shot out through the door, and Flint – with a look of deep disapproval – put a silver penny into it, which vanished in a twinkling. Then she said, "Did hear a to-do in the wee hours. Sounded like those scalawags that Lord Murray keeps about to do some of his errands of a. . . less than savory nature. Them boys and their prancing peaco*ck of a leader, Rufio. Had someone with them, by the sound, someone unconscious. They were hauling him, they were, down to a ship. Suppose it was Rufio's. I'm a poor helpless old woman, 'tis all I know."

Flint and Emma exchanged a very sharp look. "Lord Murray's scalawags?"

"Aye. A gang of them. The Lost Boys, they're called, and I'd not fancy getting on the wrong side of them. That's all. All, I said."

Flint looked as if he was about to throttle the witch into more answers, but Emma put a hand on his arm. They had something more important to follow up now, and while it would be quite delicate to burst uninvited and with unfriendly intentions into the governor's mansion at the crack of dawn, it was nonetheless what Emma was perfectly willing to do if necessary. Nobody was in any haste to replay their family's last confrontation in that building, but she was not about to let any potential lead on Killian's whereabouts slip through their fingers. Still, knowing that it would be exceptionally unwise to bring Flint along, especially if Lord Murray meant to do them ill, she said, "You should go back to the Nolans. I'll go to the governor and – "

"And what, demand answers? By yourself?"

"You can't come with me, and if Murray did order Killian kidnapped, I need to know. He's not going to get away with this, he – "

"You go in there alone, you're more than likely never coming out! f*cking hell, Emma, you can't – "

At that moment, distracting them from their argument, they heard the sound of clopping hooves, and when they looked up, they saw David Nolan riding toward them, old Navy captain's jacket thrown over his nightshirt, saber buckled on, and lantern in hand. "Any sign of him?" he called, as he came nearer. "Killian?"

"We think he might have been snatched," Emma said. "By some local gang of ne'er-do-wells, apparently in the pay of Lord Murray. The Lost Boys."

David got a dark look, as this was evidently a familiar species of Charlestown riffraff, but he also appeared somewhat baffled. "They're a bit of a problem around here, aye, but as far as I know, they're not being paid by Murray. He promised to eradicate such undesirable – "

"Well," Flint said. "That old hag says they are. And on this accord, I am more inclined to believe her than you. It seems Lord Murray is lying about nearly everything, doesn't it?"

"I'm going," Emma said tightly. "I need to know what he did to Killian."

"You still can't – "

"I'll go," David interrupted. "With her. As before. Captain, you take my horse and go back to the house."

Flint eyed David with deep suspicion. At last he said, "I'm her father, not you."

"Aye, but we all know that you can't walk into the governor's mansion, in Charlestown, demanding vengeance yet again. Besides, if he takes you prisoner, Murray can demand whatever he wants, whether from your family or the English authorities alike. I swear, I will look after her. But either way, we are wasting time."

"I trust him," Emma said to Flint, low-voiced. "Go back and tell the others."

Flint still did not look happy with this arrangement, but at last he inclined his head a grudging half-inch, waited until David dismounted, then took the reins and swung up onto the horse. He spun it around, set his heels to its sides, and with half a glance back, cantered off up the street.

David and Emma started to walk, neither of them having expected to make a return visit to the governor's mansion so soon, but needs must. It was full light by the time they strode up the lawn, passed under the handsome portico, and knocked insistently on the door until finally a servant answered, aghast at their dishabille and flagrant disregard of protocol. "You simply cannot expect to call on the governor at this hour, in such estate and without an appointment, so please be off before we have to – "

Emma stepped up and pushed past him, clearing the way for David to follow, as – completely ignoring the servant's continued strident protestations – they crossed the hall, shoved open the dining-room doors, and marched in to where Lord Gideon Murray, in an embroidered silk dressing gown, was taking his breakfast. He had just been scooping an egg into an eggcup and flipping through a pile of official dispatches, but he looked up, caught sight of them, and started to his feet, rocking the table. "Captain Nolan, Mrs. Jones. What is the reason for this most unexpected visit at such an – "

"Where's my husband?"

Murray blinked. "Mrs. Jones?"

"Where is my husband? Killian. What did you and your little gang of miscreants do to him?"

"I'm afraid I don't have the remotest notion what you're talking about."

Murray was a good liar – one of the best Emma had met, in fact – but she usually had a sense for these things, and she was now convinced beyond all doubt that he was, in fact, lying. She took a step closer, fists clenched, fighting the urge to hit him in the face. "Bring him back. Whatever you did. You took Killian away from me."

"If your husband has come to grief, that is very sad, but I cannot be held responsible for – "

"NOW!"

If Murray flinched, it was difficult to tell. But when he glanced up at her, his eyes had changed, flat and shrewd. He considered her a moment longer, then said abruptly, "Very well. Let us drop the courtesies. If I was to remark that I might indeed know something about the whereabouts of your husband, and that by cooperating with me, you might acquire them, what would your answer to that be?"

"Wh – so yesterday, everything you said – "

"I said I did not intend to persecute you for your past, and indeed I do not. I said nothing about not profiting from you in the future."

"Jesus," Emma said. "You're just like your uncle."

At that, Murray did actually flinch. "I beg your pardon? My uncle?"

"Aye. Yesterday – I asked around, I found out who you are. Lord Robert Gold's nephew."

"His nephew? That's who you think I am?"

"Well – " Emma faltered. "Aren't you?"

"No." Murray laughed, without humor. "I'm his son."

"His s – "

"You were just remarking on the family resemblance you thought you glimpsed, weren't you? My mother was his second wife, and I was born late in his life. I was only a very small child when he met his downfall in Nassau. After which, I was taken in by my aunt, Lady Fiona, and my origins concealed from society." Murray continued to stare at Emma, with that hard, cold, calculating look so ill-fitting on his boyishly handsome face. "Does that surprise you, madam?"

Emma had to admit that it did, though she wasn't sure why. During the pirates' war against Gold, and considering Killian's experiences with him, she had almost thought of him as some shadowy, faceless entity, with no origin and no end and no human life, rather than a mortal man who might have had any such mundane thing as a wife and young child back in England. Not that it made her care for him any more, but still. "What happened to your mother?"

Something flickered in Gideon Murray's eyes long enough for her to tell that this was perilous ground to tread. After a pause, he said, "Not that it is your business, but in any event, I don't know. Didn't care enough to keep me, I suppose, or simply wanted to be rid of the scandal now attaching to the Gold name, run off and see the world without the burden of my existence. Are you interested in what I have to tell you, Mrs. Jones, or not?"

Emma thought it was a mark of just how much he did not care for the subject that he was willing to steer the conversation back to Killian. Despite herself, she felt a brief, poignant sympathy for him. Wanted to tell him that a mother did not always part from her children for not loving them, that she had sent Henry and Geneva away to Paris many years ago to protect them and it remained the most painful thing she had ever done, but given as Gideon had likewise abducted a member of her family, that was rather more sympathy (and information) than she felt he was presently entitled to. She didn't know the reasoning of the presumable Mrs. Gold, but complicated as it likely was, it was still not her main concern. "Where's Killian?"

"As I noted, that is something you can learn in due course, if you cooperate with me. First – "

"Indeed," Emma said. "Gold's son. I see it."

"I am not like him!" Gideon whirled around and hurled a salver of scrambled eggs hard enough to bounce off the sideboard. "Do you think I'm doing this for some sort of revenge on my father's behalf? I'm not. He was a bad man, and the world is well rid of him. Now. As I said earlier. I'll tell you what happened to your husband if you work with me. You and your father, to speak of family examples – you know where Skeleton Island is. And this time, I will not miss my chance."

"This time – ?" Emma was momentarily baffled, until it hit. "You're the person that Billy contacted in Charlestown. Aren't you. Did you send the assassins after us too? Since that seems to be your style."

"No." Gideon's eyes flashed. "I have no idea about those. But yes, I spoke to Billy Bones. I know where he's going too, in fact, and why. And yet, I'd rather that his progress was not allowed to continue without interruption. So if you and Flint lead me to Skeleton Island, I'll tell you where your husband is. Refuse, and you'll never see him again."

"This – so all this was to get us to help you?" Emma stared at him in patent disbelief. "You couldn't get the information from Billy?"

"No," Gideon said coolly. "I did try. But he would only reveal it to Mother."

"Meaning Lady Fiona? So the two of you are in this together?"

Gideon snorted. His opinion of his adoptive mother did not seem particularly high either, until Emma supposed that if he wanted Fiona and Billy to achieve their aims in peace, he would not presently be conspiring to thwart them with her and Flint. It made her head hurt to contemplate how many different aims and games were swirling in a maelstrom of intrigue, how many angles that absolutely everyone was playing for their own benefit, and it summoned a grim smile to her lips, as it reminded her of the good old days on Nassau. She didn't think that Gideon was lying about not sending the assassins, which raised the unhappy possibility that there was yet another enemy out there, lurking in the shadows and waiting another chance to strike. Emma wasn't even sure whose side Gideon was on – certainly not theirs, not clearly Billy's either, seemingly eager to separate himself from the shadow of his father, plotting against his aunt who had raised him, until it wound more and more of an inextricably tangled skein. Emma could guess that he wanted to find Skeleton Island for the same reason everyone did – vast hordes of lost riches – but less sure for what. As calmly as she could, she said, "And if we don't help you?"

"As I said. Then you can search for your husband as long as you like, but I won't say where. As well, I suspect that all of Charlestown might be bloody pleased to finally get their hands on the authentic Captain Flint, wouldn't they?"

"You bastard."

"You were the one to bring him back here. Not me." Gideon looked at her flatly. "Do you somehow require time to think it over, or have I made myself clear?"

"You've made yourself clear, all right." David Nolan spoke up for the first time, eyeing the younger man just as coolly. "I had high hopes when you were appointed governor, you know. But I also knew your father. No matter what you want to say, you're much more like him than you ever want to admit."

"Nobody asked you, Captain."

"Indeed," David agreed. "They did not. But so you know, I will be siding with Mrs. Jones and her family in this affair, Governor. Whatever assistance I can offer to her, I will – and I don't think that you control the courts and the magistrates quite enough to push through a show trial and conviction for Captain Flint without any challenge at all, no matter what happened twenty-five years ago. And since you may not know, having only held this post for a few months, I was appointed lord sheriff of the city last year. I would, I assure you, have more than a thing or two to say if you tried."

Gideon glared at him, while Emma put a quiet, grateful hand on David's shoulder. Then the young governor wheeled back to her. "Well?"

Emma hesitated. She didn't want to help Gideon, she didn't want to drag the world back to Skeleton Island (though it seemed that the world was more than on its way already), and she did not want anything about this situation in general – but however twisted his methods and rationale in abducting Killian, they were undoubtedly and regretfully effective. She could not run the risk of permanently losing him, she simply could not. She knew that he would be fighting like the devil to get back to her, but she could not do any less, could not sit back and think that his efforts alone would be enough, or live with herself if she did. Cooperate with Gideon, at least for the time being. Keep her family safe. Find the love of her life. That was all that mattered.

"Fine," she said, very quietly and very coldly. "What do you want me to do?"

It was almost an hour later when they finally left the governor's mansion. They walked back to the Nolan estate, where they received an anxious and relieved welcome – for obvious reasons, the rest of the family had been more than half convinced that their next call would be from Lord Murray's henchmen arriving to chuck them into the same dungeon. Upon hearing of the turn of events, Flint reamed Gideon up one side and down the other (which was enjoyable even if ultimately ineffective in terms of changing anything) but he did not tell Emma that she should have chosen differently, that she should have valued Killian's life less than she had – Flint of all people knew something about doing drastic things for lost loved ones. "So what does the little sh*tstain think we're going to do?" he growled at last. "Sail straight to Skeleton Island and stuff gold coins into his greedy paws?"

"No," Emma said. "At least not at once. He wants us to go to Philadelphia. There's something there we're supposed to pick up for him."

"What, the black magic rod of Beelzebub?" Flint continued to look thunderous. "As soon as we get Killian back, I am tearing that bastard into tiny little – "

"Listen," Emma interrupted, appreciating his bloodlust but feeling the need to keep them focused. "Philadelphia. Henry was planning to move there, remember? He and Violet and their children could be there already. He was going to work for Mr. Franklin, the printer and publisher. Everyone in the Colonies, more or less, reads one of his newspapers or almanacs. So if we could get him to put a notice in one of them – "

"We wouldn't have to rely solely on Gideon f*cking Murray's word to find Killian." As usual, Flint was two steps ahead of her. "Get all of the Americas on the lookout for him. Be better in that case that they didn't know he was Hook, or they'll lynch him themselves and spare Murray's gang of pustulant guttersnipes the trouble."

"Of course not. But if they know to look for a Mr. Jones of his description, we can tell them to report here." Emma looked at David. "If that's all right?"

"Aye," David said. "Though I also thought, if you allow, that I'd come with you. I do not doubt your ability to handle whatever you must, but it is also true that Captain Flint and Captain Swan do not have, shall we say, much protection from the world. I retired from the Royal Navy with full honors, I am a wealthy and respected member of the community, owner of business interests on Nassau, and the lord sheriff of Charlestown. They can't treat me the same way they might feel justified in treating you."

Surprised and deeply touched, even if only one of them was liable to admit it, Emma and Flint blinked in unison, then nodded. After a pause, Mary Margaret said, "Would Mrs. McGraw be staying here, then? I'd be happy to host her, of course."

"You are very kind," Miranda said. "It is true that I am not in much condition to be running hither and yon across the Americas, and your home is lovely. But I – I could not endure to be in Charlestown for long, especially by myself. I will accompany James and Emma to Philadelphia, and if Henry and Violet are there and amenable, I will stay with them. Safer, I think, than returning to Savannah alone."

Flint did not look pleased at the prospect of leaving her at all, especially with Thomas already gone on a risky and unplanned adventure, and he and his wife had not spent a single night apart since their reunion almost twenty years ago. But he knew it would be cruel to expect Miranda to face the same physical exigencies when she was already fragile, and he likewise could not risk that. Finally he said, "Add that to Murray's butcher's bill, then. I suppose, objectively speaking, that it's the best course of action. But if anything happens to you or Thomas, so help me God – "

"James." Miranda slid her fingers through his, squeezing hard, as Emma was left to consider that indeed, God help the individual who still thought it was a wise idea to come between James Flint and the Hamiltons. "We've been through worse."

Flint clearly did not find that particularly reassuring, but nodded nonetheless, extremely shortly. They sat in silence a few moments more, all of them doubtless wondering how their happy, settled lives had gone in the span of barely a month into such a dangerous mess and muddle, so many balls in the air and so many wagers raised. Emma had no idea where either Geneva or Sam were, felt serious reservations at the idea of drawing Henry and his family into this as well, and there was of course the fact that her heart would not be whole again until they found Killian. They would, one way or another, she had no doubt of that. But that did not mean that she would not count every week, every day, every hour, every minute until they were together again. Flint was not the only one who could not bear the idea of being parted from a spouse (or in his case, spouses) an instant longer than terribly necessary. We will do this. We have to.

"Fine," Emma said again, at last. "It's time to get ready."

As everyone was getting up and preparing to pack and dress, David promising that he could find them a ship, Emma stepped up and quietly caught at Flint's sleeve. He turned with a brusque expression, but managed to answer her politely. "Aye?"

"Do you remember our first Christmas together in Savannah? After Killian and I moved from Boston with the children?"

One of Flint's gingery eyebrows flicked in surprise, as neither of them were ordinarily given to sentimental reminisce, but he nodded. "Aye. Of course."

"It was then that. . ." Emma tried to find the right words. How Flint, Miranda, and Thomas had bought rather too many presents for Geneva and Sam and then denied all culpability, how the thoroughly overexcited children had dragged the adults out of bed at some ungodly hour, how – after all the years apart, the darkness, the separation, the pain and fear, the struggle and war – it had been as simple as being together for Christmas, and being so happy that they were. How they could not help but recall the Christmas spent together on Nassau with Sam Bellamy, many years ago, before it had gone sour that afternoon. Emma lifted her eyes to Flint, who was still watching her curiously, and said only, "I think it was then that I knew we all would work. As a family."

"Aye." For once, Flint did not bother to deny it or deflect it, the hint of the softer side that, after years living as James McGraw with his husband and wife, away from the madness and the sea, he was finally more able to express. "What you and Killian have given us, with Jenny and Sam – it's a gift I bloody well don't take for granted, you can have my word on that. And we'll put that family back together, Emma. Whatever it takes."

Emma nodded wordlessly. It occurred to her that while she at least had a rough idea of Geneva's whereabouts, trapped into this delicate voyage to England with John Silver, she still had none whatsoever of Sam's, and she was now forced into the very situation she had been so relieved to avoid, of worrying about him and Killian both. Sam was too good, too sweet, too open, too selfless – too much like the elder namesake he resembled in haunting ways, and Emma's heart was worn raw with running over all the possible trouble he could have gotten himself into. She knew that he struggled with the idea of whether he was good enough as a pirate, if he had not faced the same things as his parents and grandparents and even his elder sister, and with her and Killian for a mother and father, the lad was unfortunately bound to struggle with his self-esteem. But they had fought and bled and sacrificed precisely so Henry, Geneva, and Sam did not have to do the same, so they could have that happy childhood and that bountiful Christmas without the shadow of death and destruction looming over their heads, and she did not want Sam to have to live the way she and Killian had, more than anything. Yet she feared that for a young man of nineteen, he saw only the adventure he had not had, and the shame he felt for it. "I want Sam home," she said convulsively. "I want my baby home. Him and Killian. I need them home."

"We'll find them," Flint said again. "And then I'll dismantle Gideon Murray, mark my words. Come on, Emma. The tide's going out soon, and I intend to be on it."

"Aye." Emma allowed herself one more moment of weakness, of grief, of fear, and then shut it away, squaring her shoulders, preparing to face up to the fight. "So do I."

Chapter 8: VIII

Chapter Text

Reliably finding one's way when lost (or well adrift, or even simply at) sea had long been one of the most vexing questions facing modern navigation. Since 1714, there had been an outstanding act of Parliament promising a prize for whoever came up with the quickest and best method for calculating longitude, and some of the greatest minds in science were busily on the job, working from the Royal Observatory of Greenwich and other institutes of astronomical study around Europe. There was talk of inventing a portable clock that worked at sea, or an almanac cataloguing known times at fixed points around the globe, or other such innovations to drastically simplify everyone's lives, but in the interim, Geneva was still stuck with old-fashioned dead reckoning, which was singularly unhelpful when you had lost all track of your previous course. Dead reckoning depended on knowing where you had been, where you came from, and calculating an expected trajectory based on distance, speed, and time. Their last position to be known with any certainty was Bermuda, and the night – while not storming again, thank God – was still mostly overcast, rendering it impossible to get a good reading on the stars. She hoped they hadn't been forced too far off course, but there was presently no way to be sure.

Geneva muttered a curse between her teeth, wishing that Daddy was here. Killian Jones had been recognized for a nearly preternatural ability to chart a course even while in the Navy, in any sort of challenging conditions, and she could do with a bit of reassurance. Thomas was doing his best, but he wasn't a sea captain, and it would also be nice to have her father here in general. Geneva loved her mother, but she adored her father, possibly because of that strange, tender, painful way it always was with mothers and daughters, and Geneva, having spent much of her adult life to date in nearly the exclusive company of men, was not sure how to deal with it. And Emma Swan Jones was so, well, intimidating. A pirate captain in her own right, a woman who had fought through half the battles of the pirates' war while pregnant with Geneva, one of the few living people to know the secrets of Skeleton Island, brave and beautiful, who had scraped and clawed and struggled so much for her family while never thinking of herself. . . at times, Geneva could not help but feel that she was a bit of a pale copy by comparison. She likewise had a good deal of her mother's emotional standoffishness in her, a wariness of letting people too close until they proved themselves, and sometimes even after.

As well, Emma was warm and loving and attentive, but not someone who easily or naturally invited raw vulnerability or heartfelt talks about feelings, and Geneva still did not know how to relate to her parents as equals, not as their child. At times, she envied her little brother. Sam was cute and sweet and funny and everyone liked him, the typical youngest child and baby of the family who almost always got what he wanted, and who never had to force the world to take him seriously by simple virtue of his sex. Life seemed much easier for Sam.

Geneva wiped the condensation off the sextant with a fistful of her skirt, and lifted it to the sky again, squinting in search of the pole star. But though she momentarily thought she had glimpsed it, it vanished again, and she flung the heavy brass instrument down on the stack of charts with another curse. They'd just drift at sea forever at this rate if she couldn't fix it, compounding her earlier mistake and everything she had already cost them, everything she had –

"Need some help?"

She jumped, taken off guard, and smudged at her cheeks with her sleeve, in case any traitorous tears were thinking of falling. "I'm fine. You can go."

John Silver looked as if he had once more expected this response. He didn't bother asking if everything was all right, regarding her angrily scribbled calculations and the measuring stick lying next to the inkwell. Then he said, "It's difficult, I know. Let me help."

"I don't need your help."

"If it wasn't for the skirt and lace, I'd swear it was your grandfather standing in front of me."

"Then my grandfather had the right idea. You're dismissed, Mr. Silver. Good night."

Silver sighed, half to himself. Then he hobbled past her, picked up the sextant, smoothed out the crumpled charts, and read over what she had managed to get down. He did a bit of quick arithmetic, set the sundial in the muted moon-glow, and compared it to something on one of the star maps. He crossed something out, wrote something else in, and just then, the dark curtain over the heavens parted long enough for him to take a few readings with the sextant. "There," he said, filling in something at the bottom of the paper. "How does this look?"

Geneva considered ignoring him again, decided that for once it could wait, and leaned icily past him to evaluate the estimated bearings. If they were correct, they were substantially south and east of their intended route – which was not all bad, as they had covered almost a week's worth of latitude in a few days, thanks to the fury of the wind and current – but would still require considerable correction to veer back north for England. And as north was where the hurricane had been, that risked running into it again, and Geneva's confidence had been badly shaken. She had sailed with Mr. Arrow since she was sixteen, and he had a wife and son at home in Savannah, whom it would be her duty to face when they returned. She had lost crewmen before, but always somewhere else, offstage, as much as a result of their unwise decisions as any error on her part. Some died, some drank, some deserted; it was the mariners' natural order of things, not outstandingly upsetting or unexpected. But this was different.

"Your reckoning looks accurate," she said, very coolly. "Thank you. I'll check it over again if we have some clearing tomorrow. That puts us ahead of schedule for England, so I'm sure that pleases you. Silver lining to the storm clouds, bloody literally."

He blinked, apparently unsure if he was permitted to laugh at the quip, but wisely decided otherwise. "Gen – Captain Jones," he began. "This voyage, it – "

"Excuse me, my dear," a voice said behind them. "Do you think I could have a private word with Mr. Silver?"

Both of them turned to see Thomas, who had emerged from below and crossed the deck to them. He was unshaven, the considerable grey in his beard matching that of his hair, which he had kept simple and close-cropped even long after his release from the plantation work camp. In this eerie light, the lines and weathering in his face were well apparent, as was a peculiar hardness in his eyes, one that Geneva had never associated with him – with her famously hot-tempered grandfather, yes, but never her gentle, patient, kind great-uncle, who had somehow remained that way even after everything the world had done to him. She frowned. "Uncle Thomas, are you – "

"Quite well. You look dead on your feet, you know. If perhaps you pop on to bed?" Thomas' tone was cordial, but he clearly did not intend to be denied.

After a moment, Geneva nodded, leaned up to kiss his cheek, and made her way down to the cabin. But then – moved by some impulse that she did not take the time to think through, feeling bad for the deception but not enough to stop – she opened and closed the cabin door loudly enough for them to hear it, and then flattened herself in the shadows under the railing, keeping quiet. This was her ship, she reminded herself. A captain had a right to know what went on with her men aboard her ship.

For several moments, it seemed as if that would be nothing at all. Geneva couldn't see them, as they were standing above and behind her, but there was no sound. Then Silver, in a clear attempt to break the ice, said, "So, a nice evening, is it?"

Thomas snorted. "I think both of us are well bloody aware that I did not come out here to talk about the weather. I am grateful to you for saving my life, to be sure, but it cannot delay or distract me from what I have to say. And that, Mr. Silver, I will do so once, and once alone. Stay away from my niece."

"You think – " Silver sounded genuinely flabbergasted. "What, you think I have some sort of intention with her?"

"I've no idea what sort of intention you have with anyone, a character trait that you seem more than self-aware enough to realize for yourself. I have certainly noticed your persistent interest in speaking to her alone, in trying to come upon her when she's vulnerable, or making yourself sympathetic and indispensable and necessary. Geneva blames herself for the storm and Mr. Arrow's death, because she's a good-hearted lass. But we both know, Mr. Silver, that everything that happens on this voyage will ultimately be laid to your account. Don't we."

"My account has paid in due course for everything charged to it, Lord Hamilton, and I have no doubt that it will again. Have no fear on that accord."

"Always so cryptic, aren't you?" Thomas, a man to whom openness, generosity, and honesty was such a fundamental part of his nature, sounded amused. "Always the riddle, always the yellow curtain of the cut-rate conjuror's fortune-telling booth in Cheapside. Now, I suppose, will come the part where you tell me that all of this will be for our own good? If you saw Billy Bones' survival as a threat to our family, something we would have an interest in dealing with, why on earth did you not simply ask us to help you? Tell us the situation and your plan to face it, plainly? Why go to the trouble of this smoke-and-mirrors charade, this trickery and illusion and half-truth, trying to lead us by the nose on yet another madman's crusade of which only you know the full story? It has been a quarter of a century since James knew the John Silver he spoke of to me, and yet it seems, for you, that it could have been yesterday."

"Told you much of me then, has he?" Silver's tone likewise remained polite, but cool and unrevealing as blue ice. "Told you everything?"

"Not everything, which I would neither expect nor insist upon. But – "

"So he likewise keeps secrets. Flint always did. And yet you will condemn me for doing the same? I swear, I do not mean you or your niece any harm. I proved that during the storm, did I not? Geneva, I – I care – "

"What? You think you care for her?" Thomas did not sound reassured in the least. "In my experience, there is scarcely a more perilous prospect than to be cared for by John Silver. My niece is a lovely young woman, brave and kind and stubborn, and as I myself and doubtless you have observed, she is very like her grandfather. You can say that you recognize she is not the fetch and second coming of Flint for you to atone whatever guilt you carry over him, but I am not so sure that you do."

"If I have only the fetch of Flint, surely that is no cause for envy?" Silver's voice remained quiet. "Not when you yourself have the real one? And are old mistakes, old griefs we can never take back, yet beyond all hope of reparation or redemption? I would not take you for a man who did not believe in forgiveness, Thomas."

"What I believe, or do not believe, is not your concern. Only your behavior and yes, your beliefs about my niece. I know what you do to people, especially those you claim to cherish the most, and no matter how noble your intentions or how exalted your reasoning, if you try to do the same to Geneva, you will have me to reckon with. Why do any of us ever have children, a new generation, if not to give them a better life than we had, and to help them try to avoid our mistakes? Why, if you claim to still care for James or Madi after all this time, would you try to do to Geneva what drove you apart from them in the first place? Words are only words, and you have long spent them profligately, Mr. Silver. They amount to nothing."

"I did not – " Silver stopped. There was a long, tenuous pause. Then he said with studied casualness, "And you live easily sharing Captain Flint and Lady Hamilton with a ghost, do you?"

"What ghost?"

"Sam Bellamy." Silver sounded as if he had turned to look over the water. "No hint of him remains for them? I doubt it."

"If you refer to how matters were for James and Miranda with Captain Bellamy for a time, I am perfectly well aware of that arrangement. Nor do I begrudge them in the least degree. They thought I was dead, and even if they had not, it would still be their right and choice. And – "

"And as well, Captain Bellamy is dead. Easier to magnanimously forgive, to let go, when you know he will never walk in one day and ask for them back? Not that he would. That man was generous and selfless to a fault. I'm sure he would only be happy for you. Not all of us have the luxury of quiet ghosts, though. If you have made your peace with Bellamy's shadow because of his death, tell me – would you still do so easily if he was alive? If the answer is yes, well, you're a better man than most. If the answer is no, perhaps you understand my struggle with Flint's."

Despite himself, Thomas was clearly caught on the hop by that. For her part, Geneva began to wish she had gone to bed after all, and not stayed here listening to such devastatingly personal revelations, the way both Thomas and Silver seemed to be searching for the weakness in the other's armor: their shared tragedy over Flint, Silver trying to make Thomas jealous with that low blow over Sam Bellamy. Geneva had long suspected that her godfather and her grandparents had been intimately involved, but it was still not something she felt entitled to have confirmed explicitly. But they would hear her if she moved now, and despite herself, she was held in place by morbid fascination. The levels of history and revelation here were raw and shattered and mesmerizing, and she could not quite tear herself away.

After a very weighty silence, Thomas said, "If you're wondering, Mr. Silver, I don't hate you. Or even feel any particularly negative emotion over you. You likewise were an intrinsic part of James' life as Captain Flint – and as we both know, his death. I can appreciate at least that that is a great burden to bear. Still, it is one you chose to take on, and attempting to atone for it by beginning the cycle anew with Jenny will only worsen the wound, not heal it. She doesn't know to be wary of you in the same way that I do. Whether or not you intend it, you are taking advantage of that. It is in your nature. You could no sooner cease your manipulations and live than you could your breathing, and I rather think I have answered my question from earlier. You blackmailed us into this venture because if you simply asked, there was a chance, however slight, that we would refuse. You had to try to erase that chance, and supposed it would be so if you forced it. Now you're the one caught here with me, with Geneva, with Madi. I suspect that you are not finding your success quite as enjoyable as you imagined."

"I never imagined it would be enjoyable."

"I believe you," Thomas said. "Nor do I imagine that that played the slightest role in your deliberations about whether to go through with it, the same as I do not imagine that any care you suspect yourself of feeling for Geneva will stop you from doing to her what you did to James and Madi. I feel sorry for you, Mr. Silver, that such an utter void of trust or belief in the capacity or rationality or ultimate worth of anyone apart from yourself exists so unshakably within you, and I know more than enough of the cruelty of the world, believe me, to know that it was engendered by something truly unspeakable. But it has always been the case that the tighter you clutch something, the sooner you lose it. Good night, sir."

There was a pause, and then Thomas' footsteps began to descend the deck stairs with measured thumps, as Geneva pressed herself further into the darkness and prayed that he did not glance in her direction. He did not, making his way below without pausing to see what, if any, effect his words had had on Silver. Geneva likewise hesitated to see if Silver would follow, but he did not. Evidently the prospect of returning to share a small berth with Thomas was one he could not quite face just yet, and Geneva hoped that this would not totally shatter the fragile armistice in place aboard the Rose. Whatever her uncle had said, he clearly felt justified in the name of preventing worse problems later on, and Geneva knew that it came from a place of love for her. Still, she felt even odder, weightless and dazed and uncertain, as if waiting for the world to once more tip over and spin her out into space. It seemed increasingly impossible that she had ever thought she was only off for a pleasant fortnight's vacation.

The weather freshened somewhat the next morning, allowing their course to be calculated and confirmed with more certainty, and Geneva decided to ease them north in hopes of bypassing any trailing outskirts of the hurricane. Both Silver and Thomas agreed to this decision, and indeed the two of them were treating each other with almost painful civility after their midnight confessional, as if to mask any hint or hurt that it had happened at all. Geneva knew that she was not supposed to be aware of this, and thus did not remark on it, much as she could not help but wonder. She almost wished that Thomas would let her take more of the blame, if certainly not from any desire to spare Silver his deserved share. It was still her fault. A captain, for good or ill, could not shirk the consequences of their decisions. The voyage might have been of Silver's purpose and devising, but she had set them out on it.

They sailed hard for the next several days, driven on the back of a strong easterly and a powerful warm-water current, and Geneva reckoned that they had to be at least halfway. Mercifully, the Rose appeared to have taken no lasting damage from the storm, but she would still need to be thoroughly checked over and shored up when they made it to Bristol, and that was assuming no more catastrophes en route. They had plenty of provisions, so that hopefully shouldn't be a concern, but sixth-raters were not inherently designed for long-haul voyages like this – they were the small, fleet strike forces that deployed from a regional base, while the higher rates were the ones who undertook transatlantic crossings and global circumnavigations. The Rose should be fine on a trip to England via Bermuda, but their size unavoidably limited what they could carry, and extended distractions or diversions would be cutting it close. If that happened, well, Geneva would trim rations. They might starve a little, but they would survive.

It was about the sixth day after the storm when they unexpectedly spotted another vessel, about the same size and sail as them. After it did not respond to their hail, as was common maritime protocol for ships that did not want to be fired on, especially in wartime – Geneva briefly thought she might have to order the guns loaded, and despaired that a pitched shootout was exactly what she did not need. But someone on the other ship must have realized that they were living dangerously, and sent up a belated reply. They were closing on course to just a few hundred yards apart, and Geneva noticed that the other vessel was named Pan, presumably after the Greek god of the wild, music, and mischief, which seemed an unusual choice. She was not sure why, however – it was as good a name as any – and shouted up at the deck, "Hey! The captain!"

"Here." The call came back from a tall young man in a striped red-and-black coat, dark hair greased to an Indian crest, who regarded her with lean, hungry appraisal. "Where's yours?"

"I am." They were close enough by now that Geneva didn't have to shout at the top of her lungs, and she noted that the crew of the Pan seemed quite young, even more than was usual for seamen, who didn't tend to make it to a ripe old age. "Who do I have the courtesy to address?"

"Rufio." The young man looked back at her with a rooster's arrogance. "Captain Rufio."

"Captain Jones." Geneva already had a feeling that this was going to be a pissing contest. "Where are you bound?"

It was a fairly common question for ships crossing paths at sea, and yet it – whether that or her name, she wasn't sure – made something flicker in Rufio's eyes. It wasn't enough for Geneva to tell what, but it was there. Then he said. "France. You?"

"England." Geneva glanced up at the Pan's colors – it was not the French drapeau blanc, or the British Union Jack, but some sigil that must be their own design. "You've had good weather?"

Rufio shrugged. "A few squalls earlier. Nothing I couldn't handle. But – "

Just then, there was an almighty uproar on the deck of the Pan – rattling and banging at the hatch, a good deal of crashing, a thump or two that seemed to be of fists, and an indistinct shout that was – for a brief, mad second – almost familiar enough that Geneva could swear. . . no, though. No, that was bloody impossible, she was making it up. A number of Rufio's teenage crewmen rushed to the scene of the disturbance, popping down the hatch like moles down a hole, and Geneva turned sharply to the captain. "What the devil do you have in your hold?"

"Just a stubborn ox, my lady."

"That didn't sound like an ox."

"It's all right, we have it under control. I don't suppose you want us to inspect your holds either?" Rufio swept a graceful, and rather sarcastic, flourish. "I wish you fair winds and a swift journey, Captain."

There was definitely something very odd about that, and Geneva hesitated. If there had been no other mitigating circ*mstances, she might have pressed the point. She did not have any legal grounds to seize the Pan, of course – it was at least a nominally friendly vessel, had not made any provocative action, and "I didn't like the captain's face" would not serve as a valid defense before a magistrate. Besides, after the storm and how thoroughly it had rattled her self-confidence, and her own calculations about the risks of any more distractions, any brisk engagement or actual firefight was the very last thing they needed. She had already exposed her crew, Thomas, and Madi to more than enough danger, and she did not feel, even as captain, that she still had the authority to throw them headlong and recklessly into more.

And yet. She glanced sidelong at Thomas. "Is it just me, or – ?"

"Something does seem unusual." Thomas glanced down at her with brow furrowed. "If you think so, we could insist on answers, but. . ."

Geneva did not respond at once. She was doubting herself despite her resolve not to, and did not want to be seeing spooks and shadows everywhere after one scarring experience. To call for offensive action on less than the ghost of a hunch, and then indeed find an ox in the hold, would almost entirely erode the suddenly uncertain sandbank she was standing on. But –

Unwillingly, she looked at Silver. The former pirate must know a thing or two of when it was worthwhile to pursue and capture. "Well?"

"You can't help everyone, Geneva." Silver gave no indication as to whether he had noticed anything amiss or not, but either way, his opinion was clear. "We need to keep going."

This was, after all, true. And she had not listened to him the last time, and look where that had gotten him. She still knew who he was, everything Thomas had said, but he had still been right when he told her not to sail into the storm. If nothing else, unlike him, she wanted to learn from her mistakes.

"Fine," Geneva said. Turned away, beckoning for more sail, and watched as they picked up speed, the Pan falling away astern until it was nothing more than a small speck, and the it was gone, and it was once again only them and the sea. If she still wondered, if some part of her remained unsettled, she pushed it away. At least they had avoided another imbroglio. At least they had done the prudent thing. At least they were still on their way.

No matter.

No matter.

For the first, endless moment as he was falling, Sam was too surprised to move or react at all, which meant that he hit the water headfirst and plunged what felt like fathoms and fathoms below, black salty ocean blasting up every crack and crevice and forcing his mouth open in an instinctive scream, which in turn took in more of it. It was summer in the Caribbean, so at least it wasn't bitterly cold, but it wasn't exactly a soothing hot bath, and he kicked and thrashed uselessly in the void, with absolutely bugger-all idea which way was up and already choking on that first searing gulp. He did remember hearing at some point that you should kick off your shoes if you found yourself inadvertently going swimming in your clothes, and was likewise lucky that he knew how to swim; a vast number of sailors didn't, but with the amount of time Sam had spent happily splashing in creeks and rivers and the beachfront as a lad, that at least he could manage. Possibly. It went without saying that this experience was new to him.

Still whirling about, and very much conscious of the need to breathe at some point in the near future, Sam restored some sense of equilibrium, decided that that way was definitely up and if not, well, and began to stroke as hard as he could. His lungs were burning, but he had just enough presence of mind not to breach the surface like a dying whale, in case Da Souza was waiting with a pistol in the event the shove hadn't finished him off. Bloody, bloody, sh*t-eating, black-hearted bastard, him and his flea-ridden useless mutt. In an academic way, Sam had known since the start of their acquaintance that Da Souza would do precisely this to him if he felt it expedient – he'd threatened to feed both Sam and Nathaniel to the sharks en route to Cuba, after all – but somehow that had never connected to an actual possibility of him doing it. Maybe Jack's right, I believe too much of the bloody best of people. This was a massively inconvenient time to be having this epiphany, what with his present location up the arse of the Caribbean Sea, the S already several hundred yards ahead of him and Jesus Christ knew what swimming around below. Sam could have done without remembering the shark comment. Really, very much so.

Frantically, he considered his options. He could try to swim hell-for-leather and catch up to the ship, as if he ever thought he'd close his eyes again with Da Souza having already tried once to kill him, but. . . alarming as it was, there was no denying that his present conundrum had rather reshuffled his priorities. Fine, then. Sod the lot of them. He'd find Skeleton Island some other way, or just go back to Havana, jailbreak Nathaniel, then change his name and move to the uncharted lands of the Terra Australis. It seemed about the best he could hope for.

Sam stoutly insisted to himself that all of the salt water on his face was from the ocean, heart feeling nearly leaden enough to pull him back under again, as he watched the S slip into the darkness of the horizon. Jack would probably be thrilled when he woke up the next morning and discovered that Sam had conveniently vanished in the night, thus sparing him the ignominy of further association with this imbecile. Güemes had charged him with finding Skeleton Island as well, if Jack wanted to be trusted as a Spanish agent, but since he thought he was so bloody smart, he could figure it out. Go trawl around Nassau a bit. They'd probably be up to their ears in jewels in another fortnight. If there was one word to describe Sam's present state of emotion, that word would be pissed. And strangely gutted, for some stupid reason. But mostly pissed.

Very well, then. He wasn't in any danger of freezing to death, but he still was not keen on spending the night like this, and there was enough of a current that he couldn't swim back to St. Kitts and Nevis, which were a good several miles distant already. This was close enough to the main shipping corridor that another vessel might spot him if he managed to stick around, but that was not likely in the dark. He was young and strong and fit, he could keep himself afloat under his own power for a good while, but not indefinitely, and he could feel his jaw ache with a repressed yawn – he was already exhausted, he had been planning to go to bed, not bloody overboard. That was also going to cut into how long he could keep this up. Maybe there was some floating detritus nearby, a barrel or a board, a particularly buoyant clump of seaweed. If nothing else, he had time to investigate.

Sam pointed himself as close back toward the islands as the current would allow, and started to swim. The sea was mostly calm, but there was enough wind to crest wavelets of just the right height to slap him in the face, making his eyes burn and his lips sting. He wanted to indignantly inform the ocean that he was already well aware that it had won this round and it did not need to keep rubbing it in, but he doubted that would stop it. No matter how hard he kicked, the distant shapes of Nevis' mountains never got any closer, velvety patches of pure black against the beautifully star-spangled sky. I'm going to die, but at least the view is great.

Giving up the struggle to fight the current, Sam rolled onto his back and looked at the sky again. He wasn't in any mood to just let himself sink under and get it over with, but nonetheless, he had to face the very real possibility that this might be it. He would pray, but while he had been duly baptized and attended catechism with the rest of the grammar school boys, it had never much been part of his family's life aside from the bare formalities (and sometimes not even those). He didn't even know who he'd pray to. Should have expected, when they named me Sam, that I would die at sea.

Sam tried to picture his family's reactions when, or if, they ever heard the news, or if they would be forever left wondering where he had quietly and simply disappeared. They'd be sad, he supposed, especially with the compounded tragedy of losing another Sam young, and they'd certainly mourn his loss. But after a while, surely, it wouldn't be as bad. Time healed most wounds, didn't it? He didn't want to die, but he also did not have a choice in doing it. They'd still have Henry and Geneva, they'd still. . .

Bugger it. This was absolutely bloody terrible, and he did not like a single bit of it. Saying that he hoped his family would be broken by his loss was horrendous, selfish, cruel, and awful, so he had to find a way to convince himself that they wouldn't be permanently affected. But that was likewise the confirmation of his fear that he did not actually mean as much to them, and neither was a satisfying outcome in the least. He was starting to shiver. He had to conserve his strength, or he wasn't making it to dawn.

Sam eddied with the current for a while, there not being much else in the way of scintillating occupation. Then there was a brief, bright flash across the heavens – a shooting star – and reflexively, knowing it was childish but likewise not spoiled for choice, he wished on it. This had the grand result of nothing. Figured.

The wind was getting stronger. A few fingers of cloud dulled the moonlight into muted ivory. A thunderstorm or worse would not surprise Sam in the least, given how thoroughly the universe presently wanted to defecate on him, but he still could not help exclaiming, "Really?" aloud in exasperation, as if that would do anything either. Then a wave slapped him upside the head, and in the amount of time it took him to surface again, Sam realized that he'd had the thought that it might not be so bad if he didn't. This was how it started – you could face anything as long as you stayed strong, but give in, and it was just a matter of time until you were dead. No. He might be sh*t at fighting like a pirate, but he did still want to fight for his life. Come on, Sam. Think, there's a good lad.

Unfortunately, however, he had run through all of his feasible options, his limbs were cramping so badly that it was difficult for him to keep treading water, and all he could do was hope that another current would carry him in the direction of land, but there was absolutely nothing within in his power to make that happen. He floated some more, biting his lip hard; there was no point to crying, and it would dry him out and drain him of energy faster. Bloody hope all that treasure is worth it, Jack. Maybe he could come back as a ghost and haunt the devious pair of them, Jack and Da Souza alike, for the rest of their hopefully short lives. That sounded like a good plan, or at least the only cold comfort he would have. That, or –

Something bumped his leg. Gently at first, so lightly that he wasn't sure he'd felt it. Then again.

Every inch of Sam's flesh stood up cold, a stab of pure animal terror impelling him to swim hard a few lengths away – which doubtless made him look even more like a plump, splashing sea lion to whatever fanged nightmare menace of the deep was just waiting to sample him for a late supper. There was another bump, he kicked out in blind panic, and felt something sleek and big moving close around his legs. At least if he punched a shark in the nose (that was what you were supposed to do, right? Punch them in the nose?) all the ladies back home, specifically Isabelle Hunt, could learn of this somehow and cry over his bravery at his empty grave, and –

Preoccupied with visions of Isabelle tragically eulogizing his Spaniard-fighting, shark-punching, swashbuckling ways and declaring that he would always live on as a hero in her heart, Sam almost didn't notice that the beast had surfaced right next to him, blunt head dripping with water. He yelled, drew back a fist in preparation for an exiting moment of glory, and then, catching belated sight of it against the moon, which had reappeared from behind the clouds, realized to his unspeakable relief that it was not in fact a shark. It was a dolphin, regarding him inquisitively, and it trilled a few short squeaking sounds, as if to ask what on earth he was doing in its sitting room. You know, if dolphins had sitting rooms.

"Er," Sam said, not even able to bother feeling foolish for talking to a fish. "Sorry. Not my fault."

The dolphin frolicked an investigative circle around him, then dove, and Sam felt his heart sink; at least with it, he wouldn't have been completely alone. But in a few minutes it surfaced again, swam closer, and nudged at his arm with its snout, which Sam regarded in bafflement until it occurred to him that the dolphin seemed to want him to put said arm around it. He did so, its smooth skin sliding against his clumsy fingers, and scrabbled to find somewhere to hold on. It shifted and bumped him up onto its back, pulling Sam clear of the water for the first time since he had gone in, and once exposed to the night wind in his soaking clothes, he immediately began to shiver. But there had been tales since antiquity of dolphins helping and rescuing hapless humans lost at sea, and it did seem to Sam that that was what this one was trying to do. "Nice dolphin," he said indistinctly, giving it a pat. "Nice dolphin."

With him more or less hanging onto the dorsal fin, which was an awkward setup but better than nothing, the dolphin began to swim. Sam did hope that this was not to deliver him to be the main course at the shark supper club, but despite himself, he didn't think so. They seemed to be making in the direction of St. Kitts and Nevis, though he had drifted quite a long way out, and couldn't be sure. He kept being afraid that the dolphin would dive, but it didn't. The dark water was alive with glowing plankton, a veritable sea of stars to match the endless crystalline heavens overhead, and Sam would have appreciated it far more if he had not still been in abject fear of his life. His clothes were almost starting to dry, though now they were sticking to him in most unpleasant rough, damp, and salty ways. His balls would be bloody sandpapered after this.

Still, discomfort in intimate regions (and everywhere else) aside, at least he was alive, and for the first time since Da Souza had pulled his little Brutus-in-the-Senate act (not that Sam at all fancied himself Julius Caesar), he had a better-than-even-chance of staying that way. He had no clue what he'd do if the dolphin got him as far as the islands, but that was a problem he would very much like to have, and he had been out here for hours. Dawn could not be far away. It would bring with it its own set of difficulties – namingly, not boiling like a mackerel in the full heat – but as before, one thing at a time.

They were perhaps five miles offshore from St. Kitts, and the eastern sky was rich pink, the stars fading out, when Sam caught sight of a small, moving speck on the horizon further out to sea. At first he thought it was his salt-blinded, blurry, bloodshot eyes playing tricks on him, but as it disappeared behind a swell and then reappeared closer, he realized that it was in fact a man in a rowboat. A rowboat which – although he couldn't be sure – looked rather familiar.

Oh, Jesus bloody Christ. Evidently Da Souza had decided that it was too much of a gamble to assume that the sea had finished the job, and sent someone back to look around and make sure. Why he had sent one man in the launch, instead of half a dozen with rifles or the S itself, was a mystery, but then, Sam wasn't going to guess why the bastard did what he did. Probably wanted to still make it look like an accident, so nobody could blame him if they ended up unable to find Skeleton Island after all. That, or –

Bloody hell.

As the boat dipped and bobbed down the last wave, Sam could not decide whether to be relieved or angrier than ever. For his part, Jack Bellamy looked as if his own exit from the S had likewise been eventful, in a somewhat different way; he had several scuffs and bruises, as well as a black eye and a gash on the cheek, and as he rowed closer, was pardonably very surprised to find Sam sprawled on a dolphin and regarding him balefully. "Jones!" he shouted. "Get in the damn boat!"

"I'm not getting into anything with you, you bastard! You sign off on Da Souza's little heave-ho before he did it, eh?"

"He just said that he would go up and talk to you to sort things out. Not that he was going to throw you overboard!"

"So what? I thought you couldn't wait to get rid of me!"

"I didn't – " Jack cut himself off with an exasperated expression. "You are sitting on a dolphin. Get in the boat."

"I like Rutherford a lot bloody better than you, thanks. He rescued me, which I didn't see you doing!"

"Rutherford?"

"Aye, I decided his name is Rutherford. He'd probably knock you out of that boat if I told him to."

For a moment, Jack once more threatened to laugh, before a look of doubled exasperation crossed his face. "I do not believe you."

"Give me one good reason why I should believe you."

"I didn't know he was going to do that, I swear. I only woke up because the bloody dog started barking up a storm. I went up and asked what was going on, Da Souza said you'd fallen overboard, but I got the truth out of him quick enough. He tried to convince me that it was a wise decision, that we could make better time and have a better chance – as well as a bigger share of the treasure – without you. I didn't think so, so we had a. . . disagreement. I finally managed to steal the launch and get away. I've been looking for you half the damn night. Get in the boat."

Sam was not sure what part of this was more remarkable: the fact that the mangy mutt had actually inadvertently been useful, that Jack had thought enough of him – or rather his own prospects of getting to Skeleton Island – to fight Da Souza over it, or that he had bothered to come back in however vain hopes of plucking Sam out of the sea. "Well," he said, somewhat less vehemently. "I'm still mad at you."

"I am entirely capable of changing my mind and rowing away, if you and Rutherford are such great mates."

Sam considered a moment longer. It was true that he was sitting on a dolphin, but he still did not want that to be the only reason he returned to the less-than-welcoming bosom of someone who had made their disdain for him perfectly clear at repeated intervals. "You're just rescuing me because you think I'm a better opportunity to get you to the treasure, aren't you?"

"I'm not convinced you have any idea what you're doing. Still." Jack shrugged, with something oddly between anger and diffidence. "I'd rather you didn't die if it meant I would be partly responsible for it."

"You said it would be a shame if I died soon, since I'd die anyway."

"JUST GET IN THE GODDAMN BOAT, JONES!"

At this, Rutherford the dolphin evidently decided that it had had quite enough of this nonsense. It uttered a piercing squeak, pitched Sam off its back, and dove without further ado, leaving Sam once more comprehensively in the drink. He was thus obliged to swim to the stupid boat, muttering under his breath, and only discovered that he didn't have the strength to grab on when the board slipped out of his fingers as if they were overcooked noodles. He tried again, could barely feel it, could not get up enough momentum to haul himself over, and was certainly not about to ask for help, whereupon Jack grabbed both his arms and threw him into the bottom of the boat like a sack of grain. Sam lay flat, feeling as if he would probably vomit if he sat up, and did not move.

At last, when Jack's upside-down judgmental stare had become too much to deal with, Sam very slowly ventured to return himself to an upright position. He was out of one fix, aye, but that still left them squarely in another. There were no provisions in the launch, so they would have to go back to St. Kitts and Nevis anyway, and they had no ship or other apparent way of going – wherever the damnation they were going. Sam still had to rescue Nathaniel, Jack clearly cared enough about his Charlotte and the girls (Sam ignored a completely inexplicable prick of annoyance at how cozily familial that sounded) that he was not about to throw up his hands and admit defeat, and Da Souza himself was probably not feeling entirely at ease about losing both the charges that Güemes had given him. If nothing else, he would want to ensure that they were dead and not able to interfere, especially if Jack had caused a spectacle on the way out. "Mmf," Sam said, eyes closed. "Are they coming after us?"

He sensed more than saw Jack shrug. "First mate nearly grabbed me as I was taking the launch."

"So what'd you do?"

"Shot him," Jack said, with no more concern than if he was remarking on having given him a good scolding. "Don't quite think I killed him, but they had to fish him out of the water rather than worry about me. Besides, they couldn't see me in the dark, and from what I heard as I was getting the f*ck out of there, it didn't sound as if all that was one of Da Souza's more popular decisions. The men seemed to think he'd let both of their best chances for finding Skeleton Island slip through his fingers, rather literally. Not much likelihood of them being organized enough to chase us, if they were busy fighting."

"Right." Sam glanced at the several muskets and pistols piled at one end of the launch – of course Jack had brought the guns but no food – and gingerly moved his feet away from them. "So that's what you'll do if they pop up again? Shoot them?"

Jack grinned, revealing a white and slightly sharp canine. "Some of them."

Sam was unsure whether that made him feel safer or not. Jesus, Jack was a terrifying bloke. He supposed that if duty called, he could join in on said shooting – he had fought in Oglethorpe's army, after all, and shot at Jack, before he knew he was Jack (though in his opinion, Jack could still stand some shooting at now) back in St. Augustine. But he had never actually killed anyone before, and was not particularly eager to do it. Da Souza had damn near successfully tried to drown him, yes, but Sam would still have trouble pointing a gun at him and firing it with the express intention to kill him, and he felt that he would be haunted by it for a long time if he did. He supposed that was what he now had Jack for, but he didn't even quite want Jack to do it. The world is a stupid bloody place, you ask me.

He accepted the waterskin that Jack tossed him, fumbled the cork out, and practically poured it all over his face gulping it down. He felt completely desiccated, had to remind himself that this was their only fresh water until they resupplied somewhere, and did his best to pace himself, but it just tasted so bloody good. He sat there with his eyes closed, trying to regain his sense of balance, as his inner ear had been totally f*cked by the watery misadventures of the night. At least that might hold him until –

It was a small noise from Jack that made him open his eyes. They were still sitting directly in the main shipping lane off St. Kitts and Nevis, and they were less than fifty miles from Antigua, Royal Navy headquarters. Thus it was, all things considered, completely foreseeable and unsurprising that there was now what appeared to be, lo and bloody behold, a Navy ship on the horizon. Sam tried to count guns, but it wasn't close enough. It had more than the Rose, though, and frankly, any amount was too many. He was, or had been, an English soldier, but the letter Güemes had returned to him, by which he was supposed to retain their trust by handing over as "proof" that he had intercepted Jack in time, was back on the S. Besides, Jack "I Hate England" Bellamy was probably not capable of pretending to like them for more than five minutes, if that, and there was also the small fact of him being an active Spanish agent – which the Navy might not know at the moment, but which would be a bad time for him if they twigged on somehow. And since Jack had, however grudgingly and with however many ulterior motives, saved Sam's arse, it would not be terribly sporting to repay the favor by getting him flogged, or worse.

"Hey!" Sam hissed. "Row!"

"Row where, exactly?"

"I don't know! Away from them!"

Jack looked as if he was almost flattered that Sam thought he, one man with one set of oars, could outstrip what looked to be at least a fifth-rater under full sail, which had clearly seen them sitting right in front of it like nincompoops. Sam experienced what almost might have been a brief nostalgia for Da Souza and his scoundrels, then put it aside. "How about," he said, trying to sound authoritative. "How about you let me do the talking?"

"And why should I do that?"

"Because we both know that between the two of us, you're the one who's good at punching and shooting people, and I'm the one who's good at getting them to like me. And if you get on board and start throwing death stares and mouthing off, you will not enjoy what happens next. So yes. Just a suggestion."

"How do I know you won't – "

"You're just going to have to trust me!"

Jack snapped his mouth shut, even as Sam spotted someone hailing them from the deck of the Navy ship. He was tempted to follow that up with a remark about how Jack should not have bothered to rescue him if it was so unbelievable that he could be useful in any capacity, but restrained. The ship – they were near enough now to see that her name was probably HMS Griffin, to judge from her figurehead – was closing the distance quickly, pushing swift purls of whitewater before her prow, and drew level, casting a shadow over them. Someone shouted down, a line was thrown, and since Sam was still too weak to do damn-all with it, Jack grabbed him under the armpits with one arm and the rope with the other. It was in thus undignified estate that they were winched up, dripping, to land with a thump on the deck. After hours adrift, then bobbing in a rowboat, it felt almost impossibly still and solid.

"Where did you boys come from?" The captain – at least from the trim on his coat, Sam took him for the captain, even though he was almost the same age as them, no more than early twenties – was the one to speak. He had a gravitas and self-possession, however, that made him seem much older, with cool, unrevealing blue eyes and sandy-brown hair neatly tied back. "Fishing? Out this far?"

"Drifted," Sam said. "Got caught in a tricky current, we're out of Charlestown, on Nevis. Appreciate it if you could just put us back there, sir."

The young man absorbed that without expression, though Sam saw those shrewd eyes flicker to the pile of guns in the boat, which the sailors were now hauling up after them. "Were you expecting a fight? An attack of marauding barracudas? I've heard they can be quite vicious."

"Those, ah," Sam said. "Those aren't ours."

Jack groaned. Not loudly, under his breath so that only Sam heard it, but it was definitely a groan. Git.

"And your names would be?"

"James." It was Sam's second name, he could remember it as an alias, and even he thought better of telling the truth this time. "That's my friend Richard, but we call him Dick."

"Well, I'm sure we can sort this out." The young captain inclined his head. "In the meantime, welcome aboard the Griffin. My name is Rogers. Captain Matthew Rogers, at your service."

Philadelphia, capital and only city of the Crown Province of Pennsylvania, was a loud, messy, muddy, busy, brimming, industrious, intimidating melting pot. Founded by William Penn as a haven for Quakers, and known for its religious tolerance and a spirit of democracy, it attracted Catholics, Jews, Mennonites, Amish, and even a Mussulman or two, as well as settlers not only from England but across Europe. It had been almost completely dependent on trade with the West Indies earlier in the century, and Emma imagined that any number of the proceeds from their pirate days had been laundered through here, via Richard and Eleanor Guthrie's family ties among the wealthy Philadelphia and Boston merchant gentry. What happened to Eleanor, anyway? It was too optimistic to call their relationship that of friends, especially after Eleanor had defected to Gold's side, taken up with and subsequently illicitly married Woodes Rogers, and thus – in the ultimate irony – fallen with Nassau at the end of the war. Emma had almost wondered if they might find Eleanor living here in comfortable retirement, as since Rogers had been imprisoned for debt upon his return to England in disgrace, it seemed to ask far too much of Eleanor's relentlessly self-interested nature to expect her to suffer such privations with him. Rogers had, as noted, served a much-diminished second term as governor of Nassau before his death eight years ago, but Emma had never heard anything about Eleanor returning with him. It must have been impossible to endure such daily reminders of failure, severance, downfall, and defeat, no matter how much she claimed to love him.

Old curiosity, however, was still not their most pressing concern. It had been a voyage of about three days from Charlestown after David acquired them a ship, and they had to put at least a cursory effort into finding the mysterious item that Gideon Murray wanted them to retrieve, while also putting a notice in the newspapers about Killian's disappearance. Such things were not uncommon, especially for separated families trying to reunite after their arrival in the New World or remittance from indenture, but they obviously could not advertise his true identity or anything that might tip Gideon – or someone else – off about who they really were. Gideon himself had warned them that if they were not back in Charlestown by All Hallows' Eve at the latest, they would find out just how far his reach extended. Wherever they thought they could hide from him, they couldn't.

This had been cause for further extensive profanity from Flint, who doubtless would have killed the governor and sacked the city all over again as his preferred method of fixing the mess, and it could have been a bluff. But with Killian's safety at stake, they did not have the luxury of calling it. So here they were, with unclear instructions, more than a little anxiety, and a very short time to think their way out of the closing jaws of the trap. Emma also did not want to endanger Henry by telling him the full truth, but Flint – himself generally no supporter of telling anyone anything – nonetheless thought that Henry would be in more danger if he didn't know. If Miranda was going to be staying at the Swan household with Violet and the children, Flint was not in the mood for avoidable risks.

The four of them – Emma, David, Flint, and Miranda – bedraggled and weary, made their way up the docks and hired a carriage to take them to Mr. Franklin's, since if Henry was in Philadelphia, that was where they would find him. However, the city streets were notoriously bad, choked with rubbish, animal carcasses, and sloughs of reeking mud, and they spent half an hour moving ten feet behind a lumbering wagon overloaded with precariously balanced barrels. Flint looked as if he was wound to the brink of total explosion, trapped in this miserable sh*thole due to a man who had now reached the top of his most-hated list – not a comfortable place to be if you intended on staying alive for any length of time. Even Miranda did not have much to say to ameliorate the situation, and when they finally pulled up – B. FRANKLIN, PUBLISHER & PRINTER, EST.1728 painted in handsome copperplate lettering on the sign – Flint jumped down like a lion escaping the Spanish royal menagerie and determined to eat one of the king of England's men-at-arms (as, he had once informed them, happened in 1287). "If Henry's not here, Franklin better put in the f*cking notice anyway, or I'll – "

"Burn the place down?" Miranda took her husband's offered hand and stepped out of the carriage with a pained grimace. "You'd cripple the entire newspaper circulation in the Colonies if you did. James, for pity's sake, try at least once to refrain."

Flint looked as if he was mulling a retort in the vein that he had refrained thus far to the point of possibly damaging his health, but decided that no good could come of further matrimonial salvos. He stepped in front of David to offer his hand to Emma as well, tossed a few silvers to the carriage driver, then glared him off down the street. "Fine. Let's get this over with."

A brass bell over the door jangled brightly as they stepped inside. The place had a distinct air of the eccentric genius about it, as Mr. Franklin was known to have diverse and occasionally alarming scientific interests – from adventurously testing the energy of storms to taking the air (which was to say, in the nude) to purge toxins from the body. Emma did hope that on this instance he was wearing clothes, as she did not think that any of them were quite prepared to be confronted by the gentleman in his altogether, distinguished though his investigations doubtless were. They knew Franklin tangentially, as he was the uncle of the Hunt children who were family friends, and he and Killian kept up an occasional correspondence over items of obscure scholarly miscellanea. Still, it would be easier to explain what was going on if Henry was here.

"Hello?" Emma called. "Mr. Franklin?"

There was a rustle from the back, a shiver of the calico curtain that hung to shield the entrance to the inventor's inner sanctum, and then – more wonderfully than she could recall any other stroke of fortune being in a while – her eldest son emerged, tousled and ink-stained, hair standing up in thick brown fistfuls. At the sight of them, his jaw dropped. "Mum? Granny? Grandpa? What on earth – I had no idea, what the – what are you doing here?"

"It's a bloody long story." Emma hurried over to the counter gate, which Henry unlatched and stepped through, almost tripping in his haste to hug her. He clapped his grandfather on the shoulder, kissed his grandmother, and shook hands with David Nolan, still clearly completely baffled. Once the greetings were through, Emma said, "Is there somewhere we could talk?"

"I'm not off work until six o'clock – or whenever Ben is back, he's on some errand or other." Cottoning onto a rather noteworthy absence, Henry frowned. "Where's Killian?"

"That, ah." Emma swallowed. "That's partly why we need to talk."

"Is he all right?"

"I hope so. I – I don't know where he is."

"Are you all right?"

"I'm holding up." Emma mustered a smile. "I'll feel better when we have a lead or two."

"Where's Jenny, then?" Henry looked around as if in expectation of his younger half-siblings. "Sam?"

"That," Emma said, ignoring a low growl from Flint at the reminder, "is also a long story."

Henry looked unsure what to think about the fact that they had somehow managed to misplace half the family, but also decided that this was not the time for further questions. Instead, they had to wait, perching on rickety chairs off which piles of book bindings or unstitched galleys had been hastily shifted, as Henry finished inking the unwieldy rolls, checked proofs and muffled curses whenever the heavy type tray slipped, as if reminding himself that his mother was watching. They eventually heard a bell sound six o'clock, at which point Flint became very involved in staring evilly at the door, as if deducting every minute that Franklin was late from his personal estimation of the man. It was nearly half-past, and Flint's fingers were tapping in a dangerous way on his thigh, when the bell jangled again and the master of the house blew in, holding onto his hat. Benjamin Franklin was a man of unassuming stature, thin brown hair tidied in a queue and round spectacles perched on his nose. "Henry, did you finish that batch for next week's – " At that, he caught sight of his unexpected guests. "Goodness gracious, who are you?"

"Mr. Franklin." Emma got quickly to her feet. "Excuse the intrusion. I'm Emma Jones, Henry's mother, and – "

"Ah, yes, yes, Captain Jones' wife." Franklin, not a man to forget details, however small, eyed her shrewdly. "Always very helpful when I need a bit of ancient Greek or Latin translated, is your husband. Is he here?"

"I'm afraid he's not, and it's complicated. May I present Captain David Nolan, late of the Royal Navy, and my parents, James and Miranda McGraw?"

"Charmed, charmed." Franklin shook hands vigorously with the men, and bowed low over Miranda's with a kiss – he was known to have a certain reputation as a connoisseur of women, especially older ones, and Miranda was still possessed of a stately, silver-haired beauty, her quiet dignity only enhanced by advancing years. Possibly sensing, however, that this was substantially worsening Flint's already suspect opinion of him, Franklin quickly straightened up. "How may I be of assistance this evening, then?"

"Is it safe to speak in confidence here?"

Franklin blinked. "Aye – the only other person with a key to the premises is John, my other shop assistant. A Negro, actually, but most clever. He's not on until tomorrow, so –"

"A Negro?" Flint interrupted. "A free man, or a slave?"

"He is – " Franklin blinked again, as if attempting to recall what, exactly, business of Flint's it was. "He was a slave, I admit, but when Henry took up his post, he said that he could not work with slaves, only free men paid an honest wage. It has cut into the profits, but it is true that the subject of slavery is a vexed one, and one on which I have not yet ordered my thinking, so – "

Flint shot a fiercely proud look at his eldest grandchild, then turned back to Franklin with a scathing one. "A man as smart as you, and you're still struggling over the morality of whether it's right to hold other men in chattel bondage? Killian must not have known that, or he would never have patiently translated all those bits of antiquarian rubbish you sent him. Are there any other dilemmas on which we can assist the diligent advancing of your genius, Mr. Franklin?"

Both Emma and Miranda gave him warning looks, while not going so far as to rebuke him outright – this was, after all, a subject on which their family held strong and non-negotiable positions, and they were both also proud of Henry for standing his ground. Still, though, they did need Franklin's help, and as Miranda took care of backing Flint down, Emma began to explain the lamentable situation in which they found themselves. Franklin listened gravely, clucked over the scandal of honest and law-abiding (at least nowadays ) citizens being so arbitrarily wronged by unknown miscreants, and promised to compose a notice for distribution amongst his weeklies and the next printing of Poor Richard's. Emma had not told him all the details of the agreement in which they found themselves entrapped with Lord Murray, but enough to make it clear that this was a delicate matter, and undue notice from agents of the Crown was best avoided. The alacrity with which Franklin agreed made her suspect that he had some prior experience with this, which might have improved Flint's opinion of him by half an inch. He fetched quill and paper, scribbled out a preliminary draft, had them review and suggest changes, and put it in a drawer to be set and inked at the earliest convenience tomorrow.

By now it was well past dusk, the city watchman was loudly rapping on the front door of the print shop to warn them that they should be shut up and on their way home if they wanted to avoid difficulties after curfew, and they were obliged to call a halt for the night. Franklin closed and locked the shop, then – doffing his hat at Emma and Miranda – set off for his place of residence around the corner, while Henry, noting that the hire carriages likewise went home at nightfall, asked if they would mind walking to his. It had already been a very long day, and everyone was very tired, but there was hardly another option, so they agreed.

After a brisk stroll of about fifteen minutes, they turned down a narrow lane that did not smell quite so fragrantly as the others, lined with plain, respectable slate rowhouses, stained with soot smoke and dimly lit by a streetlamp – this was struck by a deft-fingered boy in rags, who shimmied up the pole like a monkey, conjured a spark, and set it to burn the oil wick inside the isinglass lantern. Henry led them up the steps of the house third to the left, knocked and let them in, and called, "Violet? We have company."

Someone answered from the back of the house just as Henry's eight-year-old son, Richard, came running at the sound of his father's voice, clearly wondering what on earth had taken him so long to get home from work. At the sight of the four adults, however, he skidded to a halt. He had met his grandparents before, but only as a very small child, and he of course did not know David at all, so Henry ruffled his hair and made introductions. Both Emma and Miranda were charmed (if also alarmed) when Richard asked what he should call the latter, if the former was already "Grandma." Flint would definitely never swallow "Great-Grandpa," and that sounded rather elderly even for Miranda's tastes, so they decided on "Grandma Emma," "Granny Miranda," and "Grandpa," which Flint could accept as it was what he was used to being called anyway. Nomenclatorial difficulties sorted out, they proceeded into the kitchen (Emma was already wondering how Henry proposed to fit them all, as the house wasn't that large) and Violet Swan looked up with a start. "I didn't realize it was so late, Henry, or I'd have been much more worried. Why didn't you – oh my."

"Er. Hello." Emma smiled awkwardly at her daughter-in-law. "We've also interrupted you with company. I apologize."

This was true, given that Violet had been sitting at the kitchen table with another young woman, who had thick brown curls, lively brown eyes, freckles, and a sparklingly beautiful, dimpled smile, which she flashed in equal embarrassment as she tried to tug her skirt loose. "You seem to have your hands full, Violet. I'll get out of your way. Where have the girls run off to?"

"Upstairs, I'm sure." Violet elbowed through the unexpected throng in her kitchen, stuck her head into the hall, and shouted, "Cecilia! Lucy!"

"We didn't mean to break off your visit," Emma said apologetically to Violet's guest. "I'm sure you can stay, if you – "

"Oh no, it's all right, we've been here for hours anyway." The young woman rolled her eyes, but smiled again. "Cecilia, my niece, she and Lucy became dearest friends as soon as the Swans moved here, so Violet and I have been getting together to chat and let the girls play. We live just down the lane, actually. Will you be here long?"

"I've no idea," Emma confessed. "I'm Emma Jones, Henry's mother."

"Family visit? That's lovely. I'm Charlotte Bell, it's a pleasure to meet you."

"And you." Emma smiled at Charlotte, liking her already, and feeling it a good thing that Violet and Lucy had quickly made female friends in a new city – they must have only been in Philadelphia for a matter of weeks, and while Henry had the printshop and Richard had the local grammar school as an opportunity to meet people, it was harder (as everything in the world was) for women. "Have you lived here long?"

"Oh, not that long." Charlotte waved a hand. "It's good for us to get out as well. And I should – ah, young lady, it's time to go."

Emma glanced down to see two little girls – her granddaughter Lucy, who was five, and another one a year or two older – make their way shyly through the crush of strangers. Emma had heard Violet call the name "Cecilia," so she supposed that was who this one was. She also noticed that the child was of mixed race, with a fine, light-brown complexion and springy dark curls that had been wrested back and tied with a pink ribbon. Life as a mulatto or a mestizo was sometimes more difficult than life as a Negro or Indian, since in that case at least you had a community of others like you. A "half-breed" was too tainted by color for polite society, and regarded warily among their mother's folk (as it was invariably their mother, their father being a white man) for their ties to the overseers and invaders. Sensing Emma's look, and clearly mistaking it for the genteel disdain which must greet Cecilia's appearance elsewhere, Charlotte put a protective hand on her niece's head, drawing her close. "Aye, Ceci, it's past time for us to be leaving."

"She is a beautiful child," Emma said, anxious to atone if she had given inadvertent offense. "I'm thrilled that Lucy's found a playmate. You're welcome back any time – if Violet agrees, of course."

Charlotte studied her face, as she must have heard any number of those uttered insincerely for the sake of polite appearances, and which were never intended to be accepted. But she must have seen something genuine in Emma's, as the tension in her shoulders relaxed fractionally. "What time is it, anyway?"

"Too late for a woman and a child to be out alone." David Nolan cleared his throat. "With your permission, Miss – Mrs.? – Bell, I'll walk you and Cecilia home."

"If you don't mind." Charlotte looked surprised, but appreciative. "Time does fly when one is having fun. Violet, I'll call by once everything is sorted out. Come along, Ceci."

With that, they departed, with David striding chivalrously alongside to guard them from any lurking midnight malefactors in Philadelphia's streets (well, not midnight, but you know). Violet rearranged a considerable quantity of the kitchen and parlor in search of enough chairs for everyone, they crowded up to the table as she put supper on, and the children kept looking very hopeful that the unexpected arrival of their grandparents would result in candy or other treats. Henry explained the whole sorry saga to his wife so that Emma did not have to do it again, and Richard frowned. "Someone snatched Grandpa Killian?"

"We think so." Emma had wondered if they should discuss this in front of him and Lucy, but if they were going to be here for any length of time, it was better to have it out in the open. "We're here to see if your father and Mr. Franklin can help us find him."

"I want to help too."

"That's very kind of you, sweetheart, but I think your parents might have something to say about that." And yet, however symbolic an eight-year-old boy's offer of assistance was, Emma could not help but be heartened by it. It was another reminder how wrong the whispering ghosts of Charlestown were – she was not alone, she had a large, messy, multi-generational, and often ginger and cantankerous family that loved her and Killian dearly, and would pull together as one until they found him (and for that matter, Sam). It was a gift she would never quite get used to, nor entirely take for granted either.

David returned soon thereafter, and they ate dinner and talked of fairly inconsequential matters – Lucy having decided that she wanted to sit on Flint's lap, and Flint making a show of grumbling, but not having bothered to actually move her – until the hall clock struck nine and the children, who had already been allowed to stay up late, were no longer able to hide their yawns. They were taken off and put to bed, though disappointed to miss the fun, and finally, when it was just the adults, Emma said quietly, "Well. We should open that letter Lord Murray gave us. We need to start working out what he sent us for, and why."

David went to get it out of his cloak, broke the handsome gold-wax seal, and unfolded the paper. They craned over it, as if expecting some mystical revelation, or at least the semblance of a clear instruction. But the only thing scribbled on it was an emblem – a white rose – and what appeared to be an address. If Gideon had meant to send them off with a final cryptic f*ck-you, he had indubitably succeeded.

"What's this?" Emma had really been hoping for something a bit more tangible, but it niggled at something in the back of her head. Something about the décor of the governor's mansion. Blue and gold – and white roses. She'd thought it was just an innocuous design touch, but –

Then it hit her, and she looked up at Flint and Miranda with a start. The three of them had made a visit to Jamaica, long ago, to approach Thomas' cousin, Lord Archibald Hamilton – at the time the governor, but also a man in the habit of handsomely paying off pirates. Flint had speculated that Lord Archibald was trying to create a shadow Navy capable of challenging the real one, in service of his traitorous political ambitions. But that had been over for years now, the brief uprising decisively crushed at the battle of Sheriffmuir and the ringleaders executed. The Hanovers had been on the throne for almost thirty years. Surely this was the very embodiment of a hopeless cause. But if it wasn't, if they still thought they were trying again –

"Oh, bloody hell," Emma said, feeling another pang of missing her husband as she did. "I think he's a Jacobite."

Chapter 9: IX

Chapter Text

Liam was stirred from a murky, circular, maddening dream by the sound of skittering. Peeling one eye open and promptly wanting to shut it again and die – he was in enough pain in the mornings when he slept in a featherbed, so spending the last week on hard, damp stone had just about done him in – he managed to catch a glimpse of the latest luxury of the Bristol city gaol: a brown rat as long as his forearm, perched near his foot and sniffing about in hope of food. Liam, with all the time he had spent on ships, was no stranger to rats, but it had been a long time since he'd had to deal with them on a regular basis, and he hated the diseased buggers anyway. With a cry of revulsion, he kicked out at it, causing it to speed through a hole in the stones to whatever nest of its brethren vermin awaited it, and sat up straight, sleepiness suddenly evaporated at the prospect of more of them lurking about. This correspondingly caused his back to hate him even more than it customarily did, and he caught short, grimacing and swearing under his breath.

The commotion had roused young Jim Hawkins, who was bedded down on some moldy old grain sacks across the way, and he squinted around with the expression of someone who was still hoping, despite the six days and counting in their current predicament, that he would wake up and discover it had just been a bad dream. "Eh? Whazit?"

"Sorry. Rat." Liam supposed it was a mercy that it was August, though English summers were not by anyone's standards terribly warm, otherwise the two of them would have frozen solid down here. No wonder nearly as many prisoners died awaiting sentence as they did on the gallows, which was another thought best done away with. Liam felt horrendously guilty for getting Jim into this with him, but the fact remained that it was not – for bloody once – his fault. He had no notion who had set the Benbow on fire or why Sarah had accused him of it, though he thought darkly that he could guess, and he kept waiting for Lady Murray, with or without Billy Bones, to appear and make them (or at least Liam) choose between assisting her or rotting in this miserable sh*thole forever. Jesus. It had been weeks since he vanished from Paris, and Regina had to be tearing the place apart looking for him; she knew it was not in his nature to indiscriminately disappear. She might have marched into King Louis' very privy closet at Versailles to demand answers, a mental image that summoned a grim smile to Liam's lips. Much as her techniques might sometimes lack in refinement or concern for other people's feelings, his wife did know how to get things done. It was one of the things he loved about her.

However, even if Regina did somehow follow the Ariadne's-thread to find him in Bristol, it would not be nearly as soon as Liam needed her to do it. The constables had been by last evening to smugly inform him and Jim that they were to be tried on the morrow, and it was reasonably plain that any other verdict apart from "cleared of all charges" would see them taking the infamous walk up the wooden steps before the baying crowd, a hooded man waiting at the top. Nobody would shed any tears on Jim's account, by the sound of things, and while his mother would doubtless plead for her son's life, one widow whose house and livelihood had just burned to the ground did not possess outstanding political influence. Even if she could save Jim or arrive at a plea deal, however, this would involve convicting Liam. She had accused him of the crime in front of half of Bristol, and the crowd had to see someone punished for it, whether or not he was, strictly speaking, guilty of it. Civic order and public peace of mind demanded no less.

"Thought you were those bastards," Jim said now, sitting up and tying his hair back in a tangled ponytail. "When they come for us, you think there's any chance of fighting our way out?"

Liam's heart clenched, as he could not help but hearing, and seeing, more than a passing resemblance to the young Killian. That was exactly what his brother at the same age would have suggested, and with the same disregard for the odds or the likelihood that it would just get them into more trouble as a result. "I'm not sure that would do us much good."

"We could try." Jim's grey eyes blazed. "Better than sitting here like rats ourselves and waiting meekly to be paraded to a hot courtroom where they would jeer and throw rubbish at us and whisper behind their hands. I'm not going to be condemned to hang by some prick in a powdered wig, and I doubt you will either."

"Look, lad, we have to think about this." Liam coughed, which felt like a hot knife between his ribs. "I agree that getting to trial might already be too late for us, but we can't just up and try to stage some improbable escape without a solid plan as to how – "

It was clear from Jim's face that he thought they very much could, but just then, they were interrupted by the sound of echoing footsteps in the corridor outside the cell. They tensed, turning to look, and it was then that, at last, the terrible twosome made their long-awaited reappearance. Lady Fiona was dressed for visiting, never mind that it was to a filthy dungeon, and Billy looked as stubborn and glowering as ever, though he had made some attempt to trim his beard. He stood almost a head and a half taller than his companion, towering like a silent colossus behind her, as she strode up to the bars and clapped her gloved hands. "Well. This really is quite ghastly, isn't it?"

"Aye." Liam did not feel in the least reprieved, or relieved that he had correctly predicted her intervention. "Though it was nicer before you arrived."

"You know that's no way to speak to someone who has been ceaselessly laboring on your behalf, don't you? I would have come sooner, but I've spent the last several days trying to sort out this regrettable misunderstanding with the authorities. None of us want the spectacle and risk of a trial, do we? We know you haven't done anything wrong, but it might be hard to convince the bloodthirsty masses, mightn't it?" She giggled girlishly, which set Liam's teeth further on edge – Good God, he loathed this woman. "They will have their pound of flesh. But if you could avoid it. . . you'd want that, wouldn't you?"

"You have the blue bleeding f*cking hell of a lot of nerve," Liam said, "to come down here and propose that I take your bargain if I want to avoid hanging for your crime. As if it isn't damn well obvious who actually burned down the Benbow. I don't know how you bamboozled Sarah into lying for you, but I intend to find out."

Lady Fiona giggled again, but her teeth were bared, her eyes flat and black as river stones. "I think you will find that very difficult to prove, Captain. Especially after I promised the city such a useful amount of money to rebuild the poor old place and compensate everyone, Mrs. Hawkins especially, affected by the tragedy."

"So pay her. Don't just toy with her like a cat with a mouse."

"Oh you see, Captain, I do so very much want to, but it is that precise matter in which I need your assistance. From where might I acquire that money?"

"Let me guess. Skeleton Island?"

"Indeed. So I can't make amends for this sad accident, from the goodness of my heart, unless you help me to do it. Unless, that is, you wish to deprive your old friend's widow and son. Such a pity, after Hawkins died in your service."

Liam flinched. He did not know how much Lady Fiona knew about the circ*mstances of James Hawkins senior's death, and could see absolutely no good to come of her finding out. Likewise, he had considered once or twice that he should really tell the truth to Jim, but he shrank at the prospect. From the days in which Liam had committed his first unforgivable sin in this city for his brother's sake, he had hoped to bury the bodies deep, and no matter how spectacularly that had subsequently blown up in his face during the Jones brothers' confrontation and downfall on Antigua with Gold, Plouton, James Nolan, and Jennings, he could not quite bring himself to it. Besides, for better or worse, Liam Jones' first priority, his integral inclination, his heart and soul and purpose for living, had always been to protect Killian. Killian was not here and could not defend or explain the action of killing Hawkins, even when the man had been in arms and in mutiny against him, and so Liam was not about to divulge it behind his back. Even after so long living apart, in different countries and in different families – Killian with his large, loving pirate clan, Liam and Regina with only each other, as she had deliberately rendered herself barren long ago and there had been no more children since Henry and Geneva had returned with their parents – he could no more do differently than he could walk on his hands, or breathe water, or fly.

A vision of Jennings swam before Liam's eyes, as it did every so often. You're just like me, you know. Now you're even getting to the place of admitting it. You may have killed me, Jones, but I will never die. How can I, when I live on every day in you?

"Well?" Lady Fiona smiled sweetly. "You could drag young Jim to trial with you, though that would be such a further cruelty to his poor mother. Or – "

"Don't listen to her," Jim said. "We can outsmart a trial."

No, lad. We can't. Not when she had already informed them that she had bought off the entire jury, with the very money she expected Liam to help her fetch. Jim knew that they were in trouble, but it had not connected to an actual understanding of how loaded the dice were. He thought that presenting convincing evidence to the contrary would logically change men's minds, rather than entrenching them still more firmly in their beliefs, evidence be damned. Liam had too long and bitter experience with the mood of a mob to put false and feeble hope in such a deliverance. And he had to get them out of here somehow. That was his job and always had been, no matter how much of his soul it cost. Can't be much left by now anyway.

"Very well," he said loathingly. "I agree to help you, and you conjure up a plea deal from your puppet jury. They release Jim with no charges."

Jim looked at him in startlement; they had forged an unavoidable rough solidarity due to being stuck in a small cell together for a week, but that was a long way from agreeing to take the fall for both of them. "Captain Jones – "

"Come now, don't you want to be free?" Lady Fiona looked at him with those bright snake eyes. "It's a very gallant offer he's making, and between you and me, he does rather owe it to your family. All this time with just the two of you, and he hasn't told you the truth about your father's death?"

The air seemed to turn as cold as December. Jim looked blank, then suspicious, then angry. "My father died fighting pirates in the Caribbean. I already know – "

"Did you ever learn which pirates? And why?" Lady Fiona turned back to Liam with an expression of mock concern. "Oh no. You haven't told him. How dreadful."

"Tell me what?" Jim's voice abruptly caught in a boyish crack. "Tell me what?"

"Why, about the reason you grew up without a father." Lady Fiona's eyes sparkled more madly and mercilessly than ever. "Don't you want to know?"

Jim looked between her and Liam, as if expecting and half-hoping that this was just another flat-out lie. It took him only one glance at Liam's face, however, to see that this at least she was not making up. "What do you know about my father's death? What happened?"

"Why," Lady Fiona said. "That none other than – "

"I killed him." Liam did not even form the thought or the words consciously, just knew that they were rushing out of him with no ability to be checked or called back. "I. . . should have told you. I killed your father. It was a terrible situation, he rallied the men still loyal to the Navy after K – after we went over into piracy. I faced him in battle, and I. . . I did what was before me. I have never forgotten it."

In truth, Liam had been far away from the battle of Nassau wherein all of this had happened, convalescing on the Maroons' island after he had been stabbed by his younger half-brother. It struck him suddenly that Billy – who had been aboard the Walrus and fighting with the others, including Emma, Killian, and Flint, that whole time – knew bloody well that Liam had not killed Hawkins, that he had never set foot on New Providence Island or gone over to the pirates' cause, even after Killian fell into the mad thrall of Captain Hook. Billy could open his mouth and disprove the entire story with a word.

Billy said nothing.

"You. . ." Jim, at that moment, looked exactly as Killian had that night on Antigua, when he found out what Liam had actually done to get them out of slavery. "You k. . .?"

"Aye." Liam's voice scraped like gravel in his throat. "I – "

"You were his captain. His friend. My mother told you that the Jones brothers would always be welcome beneath her roof. She hugged you. Is that why you looked like that when she did? As if you could barely breathe with the guilt?"

Liam was considerably impressed with Jim's perceptiveness, though he had absolutely no idea how to respond. This seemed, at least, a perversely fitting venue for such a false confession, already imprisoned for a crime he had not committed. "I'm a coward, lad. I know that about myself by now. I have. . . I have no excuses."

Jim stared at him with the stunned, speechless mask of a boy who had grown up without a father, the very look Liam had seen in Killian's eyes every day. Finally, very quietly, he said, "Get out."

"Jim – "

"I'd rather rot here forever than accept my freedom as a favor from you. Who knows. Maybe you did burn down the Benbow – old habits and all that?" Jim's lip curled. "Though whatever happens to you, I think we can safely say you deserve it."

Liam concurred. He had, he always had, knew it perhaps even more unshakably than Killian and his long-ingrained self hatred. But before he could remotely concoct what to say, Lady Fiona jerked her head, and a few of the prison orderlies appeared to unlock the cell and haul Liam and Jim out. Jim was marched off in one direction, while Liam's wrists were put into irons and he was conducted down a low stone corridor smelling of damp and lined with unlit torches, through a blaze of pale sunlight, and into the narrow, stuffy office on the far side. A magistrate's clerk squinted down at him, recorded his statement, and informed Lady Fiona that it would be duly passed along to the relevant individuals, and Liam himself was issued with a warning. Now that his bail and asylum from persecution were a matter of public record, and since Lady Fiona accordingly had actual documents to call in against him if he should flout her again, it would be extremely unwise to do so. She was tightening her grip on him, weaving him into multiple strands of the spiderweb, not counting on any one thread of guilt or deception or blackmail alone to bind him to her, but instead using as many as she could, making it harder and harder for him to think of escape. This woman is as dangerous as Jennings was, if not more. I'll have to kill her too, if it's even possible. He had ended one demon; asking to be so fortunate as to end two felt beyond a lifetime's worth of luck. Then they can both bloody haunt me together.

Once Lady Fiona had gone, presumably to ensure that her cooked books were settled, and left them together to wait, Liam glanced over at Billy. Whatever the other man thought he was holding over him, Liam wanted it out now. "Why didn't you tell Jim I was lying?"

Billy grunted. "You want to incriminate yourself, who was I to stop you?"

"Unless you're waiting for the moment when you can? Reveal the truth, position yourself as the beacon of it, and prove whatever bloody point you're trying to make with all this?"

"You know." Billy looked grimly amused. "Time was, I thought just like you, Jones. Not in terms of honor – I think we both know that's flexible, to say the least – but protection. I was so bloody dead-set to protect everybody. The crew, mostly, but also Flint. We fought like cats and dogs, aye, but I still protected him, for the longest f*cking time, even after he tried to kill me. Out of some misguided sense of fairness that if I was protecting the crew from him, I must also protect him from the crew. Even John Silver, headfirst up Flint's arse as he could otherwise be counted on to be, knew what he was. Then I realized, if I'm the only thing holding it together, if I'm the one standing there like Atlas stopping it from crashing down and crushing them, what sort of f*cking existence is that? Flint's madness drove us hither and yon, and I stood by too long. Even helped him in it. I knew what the Navy was, from Captain f*cking Hume and the Scarborough – but eventually, if the Navy and Woodes Rogers were the instruments that had been given to me, why not use them? I knew Flint would most likely try to cache Vane and Jennings' gold on Skeleton Island, if he intended to cache it at all. Silver was too busy profiting off being his confidante, he wasn't going to help me do what needed to be done. So yes. I went to Rogers. I told him where to go. And from that day forth, I haven't protected anyone anymore. Not once."

"So I see." Liam looked back at him, just as coolly. "So that is what this is? Revenge on Flint?"

"I intend to see him pay for his crimes finally and in full, yes."

"He has lived for almost twenty-five years away from that world, in peace, with his family. You're still bent on destroying him now?"

"If he learned about me, would he not be bent on doing the same?"

Liam was tempted to point out that this seemed a rather chicken-and-the-egg conundrum to him: nobody was about to portray James Flint as an innocent and passive victim in whatever skullduggery was afoot, but Billy had decidedly started the present difficulties, and thus far, any of Flint's actions to protect himself and his family – the exact thing that Billy was so deriding – could appear as justified defensive measures. It was that, therefore, that made Liam feel far more of a kinship to Flint than to Billy, outward appearances aside. Billy had once protected and cared for others and felt as if he had to rue and repent the day he ever had, whereas Flint had slowly learned how to do so again, to do more than just destroy and avenge, to value his loved ones and their nearly miraculous restoration to him more than his rage. They had in fact proceeded in diametrically opposite directions, and Liam – for whom it was second nature, even now, to take the blame for Killian's crime, forged in those floggings aboard ship where he gritted his teeth and counted strokes and told his little brother later that it wasn't so bad, rather than see Killian go under the lash himself – understood Flint's choices far more, and admired the strength it had taken to break the habit. Wounds made when we are young never entirely heal.

"So," Liam said after a moment. "How exactly did you learn that Flint was alive, if that was what set you off on this hunt for vengeance?"

Billy glanced at him with a twisted smile. "Oh, you'd appreciate it."

"And?"

"Do you think I'm a f*cking idiot? We might be unavoidably working together, but we're not allies. I know, because you've just shown it again, that when push comes to shove, you'll protect Flint and the others. So I'm not about to tell you."

"Bloody hell." Liam knew that he himself was stubborn, knew that it was perhaps his paramount character trait, but he wanted to hope, however vainly, that he had never been quite this stubborn. "You're not a stupid man. You can see that Lady Murray is completely bloody insane. So how do you justify working with her, selling her whatever she wants, if it gets you closer to revenge for a quarter-century-old grudge?"

"That's the catch. I don't have to." Billy looked him dead in the eye. "As I said, you're no stranger to that yourself, so if you're asking how you justify it, that's a problem for you."

"She's blackmailed me. Threatened me, forced me, used Sarah and Jim's safety as pawns, destroyed their home, removed me from mine, cut me off from my wife, and set me up to choose between being sentenced to death or taking part in her mad little trip with you. Whereas you approached and collaborated with her willingly. I'd say our positions are not quite equal."

"Maybe not." Billy shrugged. "As I also said, though, you're the one who still cares about that, is twisting yourself into knots over the apparent injustice of it. You could be the most dangerous of us all if you had any sense of self-preservation, Jones, but instead you'll throw yourself away time and time again for your little brother. That's not love. That's pathetic. I spent too long throwing myself away for unworthy men before I realized that the damage could never be undone. It seems to be, however, a lesson you will never learn."

Liam's fists clenched, even as Billy tensed, shifting in preparation to block any potential swings taken at him. They stared each other down, air crackling, both of them clearly realizing that there would be a reckoning of some sort before this was over, and possibly of the sort that one of them would not walk away from. And that is far too bloody likely to be me. Physically, Liam and Billy were almost exactly the same age, but Billy had still been actively serving on ships and fighting and scrapping and adventuring God knew where the past decades, while Liam, with the legacy of two serious wounds and the anguished, grisly, scarring ordeal that had been his final confrontation with Jennings, had settled down in Paris and given up that life. He was not completely a decrepit old man, but he wasn't who he used to be either, and he knew that. However he was getting out of this – if he was getting out of this – it would have to be another way.

The tension was broken by the door opening, as Lady Fiona stepped inside. "Captain," she said sweetly. "You'll be happy to hear that Jim has been cleared of all charges and permitted to go home – well, wherever his mother is staying. It is, therefore, time for you to hold up your end of the bargain. Our ship has been resupplied, and we'll be leaving this evening. You'll be serving as captain."

"To Skeleton Island?"

"Eventually." Her smile remained infuriatingly coy. "We have plenty of other business to do first, but yes, we will be making our way there. Oh, and the other thing. I do know where your family lives, including the little brother you are still so bafflingly devoted to protect. So. . ."

"Do you?"

"Of course." Once again, that sickening, kittenish smile. "Savannah, isn't it? Georgia?"

That, despite everything she had already done to him, rocked Liam on his heels. He had still been telling himself that this was some combination of spite, limited information, and lucky guesses, and that she didn't actually know where to find them and hurt them. But hearing that comforting delusion so conclusively dispelled took all the air out of him. He had nothing left to say, no further protestations to make. He had to do whatever it took to keep her away from them, as he had with Jennings, and if this go-round killed him, well. It seemed long overdue.

"Well?" Lady Fiona said. "Ready to go, Captain?"

Liam lifted his head. "Oh," he said. "Oh, yes."

Killian continued to bang on the hatch long after he knew Geneva was gone, that she had not heard him, that he had missed whatever slim, wild, impossible chance he had ever so briefly had. Rufio's troupe of junior jackasses had duly come down to pummel him and drag him back into the darkness of the orlop deck where they had tried, more or less successfully, to contain him for the duration of the voyage. But no matter how clever they were with knots and chains and ropes and restraints, they still had not yet found one that could hold him permanently. For a while, yes, but he always worked out a way to break it in the end. That was what had allowed him to climb up when he heard them approaching another ship, planning to make a break for it if he possibly could – and then in that heart-stopping, lightning-struck moment, realizing that the ship was none other than the Rose, and his daughter was the one speaking. He'd tried to shout for her, would have torn his way through wood and canvas with bare hand and stump to get to her, but the Lost Boys (as he had heard them calling themselves) were too quick on the uptake. Geneva hadn't known it was him. It hadn't been enough.

The one godforsaken useful bit of information that Killian had gleaned from the whole miserable affair, therefore, was the fact that they were bound for France. Rufio had, of course, taken great pleasure in keeping this from him, and even the boys had been careful not to mention this in his hearing. Killian did not know what was in France to the wee bastards' interest, but there was one thing in France that was very much to his interest, and that was his brother. The Lost Boys might not be taking him conveniently to Paris, but it was not a total stretch of the imagination, and if so, Killian would do whatever it took to get to Liam. Liam would know what to do, he usually did. At least, he could put the wheels in motion to get word back to the rest of the family, and possibly also help kick Rufio and the world's worst nursery school's collective behinds, just for the principle of the thing. If Killian could get to Liam, it might not matter that he had missed Geneva. Indeed, he all but bloody had to. Let himself be squirrelled off to some disreputable French captivity, and his goose might be cooked for good.

Of course, this assumed that Rufio had not just been inventing some sundry destination to throw Geneva off the scent, but Killian had to hope this was not the case – for one thing, he didn't think the strutting peaco*ck was clever enough to think that fast on his feet. Yet as assumptions were all he presently had, there was nothing for it. The trip had been one such extended fit of misery – rattling in the hold like a ballast-stone during the storm, never fed enough, obsessively working to undo whatever knot they had him in, fighting flashbacks to Captain Freeman, Captain Campbell, and Captain Silver alike, and worrying endlessly about Emma – that Killian did not care in what fashion it ended, as long as it f*cking did. He had tried to keep track of time by scratching marks in the hull, one for each day, but in constant darkness, it was very hard to be sure, and he felt like something pale and spongy, a mushroom or a fungus that only grew at night. It had been a while, that was all he knew. A fortnight at least, closer to three weeks. Who knew what sort of time they were making, but it seemed good.

Killian spent the next several days, therefore, conserving his strength and lying low after the failed escape attempt – he couldn't take these brats thumping him indefinitely, especially after being fed a diet of sh*t and kept in the damp and dark. He was already feeling as bloody rickety as a scarecrow, and he tried to find small exercises, ways to keep himself from rotting entirely to sludge. They had, of course, confiscated his hook, but after quite a lot of searching, crawling on all threes through the hold, he found another one, with which some invention he managed to make fit into his brace. That ascertained, he took it out again and hid it, as he did not want them tipped off that he had one. No, that was a surprise best saved for the opportune moment.

He lost track of how many days it was after that, but it wasn't more than about another week and a half. Killian wondered if it had been his birthday at some point, as it seemed to be getting on in August, and felt another pang of rage at how negligently these bastards had filched him from his life – not as if he expected some fuss of a birthday to-do anyway, but it was another reminder of how quickly everything had gone four feet up. God, he missed Emma. The rest of them too, even Flint, but especially Emma.

At last, on a sultry, sweaty, late-summer morning, Killian heard the distinctive sound of gulls, the creak of chains and the hum of commerce, and knew that they had reached port. Climbing painfully to his lookout post, he spotted half-timbered houses lining a handsome stone waterfront, the Bourbon coat of arms flapping against the sunny haze, and crowded docks teeming with small fishing boats and larger traders. As this was where he and Emma had arrived when they came to France the first time after the end of the pirates' war, Killian recognized it: Le Havre, in Haute-Normandie, about a hundred miles upriver from Paris. Same place my bloody father ran off to, after abandoning us. Where he remarried and had a new son and never bloody once looked back. At all costs, Killian did not intend to let that same fate befall him, even inadvertently. No matter what, he was going home.

Hearing the sound of feet descending the ladder, he quickly checked that his new hook was hidden, and more or less permitted a half-dozen Lost Boys to untie him and march him above deck. The first blaze of full sunlight in over a month was withering; he felt like some fell creature about to crumble to ash, squinting and shielding his face against it, as a jeering chorus of chortles echoed around him. "Not feeling quite the thing, Captain?"

"I'm feeling just fine, actually." Blinking frenzied sunspots from his dazzled eyes, Killian tried to judge when he would have the best chance of running for it. His legs were still as wobbly as buggeration, and if he made a move for it too fast, they could all dogpile him again and defeat the whole purpose. "Waiting for the big prick among all you little ones, are we?"

A few of the older ones, who grasped the double insult, glared at him, while Rufio swaggered forward. "You're still not very courteous, are you, Hook?"

"A lot of grown men far more terrifying – and far more competent – than you have tried to thrash me into submission, you preening twit. They failed, and since you're still almost adorably naïve enough to think that putting a man belowdecks and not feeding him every day is the worst thing you can do to him, it's no damn surprise that so did you. I'd say it's been fun, boys, but it hasn't, and frankly, I hope the lot of you die of a bloody flux. And so. . . ta."

As he was speaking, Killian had been edging inconspicuously toward the railing, and on the last word, he pushed up and over as hard as he could, bending his knees to absorb the impact on the quay beyond. There were startled yells from the Lost Boys – bloody amateurs – as they crowded to the side to stare wildly after him. As they could not open fire in the middle of a busy port, it was just possible to hear Rufio bawling at them to get down there now. Doubtless his employer would be very unhappy if he let their prize catch slip the net now. Pity.

Killian sprinted flat-out up the docks, crashing into merchants like ninepins and sending a volley of fish, baskets, sacks, ropes, barrels, and other such items flying. An equal volley of furious French obscenities followed him, but at least the pandemonium (ha, see what he did there) made it extremely difficult for the Lost Boys to get through, and he dodged and weaved, grabbed a cavalry saber strapped to the saddle of an unattended horse, and would have pinched the horse as well, but that would ensure he was hanged on the spot whenever they caught up to him – horse-thievery was a capital crime everywhere. He dove around a corner, fumbled out the hook and screwed it into the brace, and turned just in time to see Rufio himself speeding up arrears with an enraged expression. He went for the sword at his own belt, yanked it free to several screams as passersby scrambled for cover, and took a vicious swing at Hook.

Finally. Killian had been waiting for this moment for the entire voyage, and he did not intend to let it slip through his reduced number of fingers. He deflected Rufio's attacks with ease, flicked them aside and aside again – the boy was strong but untrained, there was mostly blunt fury and not much refined technique. If he wanted to cross blades with the very pirate he had been so disdaining, he could learn a thing or two about why the world had feared them in the first place, not just as tall tales and monster stories that an arrogant pup like him didn't believe anyway. Killian did not want to kill a man in the middle of Le Havre ten minutes after his arrival, as this would add the French authorities to his currently extensive roster of enemies, but Rufio bloody well deserved it, and leaving him alive to plot more chaos in his wake might be an act of mercy, but also one of considerable foolishness. He had not done it in a long time, but it was remarkable, and unsettling, how the knack never quite left you.

Killian caught Rufio's slashing downcut on his hook, the metal tangling in screeching sparks, and slammed his sword straight between the boy's ribs with a horrible, grating squelch. In that instant, as Rufio convulsed, Killian could see shock and incomprehension in his glazing eyes, almost fear, and it struck him that this was a boy, not a man. That for all his affected posture and bravado and ridiculous hair, this was no hardened criminal or ruthless killer, nothing different from any other lad at this age overinflated with a sense of his own importance. Rufio was, in fact, given or take a few months, probably the exact same age as his son Sam.

Regretting it instantly, horrified at himself, Killian jerked the sword out, as Rufio swayed and went to his knees in the dirt, clutching the ragged wound in his chest. Killian caught him as Rufio fell backwards into his arms, staring at him in mute, furious accusation. He seemed to be trying to say something, but couldn't get his tongue around the blood. He shuddered once, then died without another sound, vacant eyes reflecting the blaze of the French sun.

Killian set him down slowly, arms feeling like stone, even as he could hear shouts rapidly coming closer – more than one concerned citizen was clearly leading the port authorities in the direction of the brawl. He was almost tempted to give himself up in penance, but that would render the whole thing pointless, and he had to get out of here now. Just as two large gentlemen in brown coats, unslinging blunderbusses, tore through a curtain – "ARRÊTEZ, AU NOM DE LA LOI" – and nearly tripped over Rufio, Killian scrambled wildly to his feet and ran.

He didn't think they had gotten a good look at his face, but there could not be many men corresponding to the description of "murderous fiend with hook for a hand," so as he kept up his demented obstacle course through the narrow, twisting streets, he hastily unscrewed the offending appendage and stashed it in his filthy coat again. Out here in the open air, Killian was pungently aware of the fact that he had not bathed or otherwise washed for a month, unless you counted being periodically drenched in seawater whenever the Pan hit rough seas, and possibly they could just follow his stench to track him down; they wouldn't even require a bloodhound. If he could find somewhere to lie low – Rufio had been common gutter riffraff, such sorts died every day, they would put a cursory effort into finding his killer, but no more. Aye. Common gutter riffraff, and you killed him. So what does that make you?

Killian eyed up some of the counting and money-changing houses he passed, as such institutions were ubiquitous around a busy port that handled a good deal of international trade, but seeing as he had already started off with murder, bursting into one of those as if to burgle it would be a very bad follow-up move. Besides, they were almost surely all owned by Jews. Forced into the profession in medieval times by church restrictions forbidding Christians from it, Jews had been seized upon to do the essential economic dirty work since they (again, according to the boundless wisdom of the church) had no immortal souls to endanger with the worldly sins of mammon. Their situation was marginally improved now from how it had been then, but there were still not many jobs they could legally do, and Christian society, eager to throw stones (often literally) at the stereotype of the shifty, money-grubbing Jew while conveniently overlooking the fact that they had created it, needed no help in making trouble for them. If Killian was to barge into one of their houses, and the French constables were to find a Jew apparently sheltering a murderer, it could get messy (or rather, messier) in a hurry.

Killian, therefore, did not break stride, even though he was starting to feel a horrendous stitch in his side and other symptoms of complete physical disuse and imprisonment for a month. He couldn't keep careering about like a runaway ox-cart much longer, and even if not the Jews, he should find someone else to burden himself upon. Spotting what looked like the backside of a seedy tavern, he vaulted clumsily over the low brick wall into the courtyard, crouched down as he heard angry shouts at the head of the alley, and held his breath until they passed. Then he went to the pump, drew some water and tried to make himself look at least somewhat less like a bloodstained, mangy tramp, and when he thought he had effected some improvement (or at least wouldn't look any worse than the rest of the tavern's dubious clientele) he went around the front, pushed the door open, ducked under the crooked beam, and sauntered casually in.

He had spent time at several establishments of similar caliber, but it had been a while, and he told himself that it was his imagination that everyone was glancing at him sidelong – though surely the authorities in valiant pursuit of some assorted villain could not be an unusual occurrence in this part of town. He had no money to buy a drink, so they would probably chuck him out on his backside soon anyway, but he didn't need to stay long. Just until he could wrangle some way to hitch a ride on a cart or a riverboat heading down the Seine to Paris. Liam was going to be surprised to see him, to say the least, and this was hardly the way Killian had wanted to go about the family reunion, but he couldn't help a spark of wistful, yearning happiness at the thought of seeing his brother again. Liam might not be thrilled at the fact of his little brother already fleeing the law in France, but he, alas, would likely not be terribly surprised.

Thinking this, therefore, Killian almost did not notice the fact that one of the hooded figures at the bar looked faintly familiar. He only caught it when they turned their head, and he caught a glimpse of sleek black braids, elegantly frosted with silver, coiled and pinned up. It wasn't a they, or indeed a he – it was a she, and one engaged in what looked to be politely threatening palaver with the scabby sea dog next to her. Killian's French was not nearly good enough to get the details, but she seemed to be trying to haggle out the use of his vessel – and then, it hit. It had been over twenty years since they'd seen each other, but he still recognized that voice.

Another lightning bolt, of a different nature, went down his back. Then he leaned forward, grabbed her sleeve, and hissed, "Regina?"

She spun around, saw him – and, forgivably, stared. She was too self-controlled to shriek, or otherwise give any overt evidence of shock, though her eyes went wide and her lips went thin. She surveyed his utterly disreputable estate up and down, then got to her feet, seized him by the shirt in turn, and hauled him, with impressive vigor for a small woman in her late fifties, around the dim corner and up against the hunchbacked wall. "Killian?"

"Aye, it's bloody me." Killian disentangled himself. He and his sister-in-law had never had a terribly warm relationship, though they tolerated each other for Liam's sake – it was not easy to forget that they had met because Regina, then a high-class brothel madam on Antigua, had hired the Jones brothers to destroy Emma, who she blamed for the death of the man she loved. But Regina had grudgingly come around, taken Henry and Geneva to safety, and she and Liam had been married for many years, so Killian refrained from any other smart remarks. "What the devil are you doing here?"

"What the devil are you doing here? And yes, bloody seems to be the operative word for you." Regina regarded him coolly. "There's no way you could have heard, is there?"

"Heard what?"

"Liam's missing." Her mouth went even thinner. "He's been missing for weeks, he went for breakfast one morning and never came back. I've turned Paris upside down, and the only lead I could come up with was that someone named Lady Fiona Murray was last seen with him. She's English, apparently, so I was intending to get passage over the Channel and ask a few – what?"

"Oh, bloody hell." Killian had to sit down on a hogshead. He had abruptly guessed why the Lost Boys might have been charged with bringing him to France, if Lady Fiona, the other head of the hydra, had been – at least until recently – in residence here. Give him over as a plaything for her and a blackmail inducement for the rest of the family back in Charlestown, and Gideon could keep the lot of them busy, chasing their tails, while he did absolutely whatever the f*ck he pleased – Killian, with his old and deeply embittered enmity against the Gold family, would be too tempting for Lady Fiona to resist. Except in paramount irony, she had already, by the sounds of things, likewise kidnapped the other Jones brother from the bosom of wife and home, and thus was not available to receive her poisoned present. Jesus bloody Christ, I hate the lot of them.

With that, Killian was tersely obligated to explain to Regina the difficulties they had encountered in Charlestown with the pestilential Murray junior, the connection to malfeasance-in-chief Robert Gold, what he had been up to the last month, and his agonizingly close shave with Geneva and the Rose at sea, as his daughter had also had her arm twisted into setting sail to England in company with the one and only John Silver. Killian couldn't see all the threads just yet, but he was increasingly certain that they were drawing together in an ever more intricate web with his family, and Skeleton Island, at the center. "I wish we had gotten rid of all the damn treasure, as Flint was planning, what with the trouble it looks to be causing us now!"

Regina looked as if she couldn't say that she disagreed. "So Liam was kidnapped by the mother, you by the son? They aren't – Gold isn't alive, is he?"

"No," Killian said, even as it struck him that he didn't actually know – the crocodile would be in his mid-seventies by now, but would not consider that a major impediment to pursuing a colorful and varied career of evil, especially given the formidable grudge he held against the pirates for destroying his plans to re-establish the Star Chamber and take over the world. "I mean, I don't think so. But Lady Fiona's his sister, as I said, and she seems even more lunatic than he was, so we don't need him to cause more than enough trouble. But Geneva's in England, or will be soon enough, and if there's any chance Lady Fiona took Liam there, that's worth trying, isn't it?"

Regina's expression flickered at the mention of her niece. She had, Killian knew, become quite attached to her during the months she had cared for her as a baby in Paris, and part of her likely would not have minded at all if Killian and Emma had never returned to resume parenthood. There was also the fact that it was, as she had already noted, as good a lead as any on the whereabouts of her husband, and no matter how unconventionally their relationship had begun – though no more than his and Emma's, Killian had to admit – he knew that Regina loved Liam deeply. It was one of the few points on which they could always find common ground.

"So," Regina said brusquely. "We just do as I was already trying to accomplish, and find passage to England? Where, London?"

"I don't know. I assume that's as good a place as any to start. There is, though, one small thing. I may, ah, I may be wanted for murder."

"Really?" Regina raised a cutting eyebrow. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"

"I wouldn't be chucking too many stones in that regard, love, seeing as you've murdered any number of men in your day. Just because you did it more indirectly doesn't make you less guilty. In any event, it would be unwise for me to appear on the docks until it blows over. I'm not delighted about staying in this rat's nest for any length of time, so perhaps if we could suss out more suitable accommodations – "

"With you looking like that? Not likely. A haystack is about the best you could hope for." Regina sniffed. "Haven't bathed either, have you?"

"No, unfortunately, that went by the wayside while I was being abducted, chained up, half starved, and nearly drowned. Bloody hell, I know it's in our nature to butt heads, but I also know that we both love Liam – and, I think, Geneva. So how about we both give up fighting the bit for once, and try to ride in the same direction?"

Regina studied him warily, then finally jerked her head in a nod. "Fine," she said. "We'll wait until your latest bout of felony doesn't catch up with you. Who did you kill, anyway?"

"A boy named Rufio." Killian clenched his fingers against his palm, once more feeling the sword rasp against bone. "Leader of the gang that kidnapped me."

"He deserved it, then," Regina said indifferently. "I wouldn't tie yourself into knots over it. Come on. Let's get out of here before you get me arrested too."

Killian raised an eyebrow of his own at her back, reminded himself what was at stake, and without another word, for which he felt he should be congratulated, followed her.

Jim had no idea where to go after his release from prison. His mother was almost certainly staying with his uncle at the Seven Stars, but if he went there, he would have to tell her what had happened, what he had learned, and he wasn't sure he could stand that just yet. He was still reeling. It wasn't as if he felt the grief on a personal level, since he had never known his father – and whose bloody fault is that, then? – but the betrayal was of a scale he could scarcely comprehend. He felt vindicated beyond words that he'd gotten himself thrown out of the Navy and never gone back, if these were the sorts of men they elevated to command – indeed, Jim had met enough Navy officers that he shouldn't be surprised, seeing as a great deal of them seemed to have booked advance lodging in the deeper of the poet Dante's circles of hell. But still. To spend all these years thinking that your father was a hero who died bravely fighting pirates, and then discover that he had been stabbed in the back by his own captain during a failed mutiny. . . Jim could feel the blood beating in his head, against his eyes, as if it was about to burst out of every orifice in a likewise hellishly appropriate spectacle. Jesus, he wanted to hit something.

He spent a completely aimless afternoon going absolutely nowhere (no different, he thought bitterly, from the rest of his stupid joke of a life) slept under a mossy piling on one of the back quays where nobody would bother him, and spent the next day trying to screw up the courage to just go face his mother and tell her the truth. But coming on the loss of the Benbow, and throwing her hospitality to Liam back in her face, it would completely break her heart, and he did not want to return without at least something tangible to atone for all the chaos and woe he had caused her, directly or otherwise. And as much as he did not want to admit it, his thoughts kept drifting to the tantalizing specter of Skeleton Island. It was a tall tale, a fantasy. . . but Billy said it was real, that he'd been there for three years, he could go back. He, Lady Fiona, and Liam bloody Jones had doubtless already departed on that very errand, seeing as that had been the condition of Liam's emancipation from jail (maybe they'd shut him back in again when they were done), but perhaps there was a way to follow them. Not as if a single captain in Bristol would let Jim within a hundred yards of his ship, or listen to anything he had to say, so that was out. But perhaps if he just thought a bit harder. . .

Jim's restless and unhappy peregrinations were interrupted on the evening of the sixth day after his release, as he had sent a note to his mother to let her know that he was alive and free, but was setting off to make reparations – how or where, he of course had no idea, but he hoped it would ease at least some of her worrying while explaining why he couldn't come home, such as it was, just yet. He had taken to hanging around the docks in hopes of earning enough money for supper via odd jobs, and thus noticed the ship making her careful way up the river channel and into berth at the quay. She was a beauty, though obviously had been considerably battered on her voyage, and looked enough like a refitted Navy frigate that Jim squinted suspiciously. Sixth-rate, if he had to guess. The name painted on her stern was Rose.

Intrigued for absolutely no good reason other than that he had never seen her in Bristol before, and he knew almost all the vessels that traded out of here, Jim moved closer, watching the hands throw out ropes to tie up. Once the Rose was moored, four people descended the gangplank, two men and two women. Jim thought the older, blonde-haired man with a kind, gaunt face must be the captain, but the shorter, black-ponytailed one next to him, limping along on a crutch –

A brief, muted shock went through him. Billy had said to report it at once if he saw a one-legged man, a man named Silver, who he clearly considered a threat, and while of course this could easily be some other one-legged man, amputees being not uncommon in the world of seafaring, Jim could not help but feel that the possibility warranted at least some inspection. The third member of the party was a Negro woman, handsome and stately, long dreadlocks tied with a colorful head cloth, but Jim's attention was immediately and then unshakably captured by the fourth, the other woman. She was about his age, with dark hair pinned up, striking green eyes, elegant cheekbones, and a cool, quiet air of command that suddenly made him reconsider if the blonde man was in fact the captain. But surely she –

Jim stared at them (all right, especially at her) as they made their way up to the street and appeared to be engaged in a low-level disagreement. When this was not sorted out in a few minutes, and his curiosity had by far got the best of him, he strolled up. "Evening. First time in Bristol, is it? Can I help?"

"Not the first time, no." It was the one-legged man who answered, regarding him avidly. "But it has been a while, yes. What was that place you said you father and uncle used to stay, Captain? The Benbow?"

It was difficult to say which part of this surprised Jim the most – the fact that "Captain" was directed at the young woman, the mention of her familial connections here in time gone by, or that said familial connections were, yet again, entangled with his. Still, he managed not to show it. "If it's the Benbow you're looking for, you're out of luck. It burned to the ground a fortnight ago."

"It what?"

"Trust me," Jim said grimly. "It's a long bloody story. And one that, given which, I think I'd like to know who exactly you are."

The group exchanged looks. Finally the one-legged man said, "I'm John Silver. This is my. . . this is Mistress Madi Scott. That is Thomas Hamilton, and his great-niece, Captain Geneva Jones."

That confirmed his suspicions about Silver, but this last surname was one that Jim had been hoping not to hear, especially in relation to a young woman as distracting as Geneva. He reminded himself that it was very common, and yet was about to ask, before deciding that he did not want to know; he did not want to have to dislike Geneva just yet. "Jim Hawkins."

They did not seem to take particular notice of this, which raised his hopes that this was somehow a different Jones (that father and uncle comment did not sound promising, but he ignored it). It was Geneva, however, who said, "I think that was the family that owned the Benbow, wasn't it?"

"Aye," Jim said, supposing it wasn't much good to dissemble at this point. "My mother's inn. It burned, as I said, and that's why I'm out here on the bloody docks."

Silver considered him for a long moment. Then he said abruptly, "Billy Bones have anything to do with it?"

Jim was not surprised by this question either, but he was canny enough to blink in confusion, as if he was. "Sounds vaguely familiar? But if you want to know more, I'd appreciate supper. And for that matter, a proper roof over my head."

"Nobody's taken you in from the goodness of their hearts?"

"Do you think I would be out here if they had?"

Silver smiled faintly, in acknowledgement of the point. There was something almost wry in his gaze, and quite sad, until Jim recalled that earlier comment about being back to Bristol after a very long time away. He did not think, somehow, that the circ*mstances of Silver's last leaving had been pleasant, or what had impelled him to do so in the first place – as if he barely had to ask the question of whether anyone had taken Jim in, because he bloody well knew they hadn't. But then, as if masking this momentary crack in his composure, he looked swiftly back at Geneva and Thomas Hamilton. "I'd say we could afford to provide the lad with bed and board in return for some information, couldn't we?"

"Easier to offer when it's not your money to spend, isn't it?" Geneva looked at him coolly. "But I suppose you're right. Mr. Hawkins, if you would care to come with us?"

"Oh – aye, sure, I could." It wasn't as if he had anything better to do, and uncertainty about the rest of them aside, he would not mind passing quite some time yet in Miss – well, Captain – Jones' company. He really did hope, however vainly, that she was not related to Liam. As they started to walk, he suggested casually, "You know, you can call me Jim."

"Where are we going, Mr. Hawkins?"

It had been worth a try. "There's the King's Arms on Broad Quay, they'll give you a fair tariff. Food's not bad, either." If he was avoiding the Seven Stars, the King's Arms was the least terrible backup option; its landlord was one of the followers of John Wesley, the itinerant evangelist and religious reformer, and felt that good deeds and social conscience, even and especially applied to such a hopeless case as Jim, was a service well-rendered to the Almighty. Even his charity, however, did not extend quite so far as putting Jim up for free indefinitely, so with no money, he had not been able to ask before. "It'll be comfortable enough, if you – what?"

"Sorry," Geneva said, exchanging a strange look with her uncle Thomas. "Only that putting the lot of us up in a lodging house called the King's Arms is. . . more than a bit ironic."

Jim sensed a story there, though he was unsure if it was wise to go digging for it, given the considerable misfortune he had already incurred by getting mixed up in the personal histories of mysterious newcomers. He led them up to Broad Quay and the King's Arms, where the landlord was (not without considerable and not-unjustified wariness, given Jim's recent track record) persuaded to accommodate them for the evening. The traveling party was weary from what had clearly been anything but an uneventful crossing, and as Geneva and Mrs. Scott went up to their room to freshen before supper, and Mr. Hamilton went to pay, Jim found himself alone with John Silver, the man that Bones had so suspected, or feared, as to warn him personally against. They sat there, trying to pretend that they were not surreptitiously stealing glances at each other, as Silver unbuckled the straps of his peg leg and eased it off with a grimace. Seeing that, and not sure what made him ask, Jim nonetheless said, "Does it hurt?"

"This?" Silver looked surprised that anyone would ever enquire into his physical comfort. "Not usually. I lost it years ago. Though sometimes, such as now, it barks up something terrible."

"How'd you lose it?"

"Ask a lot of questions, don't you?" Silver co*cked his head. "Valiantly, if you like. In battle."

Given that Jim had just discovered the last story of valiant heroism in battle to be a lie, he immediately suspected that this was some dimension of shading the truth as well, but then, it was a considerably personal question to ask anyone, let alone a man he'd not yet known an hour. "I suppose I do," he said, in response to the first part of Silver's remark. "In that vein, why are you looking for Billy Bones?"

Silver regarded him shrewdly. "So you have met him, haven't you."

"Aye. Him and a few others that I could stand to not meet again, frankly. But since one of them killed my father, I'd bloody like to – "

"Who?" Silver interrupted. "Who killed your father?"

Jim was taken aback, but then, he himself had started this trend of rather nosy questions. "Captain Liam Jones." He tried to keep his voice offhand, but it trembled. "My father's old commander, of all the things."

A most unusual expression crossed Silver's face. He paused, as if weighing up his words, then shook his head. "No. Liam Jones has killed other men I know – other fathers, even – but he didn't kill yours."

"What?" Jim, feeling distinctly and unhappily whip-lashed over this whole affair, stared at him in confusion and exasperation. "He confessed to me! We were in prison together, he bloody confessed to my face! How would you even – "

"I know," Silver said, "because your father died during the first battle of Nassau – the first one, between the pirates themselves and against Henry Jennings, rather than the second, against Woodes Rogers and Robert Gold – and Liam Jones never set foot on Nassau. He was recovering on an island of Maroons, traveled to Jamaica at one point, and then left for France from some no-account sandbar in the middle of the Caribbean. He never sniffed New Providence. So whatever he told you, he's lying."

"He's – " Jim was bloody tired of thinking first one thing, then another, and then another altogether. At that moment, however, he worked out how Silver and Billy must know each other, and from whence their rivalry originally stemmed. "You were on the Walrus too, weren't you? Under Captain Flint?"

"Clever lad." Silver sounded genuinely impressed. "Either that, or Billy has been talking."

"Aye," Jim said. "A bit. But I figured out plenty on my own."

"Ah. Well. To make a long and tragic story short, yes, Billy and I both sailed with Flint." Silver glanced around. "I don't suppose he's still here?"

"No. Left with the others a week ago." Jim wanted to return to the previous subject, frustrating as it was. "Why the bloody hell would Liam tell me that he killed my father, if he didn't?"

"Because," Silver said enigmatically, "that is exactly what Liam Jones does. Trust me, I too have personal experience with the matter."

Jim both wanted to push for more on that, and didn't. He felt oddly relieved that Liam hadn't – at least theoretically, he was fully prepared for the story to change ten more times before tomorrow – killed his father after all, guilty for the things he had said, even with every right to say them, and wondering in despair if he'd ever actually get to the bottom of this. But since the air had been cleared, he decided that he could at least stand to ask. "Geneva, she's not Liam's daughter, is she?"

"No. His niece. His younger brother's daughter." Something flickered in Silver's eyes. "And her mother, by the way, is Flint's daughter – adopted, but still. With or without Liam, it's a rather terrifying pedigree."

"She's Captain Flint's granddaughter?" Bloody hell, that would be a terrifying introduction to the family, not that Jim was considering such a hypothetical scenario. "I'm taking it you don't have the same feelings about him that Billy does? Otherwise you would have taken advantage of that fact somehow. Unless you already did?"

He thought for a moment that Silver was almost offended, though in what way he wasn't sure. Then the older man said, "Her great-uncle has been vigilantly looking out for her welfare, and it was a long voyage, in more ways than one. So I'd advise – ah, Captain, Mad – Mistress Scott."

Jim started as the two women strode up to the table, looking sufficiently refreshed. Geneva had put on a light blue lawn dress and fixed her hair, tall and elegant and calmly in command, and Jim's throat went more than slightly dry as she took the chair next to him, her thigh just brushing his through her skirts. There was another chair closer to Mrs. Scott that he expected her to take, but as it was also next to Silver and this seemed to be a sticking point, she squeezed around the table to take the one on Geneva's other side. This left the open chair for Mr. Hamilton, who returned in a few more minutes and did not seem terribly pleased with the arrangements, but was clearly too much of a gentleman to utter any disdain out loud. Instead, he seated himself next to Silver after only a brief hesitation, leaving Jim to wonder just what they all disliked about the man so much. "Well," Thomas said. "Against all odds, we have made it to Bristol. Mr. Hawkins, I suppose you could be so kind as to tell us what you know?"

As their supper arrived, and Jim did his best not to tear into it like a mad wolf – he hadn't really had a proper meal since the Benbow burned – he provided them with a concise and more or less comprehensive summary of the people he had met over the last fortnight, and what he could discern of their tangled skein of schemes and deceptions. At the mention of Liam, Geneva looked vastly startled. "My uncle's here? He's supposed to be in Paris."

"Aye, well. He said Lady Murray snatched him." Jim supposed he could be somewhat more charitable to Liam than he would have been yesterday. "And he's not here anymore. He went with Bones and Lady Murray on their expedition. To Skeleton Island, as far as I know."

His four companions exchanged darkly significant looks. There seemed to be a definite element of "I told you so" in Silver's, which was odd – though he was wise enough not to rub it in overtly. "You've been very helpful, Jim," he said instead. "But with what they did to you and your mother, I'm guessing you don't want to sit back, wish us well, and wave us on our way?"

"No," Jim said, especially conscious of Geneva's gaze on him. "God knows there's nothing for me here, and if I've been useful, I could be again. If you're going after them, I want to come along. To this – this treasure island."

"What man wouldn't?" Silver once more looked wry. "We've only just got here, and we'll need to do a few things before we leave again. But if Bones and the rest are ahead of us, we shouldn't waste much time in following them. As young Mr. Hawkins says, there is none to spare, to set in search of a place such as that. Treasure Island."

Chapter 10: X

Chapter Text

Emma and Miranda went to bed that night in Henry and Violet's spare room, while Flint and David took, respectively, the davenport in the sitting room and a pile of extra blankets and quilts on the sitting room floor. (Richard had gallantly offered them his eight-year-old boy-sized bed, but had to be turned down for obvious logistical reasons.) The house was quite full, and they doubtless would be tripping over each other to no end in a few more days, but there was something comforting about it as well. However, Emma was too on edge every time there was a noise in the street beyond, and kept tensely raising herself on an elbow to look, until Miranda said sleepily, "It's only a stray cat, my dear. We'll keep till morning."

"I'm sorry." Emma lay back down, feeling abashed. "It's just – I only – "

"I know." Miranda reached over the covers to take her hand. "If Thomas or James had been abducted in such a disgraceful manner, I'd be doing the same. And indeed, for all that it was accomplished in an outwardly more civilized manner, Thomas was. I hope he and Jenny are looking after each other. I'm sure they are, for that matter, but I can't say I'm not worried."

"Aye." Emma let out a slow breath, staring at the dark ceiling. "So. Silver and Billy alike."

"A few too many old friends for anyone's comfort, yes." Miranda shifted position, as the moonlight through the window caught silver in her hair. "I could not help but wonder if something like this might happen if we let Thomas and Jenny go to Nassau, but nor did I feel it was my place to forbid them outright. So if I could have said something and did not, I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault." Emma turned to her. "It's not your fault."

Miranda smiled, though it did not quite reach the sadness in her eyes. "You are sweet to say so."

"At least this way we know they're still around. You don't. . ." Emma hesitated. "You don't think Silver would ever deliberately hurt Thomas and Geneva, do you?"

"Deliberately?" Miranda's expression turned odd. "Define that for me, in relation to that man, and then perhaps I can give you an answer."

This was not the most reassuring utterance in the world, and yet Emma had not much expected another one. She had never fully trusted John Silver, nor had anyone who came into contact with him; Killian bore him an especial grudge for their charged childhood history, and the outstanding mystery of his and Flint's final confrontation still cast a very long shadow. It was true that once Silver had decided that he was going to be loyal to Flint and serve as the Walrus' quartermaster, he had not done it halfway, and he had done it longer than anyone would give him credit for, but the final expense had rather squandered all those accumulated savings. Emma did not think that Silver would intentionally set out to harm Flint's husband and granddaughter, but she also did not think that they were in any sense of the word safe with him. Thomas especially must be uncomfortable to confront, Silver had never been adept with emotions, and if he was feeling threatened, out of his comfort zone, and flailing to regain leverage after a perfect scheme had so quickly turned painfully personal, he – whether or not he intended it – became very dangerous. Emma both felt sorry for the man, over what could have stunted and damaged him so badly, and felt the farther away he was from everyone she cared about, the better. Not that Billy was any more appealing a prospect. They had been friends – good friends – and thus Emma knew exactly that when he made up his mind, there was absolutely no changing it. If he had decided to dedicate himself to being their enemy, there was only one way to stop him.

And now, of course. This. Whatever in damnation Gideon Murray wanted them to do with what appeared to be a secret cell of Jacobites in Philadelphia, as if they did not have enough treason on their ledgers already. They had felt it was better to visit in daylight, so Emma, Flint, David, and Henry would be along to pay a call tomorrow, and while they might not bring quite as many weapons as Flint suggested, they were all, obviously, on high alert for a trap. If Gideon was a Jacobite, which it appeared at least for the moment that he was, it did not make sense for him to go to the bother of sending them to Philadelphia and then killing them, when he could have done so far more easily in Charlestown – he needed their help and expertise at clandestine and less-than-legal dealings, they were too valuable assets to be disposed of out of hand. But that did not preclude any number of other sticky situations. On that note, Emma supposed that she really should sleep, but with her husband and two younger children all so far away and in such uncertain straits, it was difficult. And the other absence she felt, still. Always.

Very quietly, knowing that Miranda would be able to tell which one she meant, Emma said, "I miss Sam."

Miranda let out a long, unsteady sigh. Then she said, with a great deal expressed in only two words, "I know."

"He'd know what to do, with this situation, or with. . ." Emma trailed off, as she knew that if Sam Bellamy was here, matters might be different with Flint, Miranda, and Thomas, and that felt indelicate to speak of to Miranda's face. But Emma wanted to conjure him back for a little while, and with just the two of them, there was the unspoken understanding that – with no diminishment or dishonoring of Miranda's love for Thomas and James – in some ways, Sam had been her deepest soulmate, and she must forever feel that absence on some level beyond words or flesh or anything nameable, nothing but the desolate ache of Plato's torn-in-half human creature, forever in search of its counterpart and completion. For a time, his love had been what kept Flint and Miranda sane in any number of ways, and much as she and Killian missed Sam every day, Emma knew it was different for them. For Miranda, especially. Flint was complete with her and Thomas, at peace at last, and Miranda would never want to take that from him. But since the three of them had generally agreed no longer to speak of the shadows of their past, she had had to bear Sam's ghost more or less in solitude. Flint needed to move on from that, and so Miranda had let him. My dear, my dear, my darling dear.

After another moment, Emma said quietly, "Sometimes I think we should talk about him more. We've been grieving him so long, and holding that so close, and. . . I don't know. I feel as if it's been unfair to Sam junior. We named him for a man we loved so much, and we've only rarely told him anything about that man, and he can see how sad we all are whenever the subject comes up, of course he's felt as if he can't ask for anything else. Sam, our Sam, I don't think he'd want that for us, or for his godson. He didn't live long, aye, but he. . . he lived. He didn't waste any of it, anything he was given. He didn't stay in that place of sorrow and anger, even when he had every right to do so. Killian asked me to marry him after we mourned Sam, because that was what he would have wanted. I know it's fragile, I'm not saying we have to bring him into every conversation, but maybe as long as he's been gone, we've kept him even further away."

Miranda's entire body shuddered with another sigh, her eyes sparkling too bright in the moonglow. She reached up to knuckle them hard, and Emma squeezed her other hand. Finally she said, "I would never trade Thomas or James for anything, you know that. But dear God in heaven, I loved Sam. So much more than I ever told him, or anyone. I know James misses him too. But Sam and I, we. . . I loved him, I loved him, I loved him. And sometimes I think that if I could burn down the world to get him back, I would."

Emma did not answer. She knew that for so long, Miranda had taken care of Flint – patiently dealing with his demons, making their home, keeping their books, sharing his bed, bandaging his wounds, giving him his brief moments of rest and respite and goodness from the long hell of his war against mankind. They loved each other fiercely, and Miranda would still do it again. But with Sam, to be the one cared for instead, to sink into his warmth and refuge and sanctuary, to be freed for a little while from the burden of holding everything together, to be openly and easily loved and worshiped and cherished rather than Flint's clumsy, damaged efforts. . . indeed, it must have been truly transcendent for Miranda, and not something that could ever be replaced. Thomas was her closest friend and steadfast companion and cherished confidante, but he was not her lover, and Miranda had lived a long time with the knowledge that simply due to who Thomas was, through no fault of either of theirs, she could not give him, as his wife, everything that he needed. She had to reckon with the fact that her husband's truest love was not her, but indeed her other husband – that that was why they shared James so equally, and he loved them both so well. Now James had both complete pieces of his soul back, but Miranda only had one. Had had two, for such a short time, with James and Sam, and then lost Sam. And she, the most selfless of women, who gave and gave and so rarely asked for anything in return, must feel unbearably selfish for, even now, still missing it so unspeakably.

Emma tightened her grip on her mother's hand. "It's all right," she whispered. Miranda had so often been the one there for her, guiding her through her own confused labyrinth of emotions, helping her to value herself and what she wanted, that she could do no less. "It's all right to miss him. To love him. To never stop. But if we can, we. . . we should try to do more. For the Sam we still have. Tell him everything about why we chose that name, and that he is just as precious to us. We owe it to him."

"We do." Miranda's voice was steady again, though a wetness still lingered on her lashes. "He's all the goodness that Sam was, all of the bravery. It's almost uncanny."

"I see him sometimes as much Sam's son as Killian's." Emma settled back on the pillows. "And Geneva is as much you three's daughter as ours, the ghost of the girl you never had. Or – "

"Aye," Miranda said. "But you are still our daughter as well, Emma. In your own right, and not just as Geneva's mother. And that is, I think, what gives me hope about all this. The world is dark and wild and cruel, but it cannot truly destroy what this family shares, deeper than blood, deeper than our very soul. We will find our way home."

Emma nodded wordlessly. They lay there, listening to the night pass, watched the moon stretch softly longer on the floor. Eventually, quietly, they slept.

Everything was considerably disorganized the next morning, as Violet was flustered trying to cook breakfast for all the in-laws, and Emma went to help her while the rest of them plotted at the table. According to Henry, the address on Gideon's letter was near the waterfront, in a part of town that, to put it decorously, was where a sailor just arriving after weeks or months at sea would immediately rush to spend his wages. Taverns, winesinks, gambling dens, and of course, a brothel every other door ("What's a brothel?" Lucy asked, thus to be strategically ignored by the adults). It was thus not surprising that someone up to potential mischief would choose to locate themselves there, and as Flint noted extremely dryly, it would probably be a pleasant bout of nostalgia for Nassau. So after breakfast, Emma and the men got dressed, concealed several pistols and other useful accessories on their persons, and – braced for anything – set out.

It was a hot, sunny, sticky day, and they were soon drenched in sweat as they made their way down to the dockside vice district. This early in the morning, most of its clients from last night were still passed out, and the ones for tonight had not yet arrived. There were a few drunks who tottered across their path, one of whom evidently thought that Flint was a man who owed him money. When calm and reasoned debate failed to convince him otherwise, Flint shrugged, pulled back a fist, and clocked the poor bastard into the nearest mud puddle, then stepped over him and continued on his way without breaking stride. "That," he remarked, "felt good."

Emma raised an eyebrow, though she supposed that what with Flint's recent mental state, somebody had been going to get punched eventually, and some no-account local annoyance was as good a target for it as any. Henry, who was the one who knew at least theoretically where they were going, led the way, while David pushed aside hanging clothes and wagon wheels and broken crates and other such things that cluttered the narrow alley. The red-glass lamps that signaled houses of pleasure were not lit in daytime, though they could hear the sound of women talking and laughing through the windows, and had to dodge the morning effusions being emptied from upper stories. Finally, at the end of the lane, they reached a narrow black door set back from the street by several steps and a gate. According to Henry's still-inexpert calculations, as he himself had only lived in Philadelphia for not yet a month, this was their destination.

"Of course," Flint said, eyeing it in patent skepticism. "That looks like exactly the sort of innocent, ordinary place we go in with no trouble, and then trot out again on our merry way. No trouble whatsoever."

"It does look a bit. . . well." David frowned. "I'll go first."

"I'll go first." Flint pulled his heavy stagecoach pistol out of his jacket, and checked that it was loaded (as if it would be anything else) and otherwise primed for action. With the gun in one hand, he knocked with the other, then immediately dove to the side, pushing Emma and Henry against the wall with his free arm, in clear anticipation of potential fire from the curtained window above. On the other side, David had drawn his old standard-issue Royal Navy sidearm, and was waiting in similar tense expectation of trouble, but none came. Flint reached out and pushed experimentally at the door with his gun hand. It was unlocked.

Flint's scowl deepened, and he considered. Then without further ado, he pushed it open and crossed the threshold, scouting out for a moment before jerking his head for the others to follow. They did, Emma thinking it prudent to draw a gun of her own, and she reached out to stop Henry. "You stay here," she whispered. "You can't really shoot very well, and if it is some trick for us, I don't want you caught in it. If so, get out, run away, warn the others."

Henry looked miffed, but could at least see the sense in this, and grudgingly consented to wait by the door. Heart pounding fast and short in her throat, gun braced on her arm, Emma edged after the dim silhouettes of David and Flint; the corridor was not lit, and once the door shut behind them, it was almost completely dark, especially after the dazzling sunlight of outside. She blinked hard to adjust her eyes, wincing as a floorboard creaked underfoot, until they reached the door at the end of the hall. Flint rapped on it with the butt of his gun, and finding it similarly unlocked, pushed it wide.

A fairly ordinary, if spare, sitting room was revealed beyond; no den of iniquity or foul dungeon stocked with torture implements. Flint raised his gun again and pointed it threateningly at a china shepherdess on the mantelpiece, prepared to blow Little Bo-peep's head off if she made one wrong move, and Emma eyed the curtains warily, half-expecting someone to leap out from behind them. Still nothing. Had they managed to call when Gideon Murray's accomplice was not home, and thus would be extremely and dangerously surprised to find two ex-pirate captains and one ex-Royal Navy one skulking heavily armed in their parlor? Was this some utterly bizarre scheme to frame them for attempted burglary? Or –

Just then, Emma heard the floorboard in the hall creak again, and the three of them were just about to whirl back to face the door when they heard it shut behind them, and the ominous thunk of a co*cking hammer. "Please," a man's voice said. "Do not turn around. If you attempt to get a look at my face, I will have to shoot you."

Flint, who had been halfway through doing exactly this, froze with a visible and titanic effort of will. It was only the thought of Killian, the possibility that Gideon could and likely would give orders for him to be killed if this transaction went sideways, that allowed Emma to do the same. The three of them duly remained rooted to the spot, backs to the newcomer, though Emma could see Flint's shoulders quivering slightly with the insult of it. "Well?" he snarled at last. "Who the f*ck are you and what the f*ck do you want?"

"I am one of Lord Murray's friends, as no doubt you are as well." Ignoring the scathing sound this produced, the man went on, "In a moment, I will place a letter containing further instructions on the side table. It references the location of a chest that you will be asked to disinter and get to a ship, this Sunday evening. When and if you complete this successfully, we will proceed to the next stage of the plan."

"Dig up a chest and smuggle it out to a ship?" Flint couldn't help barking a laugh at that. "No f*cking wonder you wanted to hire pirates, and you have the nerve to call us traitors. So what's in the damn thing?"

"I hardly think that is your concern, is it? The letter contains the full instructions. Do not attempt to retrieve the chest before Sunday evening. Do I have your word that you will do so?"

Flint growled. Emma said, "Yes."

"Good. Once this is dispatched, we can return to the question of this lost island of yours and the project of retrieving – "

"Money," Flint said. "More money. That's what's in the chest. Where are you sending it – Italy?"

"As I said." Their interlocutor sounded ruffled. "I don't think that's your – "

"It is Italy, isn't it? Rome, to be precise. You're sending it to 'King' James Stuart and that gormless son of his – what's his name, Charles, Prince Charles? Trying to convince them that there's enough sentiment and support – and cash – to sniff out the possibility of another Jacobite rising, after James got so thoroughly humiliated in '15. Well, a bloody lot of us did that year, but never mind. Plenty of the pirates on Nassau were Jacobites, if nothing else because they hated England's current king, but given what the Stuarts believe about divine right and absolute rule, I don't doubt they'd like it a good deal less if they actually succeeded. So are you and Lord Murray Jacobites because it's actually that important that a Catholic gets his arse back in Westminster, or for some other convenient political pretext?"

"Shut up." The man took a warning step. "I said, it isn't – "

"So if you lot can get your hands on the Skeleton Island treasure, there you are, fully funded for your war against King George." Flint almost sounded impressed. "Believe me, I support and endorse war against England with my whole heart, but as it was under Queen Anne, or at least her government, that mine started, I'm afraid I have no desire to help her disinherited half-brother and his witless offspring return in presumable glory. So really – "

"Do you want to see your son-in-law alive again or not?"

Emma shot a swift, pleading look at Flint, begging him not to further poke the bear, even if this was Flint's entire raison d'être. David, for his part, had tightened his grip on his gun as if expecting the situation to quickly degenerate. He too, however, had obeyed the order not to turn around, and Emma heard what sounded like a letter being removed from a sleeve. "If someone has finished with their present remarks, I am going to place this on the table. Count to sixty, then turn around, collect it, and leave. Complete the business on Sunday evening, and we'll talk then."

Flint was absolutely bursting to make any number of remarks, but he clearly also knew that he had pushed far enough, and while he ground his teeth, he said nothing else. There was a rustle as the man set the letter down, a creak as he retreated, and the door opened and shut as Emma counted under her breath. When she reached sixty, they turned to the letter, and Flint picked it up and ripped it unceremoniously open. It gave them another location, this in a copse of forest just north of the city, and a scribbled order for them to be there after sundown on Sunday, dig up the chest, and get it out to a ship, the Saint Peter, that would be concealed down the coast in anticipation of their arrival. At this distinctly Catholic name, thus confirming Flint's hypothesis beyond a doubt, his lips went very thin. He crumpled the letter and shoved it into his pocket, then led them out.

Henry had been waiting on pins and needles for their return, clearly expecting that it would not be accomplished at all or only with considerable difficulty and a lot of gunfire, and his shoulders sagged in relief at the sight of them. "Mum, Grandpa, Captain Nolan, thank God. I thought I might have to – "

"Don't go thanking God just yet, especially not the bloody Pope." As they set off down the alley, Flint and Emma filled Henry in on the current state of things. Since they still knew nothing about Killian's whereabouts, they could not yet take the risk of not cooperating outright, but if they did this, it would permanently alter their status from "past traitors," who had hell-raised in their day but now lived lawfully and at peace, to "present traitors," actively engaged in passing money and material support to George II of Hanover's enemies. Whether or not they had been blackmailed into it did not matter. This was a very real and very dangerous Rubicon to cross, and the consequences would be just as severe if they were caught. Which meant, for their own sakes as much or more than anything, they couldn't be.

It was a silent walk home after the explanation was over, as they were all chewing over this. When they arrived back at the Swan residence, they found that Charlotte and Cecilia were once more over for a visit, with Miranda sitting on the porch watching the girls run and shout in the garden. At the sight of everyone's thunderous expressions, she started to her feet. "What is – you're not – "

Emma decided to take charge of explaining to her, which she did, and Miranda listened with a frown that grew steadily deeper. She knew as bloody well as the rest of them that this was all-out treason, and would blow apart any eventual legal defense they might later need about how their rule-breaking had been long ago. "Gideon Murray has indeed boxed us in very neatly," she said at last. "But if Killian is still in danger, I cannot recommend we ignore it."

"I know." Emma looked at her heavily. "Do you think there's any chance at all that we could – "

At that moment, there was the sound of a brief scuffle from inside the house, someone saying something sharply, and then, Flint marched onto the porch holding Charlotte Bell very firmly by the wrist, while Henry was hurrying along behind in the middle of a complaint about how Flint could not manhandle guests in his home. At the sight of the kerfuffle, Miranda said, "James, what on earth? For goodness' sake, let go of her."

"I caught her looking through our things." Flint did not relinquish his grasp. "Miss Bell, would you like to explain just what interest you have in our private papers? Are you perhaps Lord Murray's point of contact in Philadelphia, ideally positioned to report on us without suspicion?"

"I don't – " Charlotte struggled, which got her nowhere. "Lord Murray? Who's Lord Murray? Why would I be spying on you?"

"Grandpa," Henry ordered. "Let go of her. Right now."

Flint paused, then slowly and individually removed his fingers from Charlotte's wrist, as if to say that if something else terrible happened next, he would not be blamed for it. Charlotte rubbed it indignantly, but as she took a step, Emma put out an arm. "I'm sorry for how he treated you, but if you were looking through our papers, I'd also like an explanation."

"I. . ." Charlotte hesitated, then flushed. "I just. . . well, given who you are, and if you were here on some sort of secret errand, I thought there might be a chance to. . . never mind."

"Who we are?" Emma repeated. "Meaning?"

"Pirates." Charlotte's flush remained, but she lifted her head and met their eyes defiantly. "You know things, don't you? About fighting and – and sneaking into places, and Violet's said that Henry has an uncle in France, and I thought you might somehow be persuaded. . . I wasn't trying to spy on you, I don't know who Lord Murray is, I swear. I was just wondering if you might. . ."

"France?" Not much of this made sense to Emma, so she latched onto what did. "Yes, my husband's older brother lives in Paris. Is that of some interest to you?"

"I – I know someone in France, is all. And we've been trying to find a way to get her here for months, her father won't let her go, and – " Charlotte stopped, lip quivering. "He knows who we are, we could never get close enough ourselves. We've tried more than once, and it didn't work, and we're afraid that he'll kill her if we can't free her soon. But you're the sort of people who could do that, and if there was any hope at all. . ."

Flint, Miranda, Henry, and Emma exchanged confused and unsettled looks. Charlotte did look genuinely distraught, so either she was a singularly talented actress or she truly did have nothing to do with Lord Murray, and had instead been hoping to recruit them for a possible side venture of her own. Finally Flint said, "Who's we?"

"Me and. . ." Charlotte hesitated. "Well, someone."

"I gathered that. You'll want to be more specific."

"Me and Jack."

"And who's Jack?"

Charlotte hesitated again. Finally she said, "It's actually Mrs. Bell."

"You're married, then? Jack's your husband?"

Charlotte's eyes darted back and forth, as if in search of a way out. Instead of answering this, she said, "I apologize for looking through your things. It was wrong of me. If you're not. . . I'll just. . . I'll just be on my way then."

"Who's this person in France who's in danger?" Trust Henry to return to the subject of a lady trapped alone in peril. "You said her father might kill her if you can't get her out? That's awful. If you give me her name, I could write to my uncle Liam and tell him to look into it. Him and my aunt Regina – especially my aunt Regina – they have a lot of connections. You should have said something sooner. Come on."

Clearly eager to escape Flint's baleful stare as much as anything, Charlotte followed him back into the house, leaving Emma and Miranda to turn recriminatory looks on Flint. "What?" he groused. "Everything that's going on, I was supposed to just stand there and let her do it?"

"There were other ways, James," Miranda said. "Words, for example."

Flint snorted. Clearly, words were for chumps.

"Look," Emma put in. "I don't think Charlotte is a spy for Lord Murray, so we need to return to the problem of smuggling a chest of illicit cash out of Philadelphia on Sunday evening. I'm sure we can do it, unless this is the part where we get caught and framed for treason. I do think they want the money to get out safely, but I'm less sure that includes us. Tip someone off where to wait for us when we're returning. No loose ends."

By the look on Flint's face, he had thought of the same thing. "We'll have to make sure we come back by another route. They did say that they had more work for us, though, so I'm guessing that Murray intends to get maximum value out of us before he throws us to the wolves. Assuming that Franklin keeps to his word and publishes that notice, it could allow Killian some more of a chance. I don't think he'll remain a captive for long, to be honest, but with no idea where he is, that doesn't help us very f*cking much."

"Aye," Emma said. "But that's not going to happen by Sunday. We could gamble that they took him out of Charlestown – the witch said the Lost Boys had him, remember? – and thus Murray couldn't have him killed immediately even if he wanted to. It would also take at last a few days from then for any word of our disobedience to make it from here to the Carolinas. But that's a terrible risk. And if we don't turn up, they could report us to someone anyway."

Flint looked utterly grim, as they were presently backed very far against the wall if they did not want to bluff, even a little, with Killian's life. Finally he said, "We could just send me to the meeting point with half a dozen pistols. I imagine I could take most of them out."

"They won't be there," Emma reminded him. "They'll bury the chest and then leave, so we dig it up only when they're gone and there's no risk of us being seen together. Unless you meant the crew of the Saint Peter? We'll have already technically stolen the chest if it got that far, so shooting them would be counterproductive."

Flint clearly felt that in his opinion, any situation could be improved by shooting someone, but finally blew out an angry breath. "I could just go in advance and wait for them to arrive with the chest and shoot them then. Or we could bring Nolan, if he's going to be any use. Can't the lord sheriff of Charlestown arrest them for smuggling?"

"Perhaps in Charlestown," David said, overhearing this as he stepped outside. "And even there, my role is mostly ceremonial. I certainly don't have any jurisdiction in Philadelphia."

"Who f*cking cares if you do or not? Turn up in your Navy uniform and scare the sh*t out of them." Flint clearly could not be arsed in the least with questions of actual legal authority. "Isn't that why you came with us? To function as a figurehead for their side of the law?"

David was charitable enough not to point out that Flint had said "their" side of the law, as that implied he still existed in opposition to it. Finally he said, "I was with you earlier, at the house. They'll know I'm working with you."

"Perhaps," Flint said. "Or perhaps you could convince them that you were only pretending to be working with us."

"Meaning?"

Flint smiled, the most grimly of all. "How good, exactly, are your acting skills?"

The rest of the week was, to say the least, tense. The notice about Killian was printed in Franklin's various newspapers and set to be distributed, but there was no way to forget that they were still taking a tremendous risk in thwarting Gideon and his Jacobite cronies in the least degree. More than once, Emma was sorely tempted to call the whole plan off and just do what they had been told, but she also knew that Killian would be absolutely appalled if they all committed treason on his behalf (not because it was treason, he wouldn't give a damn about that, but for the danger it put them in) and this at least allowed some semblance of plausible deniability. That did not feel at all like enough, but nothing would.

In its basic outlines, the plan was simple. Emma and Flint would go out to the rendezvous spot early on Sunday and hide until they saw the chest arriving, and let the men bury it without revealing themselves. Then, just as the smugglers were leaving, David would ride dramatically out of the woods and put the fear of God into them, yell loudly about knowing that pirates could never be trusted, and otherwise make a vigorous effort at failing to catch Emma and Flint, who would run a bit until they were well away. Thus the transfer of the money to the Saint Peter would not take place, at least not when they could be later blamed for it, and it would look as if it was David's interference that had disrupted it, not the family's disobedience. It was a considerable risk for him to take on their behalf, counting on his good-citizen cachet to protect him, and even Flint did not have anything snarky, or at least not much, to say to him as a result. The Jacobites, after all, could not report to the actual Philadelphia authorities if it meant they might get caught themselves, and Gideon was not governor here to excuse them.

As for Henry, he would be staying late at the print shop, so all the neighbors would notice the scandal of him working on the Sabbath and cluck over it, thus ensuring they could vouch that he had in fact been there and not involved in any way. Nonetheless, it was still a plan in which, at the conservative end, a hundred and one things could go wrong. As Sunday approached, everyone got increasingly nervous and distracted, which they did their best to hide from Richard and Lucy. If they used David to shield them now, that could render him useless in the future – they could not keep pulling the "curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!" trick over and over, after all. Hence, they had to decide if this situation was really worth playing such a valuable card so early, or if the chance of a worse one in the future, where they might wish they had recourse to his upstanding reputation, meant that they should just suck this one up.

Sunday arrived muggy and overcast, with the lingering threat of a thunderstorm in the air. The hour was very early, but everyone was up, and the tension was liable to blow the roof off the house as Emma and Flint got dressed, strapped on their bandoliers, and told everyone, with no success, not to worry. They were likely to be stuck hiding for hours, so Violet gave them a sack with a plowman's lunch apiece and two canteens of water. Then, as the streamers of red-gold dawn had not yet faded from the eastern sky, they set out, both doubtless recalling the ominous second half of the seafarer's rule of thumb: Red sky by morning, sailor take warning.

Most of Philadelphia was either still asleep or just waking for church, and they made it out of the city without being spotted or challenged. Emma supposed that this was indeed the obvious spot for Jacobites in the Colonies to congregate: with its policy of religious toleration, it was the only place that a sufficient number of Catholics could live together without attracting suspicion or unwelcome legal attention. The notoriously corrupt local administration (one man had fled the city rather than being forced to serve as mayor) must play a part as well, if you could just keep greasing enough palms to ensure their owners' blindness. The gutting of its essential West Indies trade, due to England's endless wars with Spain, had also hit Philadelphia hard, and all in all, they must be not in the least opposed to considering a possible replacement for King Geordie the Second. While this was a comforting thought, inasmuch as it suggested that they might be able to wriggle out of harsh punishment if they were caught, Emma was not putting too much stock in it. As ever, it was too convenient to make an example of a more obvious traitor to hide your own, and Guthrie fencing businesses aside, Philadelphia was no friend to the pirates.

Emma and Flint reached the spot indicated on the map a little past seven, to judge from the distant bells, and found a good hiding place where they could keep an eye on all approaches. David would be arriving on the hill below in another hour or so; they did not want to take any risk of being spotted together, and as most smugglers were not the sort to leap out of bed at first co*ck-crow, they likely had several hours at least to go. There was a clearing among the slender, ashy trees that looked like the obvious spot to bury something, and Flint prowled around it several times to check for disturbed earth or recent evidence of digging, but there did not appear to be any. Then he climbed the hilltop to calculate how far it was from here to the water, and just where offshore the Saint Peter might be stationed, if it had even arrived yet. "Be no bloody good to just run straight into the Papist bastards, now would it?"

"No," Emma agreed. She knew that Flint didn't dislike them for being Catholic, any more than he disliked everyone generally. Killian and Liam had been baptized Catholic in Ireland, and while neither of them were at all observant, the one thing on which Killian had proven quite stubborn was his insistence on Catholic baptism for Geneva and Sam as well. Both of them had been registered at the Anglican parish in Boston, and baptized into it so they (or rather Sam) could attend the grammar school and receive a Certificate of Compliance stating their membership in the Church of England – without this document, any aspirations to a career or public life were very difficult indeed. Yet nonetheless, Killian had been adamant that his children receive the Catholic sacrament of christening as well, and gone to considerable lengths to obtain an Irish priest, a man from the Gaeltacht with a name Emma could not pronounce, to do the honors when Geneva was five and Sam was one. Presumably, this double dose of the Holy Spirit would get them to heaven one way or another. God, she missed her family.

With nothing else to do, Emma and Flint settled in for a long and sticky wait. The sun edged higher in the sky at the pace of a dead snail, and finally, past noon, the looming thunderheads finally closed in and unleashed a brief and tumultuous downpour that left both of them muddy and soaked. The air was so hot and damp that their clothes would not dry, leaving a most unpleasant impression of slowly being boiled in a pot, and Flint was in the middle of employing some choice invective to describe the situation when they heard the distinct creak of wagon wheels and the tattoo of hoofbeats coming up the hill. They dove back behind their fallen log, prayed that David was in place, and waited tersely.

In a few more minutes, a cart appeared through the trees, driven by a respectable-looking individual in a frock coat and loaded with several more. Indeed, it appeared to be nothing more than a gentlemen's society out for a post-church picnic luncheon, and Emma and Flint accordingly could not tell if these were the ones they had been waiting for or not. The men chatted and wandered about, on occasion straying dangerously close to their hiding place, and Flint had one gun out of the bandolier and held ready against his chest. Then when they had finished, the men went back to the cart, pulled something out from under the lashing, and hauled it to the center of the clearing: a stout wooden chest, double-locked with bronze tongues.

Emma's breath caught as she realized two things: one, that these were definitely the Jacobite smugglers after all, and two, their plan was completely shot to hell. They had all been so focused on the clandestine, rule-breaking aspect of this – in short, thinking like pirates – that it had never occurred to them that their enemies might not do the same. It would have been one thing for David to ride up and apprehend a bunch of scabrous ne'er-do-wells who were clearly breaking the law, but to try to arrest well-dressed, ordinary citizens on the Lord's day, who would after all have no chest as proof of any wrongdoing, was quite another. Whirling to stare at Flint, Emma realized at once that he had also seen this. "Get around there," he mouthed at her. "Find Nolan, warn him there's a problem. Hurry."

Staying low, moving as quietly as she could in the thick underbrush, Emma edged around the side of the hill, listening hard to the men digging above. Once a twig cracked loudly, and she froze, but someone had just, by the sounds of things, dropped the chest on his foot, and his heartfelt cursing covered up any noise from her. She kept moving, crawling on all fours, slipping down the steep mud bank, until she finally caught sight of David a few hundred yards away, clearly waiting for the cart to descend the path again so he could burst out and stop it. She reached up with both hands and began furiously waving.

It took a few moments, but David spotted her. They were too far apart to make out facial expressions, but Emma shook her head as hard as she could, drawing a finger vigorously across her throat. She didn't dare to shout, but she gestured at him sharply to ride away.

David was definitely frowning, even if she couldn't make it out. You sure?

Emma nodded, still waving for him to clear out, until at last, very slowly and glancing back at her as if waiting for her to change her mind, he lifted the reins and began to canter toward the road down into the city. He disappeared among the trees, and she watched in dry-mouthed anxiety before starting to scramble back toward Flint. If he had taken her absence as a perfect opportunity to burst out, guns blazing, and solve the problem then and there – she hadn't heard any shots or shouting, but that didn't mean –

Bent double, she monkeyed back to their hiding spot, just as the men above seemed to have nearly finished their work, and were tossing in shovelfuls of dirt over the chest. Flint was where Emma had left him, though he was looking increasingly apoplectic, and when she put a hand on his arm, he whirled and almost made a sound before biting his tongue in the nick of time. He jerked his head angrily at the smugglers, as if to ask if they were really going to let them get away scot-free, and since this obliged them to think up something else fast, Emma was not altogether sure. They heard the men put the spades back in the cart, linger a few more minutes, enjoy some of the sunshine that had once more struggled out, and then depart.

As soon as they could be quite sure that they were gone, Flint swore out loud. "f*ck. f*ck! Why the f*ck didn't we take that into account? Thought they'd be sneaking around in the dark like weasels – no, they left that part for us to do. Can't arrest a merry band of nice church-going neighbors out for a picnic, not even with someone as square-jawed and thumpingly self-righteous as Nolan, so – "

He stopped.

"What?" Emma said. "What?"

"It strikes me," Flint said, "that such a simple and indeed brilliant thwarting of our plan works so well only if, say, someone knew that was our plan in the first place. It also strikes me that while we have been using the house as headquarters this week, Violet has taken Richard and Lucy out so they'd not be in our way. It strikes me thirdly that beyond all doubt, at least some of this time has been spent at the Bell household, and that Violet confided in such a sympathetic friend. And last, it strikes me that having found us less than receptive, said friend of Violet's may have looked elsewhere for assistance in whatever venture she has in mind, and thus, finding other gentlemen with similar skill sets, may have offered them what she knew of us, in payment."

"You're not – " Emma stared at him. "You can't be saying Charlotte sold us out? She – "

"I admit that she wasn't likely to have been a spy for Lord Murray before, no," Flint said darkly. "I am wondering, however, if she has not become one now. Inadvertently or otherwise."

Emma's mouth was still open, as she thought that either Flint's suspicions had gotten even more out of hand or his own treatment of Charlotte might have played a part in driving her to approach the Jacobites instead – indeed, they were the obvious next option on the list if some kind of sneaking around, outside of official channels, was needed. Clearly, Henry's letter to Liam alone was not sufficient for peace of mind, and if Charlotte had a dear friend in danger, Emma did not blame her for trying everything she could think of – after all, she was doing the same for Killian. But it did not erase the fact that this left them decidedly in a pinch, and she looked back at Flint with a worried frown. "Even if you are right, what the hell do we do?"

Flint thought for a moment. Then he said, "I'll dig up the chest, find a boat, and move it offshore to the pickup point with the Saint Peter. It's not worth endangering everyone over one bloody box, and if it does go bad, well, at least you won't be in the way. Who knows if the f*cking thing ever gets to Rome anyway, but they can't say we didn't do our part. You go straight back to the hose, reconnoiter with Nolan, and make sure there isn't any other nasty dimension of the plan of which we are unaware. I might be home tonight, or I might not, depending on – well, I may need to take the long way back, is all. It shouldn't be more than a few days."

Emma looked worriedly at him, as she obviously could not forget the fact that when Flint had last gone off on his own with a chest of treasure, and sent her away for her own safety, the "long way back" had meant almost ten years until they saw each other again, with her supposing he must be dead or marooned on Skeleton Island forever. "I – I should come too."

"No," Flint said flatly. "You shouldn't. I can handle it myself, Emma, and I'm not willing to put anyone else in danger. You need to get back to the others, that's more important. Who knows what else those bastards could have up their sleeves. Hear me?"

Emma hesitated a moment longer, then – startling both of them – she reached out and hugged him quickly. "I – " she said. "I love you."

She felt Flint stiffen in surprise – she had never actually said it out loud before – and then quickly, fiercely hug her back. He didn't answer, but he kissed her forehead, then turned her around and shoved her lightly between the shoulders. "It won't be eight years this time," he promised. "Go."

Forcing herself not to look back, Emma followed David's same path through the trees and down to the road. It was getting well on in the afternoon by now, the clouds sullenly unable to make up their mind about another rainfall, and the late-August heat was still and oppressive. Insects whined around her, and she grimaced, slapping at them, as she crossed the squashy ground on the outskirts of the city and headed in, more than ready to lie down in a cool bedroom, after a long cold drink, and have a very long nap. But as she drew close to the street where Henry and Violet lived, she heard a hubbub of raised, anxious voices, and despite her weariness, found it in her to put on another jolt of speed. Surely Charlotte would never have agreed to anything that put Violet and the children in harm's way – they were friends, unless she had not known, unless –

Emma practically sprinted around the corner, clutching a stitch in her side, and skidded to a halt at the sight of the crowd outside Henry and Violet's house. Her eyes scanned it frantically until, to her unspeakable relief, she spotted Miranda, Violet, Richard, and Lucy. Both of the children appeared to be considerably upset, being comforted by the women, as Emma fought through to them. "What's going on?" she gasped. "Are you all right?"

"Emma!" Miranda clutched her hand in abject gratitude. "I didn't know what to – if you – where's James?"

"He's fine, he had to stay behind for a while, it's a – it's a long story." Still panting, Emma looked around at all the uproar. "God's sake, what happened?"

"There was another one." Miranda's lips were very white. "Another assassination attempt. Only one man this time – I suppose they thought that would be more than sufficient to handle a frail old woman, an unarmed mother, and two small children. If Charlotte hadn't heard the noise and come running, I don't want to think what could have – "

"Wait." Emma felt as if the entire world was turning out from under her feet. "Another assassination attempt? By the same lot who tried it in Savannah?"

"I've no notion."

"And Charlotte – Charlotte saved you?"

"Aye. She burst in with a pistol and shot the man, just as Violet was trying to fight him off with a butcher knife." Miranda reached down to gather Lucy, already hanging onto her skirts with both fists, still closer. "She's in there being questioned by the constable. David went to the print shop to inform Henry, they should be back any minute. But I didn't know – you and James, I thought you too might be – "

"Jesus Christ." Lowering her voice even among the nervous chatter, Emma explained Flint's suspicion that Charlotte might have had something to do, wittingly or otherwise, with the neat domino-toppling of their plans, and where he had gone as a result. "I don't think she can possibly have had anything to do with the first attempt in Savannah, but those weren't Lord Murray's men, and I don't think he was lying about that. So why would they then try to kill us now?"

"She's not," Violet said. "Not responsible. She's my friend, she saved our lives. You should have seen her face, there was no way she could have feigned that, she was horrified. Don't you dare accuse her."

"I just. . ." Emma paused, as she knew that being corrected by one's mother-in-law was perpetually a delicate exercise, but still wanting more answers as soon as they could be provided. Likewise, she agreed that Charlotte would never have intentionally endangered the family, but if she had known something might be afoot and not warned them – if she could then come running so quickly because she had not shaken the feeling that something like this might happen –

At that moment, everything was interrupted by the panicked arrival of Henry, who flung himself off his horse almost before it had stopped moving, rushed to his family, and had to hug them all three times before he was satisfied that they were solid and safe. David was dismounting as well behind him, and looked almost as exhausted as Emma felt, sweat streaking tracks through the grime on his face. "Emma! Where – where's Flint?"

"Later." Emma glanced at Henry, unsure how much he knew. But after a pause, both of them made up their minds, battled through the cordon of onlookers, and marched into the house, down to the kitchen. Signs of a struggle were everywhere, things knocked askew and broken, and Emma had to fight the very cold feeling that they would never be safe again. This had all been planned with meticulous care. Wait until she, Flint, David, and Henry were gone, target the women and children – almost as if someone was watching them, keeping close tabs on their movements, and had multiple deputies in several locations to do the same. Gideon had said it was not him, at least in this, and she remembered her fear of another unknown, lurking foe. If this had been their work as well –

She and Henry emerged into the kitchen, where one of the constable's men was just hauling a body out, leaving a long smear of blood, and the constable himself was interrogating Charlotte, far from gently, as if this could not be proved to be an act of self-defense, it would carry a charge of murder. At the sight of Emma and Henry, she looked up. "Mrs. Jones, Henry, I – "

"Did you know?" Emma interrupted. "Did you know?"

"About what?"

"That someone was going to try – again – to kill us!"

"No." Charlotte was pale as death herself, but she held Emma's gaze bravely. "I had no idea. I grabbed my pistol and ran over when I heard crashes and screaming. I'm only lucky that I was in time."

"How does a young lady such as yourself know to fire a gun so well as to take down a full-grown man, clean in the head, from ten paces?" The constable glared at Charlotte. "Answer me that, madam!"

Charlotte winced. "Jack taught me how to handle a gun."

"Jack who, madam?"

"Jack Bell."

"Who is Jack Bell and where may I locate him?"

"He's not in Philadelphia." It was plain in her entire being that Charlotte did not want to be talking about this. "Abroad. He's a. . . a merchant. We only just moved here, he hasn't lived here, he was going to rejoin us later."

The constable glanced suspiciously at Emma and Henry. "Has she ever mentioned this man?"

"Yes," Emma said. "Only in passing. I'm not sure what their connection is."

"I can take her for more questioning if you feel it warranted, sir."

Henry paused, then shook his head. "No. She's a family friend, and she saved my grandmother, wife, and children. Let her go, we'll clear up the mess."

The constable squinted even more suspiciously, but was finally persuaded to do so. The body of the would-be assassin was loaded into an ox-cart, the looky-loos cleaned out (only with much difficulty, and Emma felt certain they'd be back) and Miranda, Violet, and the children were brought back inside with David. The children were clearly terrified of another potential attack, and Henry paused, then reached down the musket he kept on hooks above the mantelpiece – he plainly did not consider it out of the question either. "Henry," Emma said. "I'm so sorry. We should never have put you and your family in this kind of danger."

"There seems to be more than enough danger to go around." Henry spoke distractedly, concentrating on the unfamiliar process of loading the musket. "Was it them, do you think? Lord Murray's men? The Jacobites?"

"No," Emma said quietly, feeling the cold ice of certainty congeal in her stomach. "No. It was someone else."

HMS Griffin, fifth-rater of the Royal Navy, in fact mounted – in case it was of interest to anyone – forty-four guns, ranging from the thirty-two-pound heavy maulers to the lighter bores for chain shot and skirmish fire, and the long nines for pursuit and capture. She could make close to twelve knots under full sail, an optimum combination of speed and power, and if Sam had any notions that they were slipping the coop easily, they had been posthaste disabused. At first he feared that Captain Rogers intended to press them – Navy vessels were always hard up for manpower, and a pair of strapping young lads like them were at a premium, especially during wartime. It would not have made any difference that he did not know how to sail, as the captives of the press-gangs rarely did; they could be of any profession or trade (though always working-class, as not even the pressers were audacious enough to snatch a nobleman) before their abrupt change of employers. Conditions had improved slightly from the generally ghastly ones in Sam's father's day, but it was still a fate that nobody would wish upon themselves.

If that was what Captain Rogers had in mind, however, he had not shown his hand. It was equally apparent that he had no intention of taking them back to Nevis and letting them sally off into the sunset, which had been a fool hope anyway. Once they were again underway, the captain turned to them and said, "So, James and Richard, was it? We have several calls to make in our patrol of the Leewards, so perhaps we can unravel something of the circ*mstances which brought you so infelicitously out here."

"I told you," Sam said. "We're from Charlestown. Fishing."

"Pardon me if I do not believe that." Rogers smiled. "Especially as the reason for my hasty dispatch from Antigua was due to rumors of a Spanish vessel making insulting incursions into the waters around here. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

"Aye," Jack said. "The vessel you're after is called the Senaita, and it's Portuguese, not Spanish. Its captain, João da Souza, is, however, a Spanish spy. I know because he caused us both some difficulty while he was in the neighborhood. Last saw him making west by northwest from here, in considerable trouble with his own men."

Rogers blinked, while Sam, trying to remind Jack of the suggestion for him to do the talking, stood hard on his foot, which Jack ignored. Sam was both impressed and terrified (as was his usual wont with Jack) at how easily and cold-bloodedly Jack had sold out his former associate – clearly, whatever working arrangement existed between them had come to an emphatic end when Da Souza assisted Sam in his little swan dive overboard. But since Rogers and Jack were now both looking at him, Sam had no choice but to nod. "Aye. That's what happened, all right."

Rogers raised a sandy eyebrow. "With all those weapons in your craft, you must have expected trouble."

Jack shrugged.

"Did you intend to answer me, Richard – what is your surname, anyway?"

"Jones," Jack said. He jerked a thumb at Sam. "That's Mr. co*cker."

Having a distinct feeling that he was being paid back for the "we call him Dick" remark from earlier, Sam likewise had no choice but to swallow this, though he glared at Jack when Rogers wasn't looking. He once more tugged on his compatriot's sleeve, as he'd already sensed that this wasn't a man it was safe to provoke too much, but trust Jack, the arrogant bellend, to have missed that. Fine, if he wanted to get himself flogged, that was his lookout, but Sam preferred to be spared it, thanks. "Captain Rogers," he said, clearing his throat pointedly. "We're grateful for your assistance, and well, it's true, we're not from Charlestown. I'm an English soldier, I was fighting with Governor Oglethorpe in Florida. If you wanted to send to him, he'd tell you so."

"Thank you for that, Mr. co*cker, but Governor Oglethorpe is not in Florida, nor has he been for some time. He retreated in ignominy and defeat, and it is thus the Navy's task to compensate for his failure – and hope we can still execute the next part of the war successfully." Rogers gave no hint if he counted this admission to Sam's credit or not. "And if you are an English soldier, clearly, Mr. Jones here must be as well?"

Sam was briefly confused before remembering that Jack, of course, had filched his perfectly good surname in order to stick him with the insulting one. "Yes," he said, standing even harder on Jack's foot. "Yes, he is."

"I see." Rogers considered them for a long moment, then nodded. "Then surely you will not be averse to assisting me on my present duties. I daresay Oglethorpe can get along without one man for the moment, or even two. We will speak again when we reach Barbados. You're dismissed."

He inclined his head, then turned on his heel and strode away, leaving Jack and Sam slightly stunned. This was better than pitching them directly overboard again, or welcoming them to a lifetime of servitude on the crew in an instant, but not by much. First, Barbados was the exact wrong direction for them to be going, away from Nassau and Skeleton Island, and second, Captain Rogers was clearly not letting them go anywhere until they gave him a few more solid answers. Nor had he liked being disrespected by Jack, even if Jack might be a year or so older than him. As they stood on the deck, the wind swiftly putting St. Kitts and Nevis, at bloody last, astern, Sam said, "Thanks a lot, Dick. I told you to let me do the talking."

"And as he plainly believed nothing that was coming out of your mouth, Mr. co*cker, you're welcome."

"Welcome? I think he hates us already! You selling out Da Souza lightning-quick didn't do much to help that, either!"

"Da Souza tried to kill you." Jack stared at Sam as if in the long line of daft things he had said, this was the daftest. "Why on earth would you object to him getting what he deserves?"

Sam said nothing. He was almost wishing that Jack hadn't rescued him after all, if this was the result – at least Rutherford could have probably gotten him ashore in Nevis, not dropped straight into the lap of the Royal sodding Navy. They had used close to a month of their six-month allotment, which hadn't seemed like terribly much when Güemes had given it to them and felt like even less now, and all they had achieved was to be actively going backwards. Barbados was at the southern end of the Leewards, not far from the Spanish Main, and given as they happened to know, of course, that the Navy was planning an invasion of Cartagena, Captain Rogers and the Griffin must be part of the advance guard sent to scout the best situation for the attack. They had had to leave slightly ahead of schedule due to Da Souza's interference – trust him to once more screw them over even in absentia – but that changed nothing. The Griffin was headed deep into enemy territory, and unless Jack and Sam wanted to jump ship again, try to make it back to the Spaniards, insist that they were who they claimed, and find another captain magically willing to take them to Skeleton Island, they were, for the foreseeable future, along for the ride.

After another moment, just waiting for Jack to say something else and downright shocked when he didn't, Sam likewise spun on his heel and strode away. Where, he had no idea. Belowdecks, probably. Spare hammock somewhere. Better, at least, than the S and its stupid mangy dog.

That was how it went for the next several days. They sailed hard, due south, taking advantage of a break in the trades, and since Captain Rogers saw no reason to have two fit and able-bodied young men lounge around in the lap of luxury (the Navy's version of it, at any rate) while everyone else had their noses to the grindstone, Jack and Sam were promptly drafted to assist. After just one day of it, Sam was of the decided opinion that death might actually be preferable. He had no idea which bloody rope was which, was constantly bawled at by the bo'sun for guessing wrong, and only vaguely managed the complexity of the knots. If they were working near each other, Jack would hiss instructions at him, but as Rogers had also decided that it was preferable to split them up, this was not very often.

Sam could at least let out and tie down sails, but this required a hair-raising climb thirty feet up the shrouds and out onto the narrow yardarms, gathering in the struggling, slippery canvas, knowing that one slip meant you plunged to break your neck on the deck or hit the water with enough force to cause serious injury, if not death as well. Indeed, it was on the third day of this torture that Sam, having barely managed to escape reefing the topgallants with his life, finally hit the boards – only to be greeted by the death stare of the bo'sun. "co*ckER!"

Sam winced. "Yes, sir?"

"You didn't hear me when I said to belay that order, and let the t'gallants fly?"

Sam froze. Yes, the bastard had been shouting something, but the bastard was always shouting something, and he had been too focused on getting back down. Everyone was now staring at him, and he rather wished he'd just taken his chances and jumped. "No. . . sir."

"O'Connelly, sh*tbag, get up there and fix it." The bo'sun pointed furiously, and two men – one of whom surely did not bear the Christian name of "sh*tbag" – scuttled for the rigging. "Seems I need to teach you better to LISTEN TO ORDERS, co*cker! Bloody good name for you, you co*ck everything up. Over there, on the mast. Now!"

Sam remained frozen. He knew that the order to present oneself at the mast meant one thing: that he was going to be flogged. He had been smacked on the wrist (and occasionally the arse) at home as a boy, and caned at school (though his parents had had a very stern word with the schoolmaster, as unlike the rest of the gentry, they did not believe in beating children until they presumably learned). But to be full-on whipped was something entirely beyond his experience, and he didn't think that a fairly trivial mistake warranted such draconian retribution. "Sir, I – "

"Backtalk me, co*cker, and it'll be double the lashes. MAST! NOW!"

Sam hesitated, cold all over with dread. Then he slowly went to the mast as ordered, started with fumbling fingers to remove his shirt as that was barked at him too, and supposed he was being made a particular example of for all his mistakes over the last few days – they were going to try to break him, impress on him just who was in charge now, if he still thought he was going to hide things from them. The gunner's mate, the man who did the flogging, was proceeding forward with the whip – he had arms like bloody tree trunks, he must enjoy his work. Sam tried very hard not to think about how it was going to feel to have nine lengths of knotted rawhide cut into his back when wielded by that arm, and failed. Unless he thought he was turning around and punching through the lot of them, which was clearly not going to happen and would get him killed anyway if he tried, he didn't know how to –

"Hey! What's going on here?"

For once, for bloody once, Sam was completely and unqualifiedly glad to hear that voice, as Jack emerged from below and stopped short at the sight of him, shirtless and trying not to shake in front of the mast. His eyes went narrow. "Something wrong?"

"Butt out, Jones. I'm teaching your idiot friend here the way it works in His Majesty's Royal Navy. Now, unless you want a hiding too."

Jack did not budge. "I don't recall that we are in His Majesty's Royal Navy."

"As good as, while you sail with us. Now, I said, or – "

"Yes, you'll thrash me too?" Jack's smile was sharp and slanted, dripping with poison. Raising his voice, he called around the deck, "How many of you 'weren't' in the Navy, until you were?"

A fraught pause. Several hands raised. Their neighbors elbowed them smartly in the ribs, and they hastily put them down again.

The bo'sun's piggy little eyes flashed with a brief uncertainty. He could obviously tell that it might be dangerous to push too hard, especially if the Griffin had had to press a number of men recently, and they might too well recall their own ungentle treatment. He opened and shut his mouth, off his footing, until the gunner's mate, having missed all this, shrugged and decided that he, for one, wanted to get on with things. He wound up, and delivered a belting sidearm stroke that bit into Sam's bare back like fire.

Sam, who had not been holding onto the mast to brace himself, was bashed headlong into it, pain searing up every available inch of flesh; he tasted blood in his mouth where he had bitten his tongue, and had thought he might cry out, but the wind had been too comprehensively knocked out of him to do that. He was only able to utter a strange, strangled croak of a noise, mouth wide open but getting no air, as the second stroke landed and he banged his chin on the mast, clawing at the ropes and trying to pull himself to his feet. He could feel it as if branded by an iron, staggered again under the third, and felt certain that the fourth one would split him in half –

– but it never came. Instead, looking around through his streaming eyes, he saw Jack snatching the whip, throwing it overboard, and punching the gunner's mate square in the throat, hard and fast as a striking viper, when he made a lunge for him. The man went down like a concussed ox, making some strange croaking noises of his own, and Jack picked up Sam's shirt, threw it back to him, and stood in front of him, plainly daring anyone who wanted a go of their own to come forward and do so, while Sam struggled with uncontrollably shaking hands to put it back on. Then when he had done so, Jack grabbed him by the arm, almost lifted him off his feet, and half-marched, half-carried him below.

They didn't stop until they were a good two decks down, well away from the rest of the crew, in the dim, damp, barnacled darkness of the forward hull. One lantern was swinging here, enough for them to collapse among a pile of heavily loaded sacks – or rather Sam did as his knees gave out, perforce pulling Jack down with him. He had nothing glib to say whatsoever, and in fact was practically devouring his lip to keep from crying. It wasn't working. Tears kept welling up and spilling down his cheeks, and his shoulders heaved, his chest ached, making the stripes of fire on his back burn still more fiercely. He just sat there, shaking.

"Hey," Jack said, voice odd and gruff. "Hey. It's all right. It'll sting for a while, but it won't scar. Just a few good welts. Didn't break the skin."

Sam scrubbed at his eyes with the grubby heels of his hands. Even being thrown overboard had not been nearly that bad by comparison, though he still felt horribly ashamed of himself for crying at all. "I'm – I'm sorry, you know I can't sail, like you said yourself – I'm a total failure, it isn't surprising he wanted to thrash bleeding Jesus out of – "

"Hey," Jack said again. "Never mind that, all right? Just take a few deep breaths. If we're in trouble later, I'll deal with it. It's the shock as much as anything. Guessing you've never been hit – or intentionally hurt – like that before. Have you."

"N. . . no." Sam waited for Jack's inevitable remark about how he was a spoiled brat who had never known true hardship, but it didn't come. "You have."

As with Jack's remark to him, it wasn't exactly a question, and Jack didn't bother denying it. His shadowed head moved once, in half a nod.

"Who?" Sam figured he'd clam up again before long, but he couldn't help asking. "Was it. . . someone in your family?"

Jack paused. Then he said, carefully toneless, "Aye."

Sam recalled Jack avoiding the subject of his father when it had first arisen back on Cuba, about why he went by a shortened version of his mother's surname, Bellamy, despite his apparent disdain for its pirate associations. It probably wasn't good manners to ask, but he didn't care. "Your dad?"

Jack tensed. He spread both callused palms on his knees, as if gathering himself. Then he said again, "Aye."

Sam knew he shouldn't push for more, but an uncontrollable surge of anger – no, more than that, rage – shot through him, pure and incinerating as hellfire. To someone like him, who had grown up in such a loving family with (in his opinion) the best father in the world, it was unthinkable. "The f*ck would he do that to you for? His own son?"

Jack barked a very bitter laugh. "Oh, now. That would take a very long time."

"We have time."

"Suppose so." Jack let out a slow breath. "I'm trying to think how to make it simple. Let's put it this way. Sometime in 1715, while my uncle Sam was at the height of his pirate career, the Navy came to visit his family home in Devonshire, determined to find out if he'd been sending money or information back to them, or if there was anything at all they could tell them. As well, to punish them for his treason. As I said, my mother, Jane, was the youngest of the four Bellamy sisters. She was also very pretty. My father, Captain Jonathan Howe, was the leader of this fine investigative committee. Do you think you could put two and two together from there?"

Sam opened his mouth and then shut it very hard.

"Well," Jack said, very coolly. "I resulted. A few years later, Captain Howe learned that he had an unexpected souvenir from that visit, and as he had only a sickly daughter by his wife, decided to have me brought to London. Thus, therefore, to shape me into a suitable heir. Not that he ever once let me forget that I was a bastard son of pirate blood, that his wife loathed the very idea of me, and he would take it upon himself to ensure that any latent traitorous tendencies I might possess would never resurface. Only then would I be fit for polite society in London. Polite society, they call it. And that is exactly how they make it: with utter, endlessly justified, unending violence. Reminding you, all the while, of what an honor they are doing you."

Sam was horrified. "How – how did you get away?"

"Also a long story. Suffice it to say, Captain Howe intended to marry his daughter to the son of one of his Navy colleagues, Captain Goode. But the son ran off with some West Indies native woman – got a daughter on her, disgraced himself, very scandalous for polite society – and his sister, Charlotte, and I made. . . common cause. We took her niece after the parents died of typhus, and we. . . escaped."

Sam had been wondering if Charlotte would come up somewhere in this story. He tried not to jump to any number of further questions about what exactly their common cause had been, or how they had made it. "Well," he said at last, quietly. "Your father sounds a total beast, aye."

"He is not my father." Jack's voice was just as quiet, but its rage was depthless. "I owe him nothing. Now we're on a Navy ship again, after everything the f*cking Navy has done to me, to my mother, to my whole family – so yes, you can bet I'll be damned before I let them flog you just because they feel like it. You have my word on that."

Sam opened his mouth again, trying to find at least something to say in response, but froze as he heard the boards creak. It was probably the gunner's mate come down here to find them and finish them off in the dark – must have seen them try to hide, to –

He pulled Jack back, out of sight, and both of them sat like hounds on point. But the sounds weren't of fighting. It sounded like two people, not one, and what came next was definitely not to be mistaken. There were low moans, soft sounds, sighs, and then the rhythmic, steady thump of someone pushed up against a wall. When Sam got half an eye out, he could just spot the entwined bodies, one thrusting behind the other, and jerked his head back at once. Well, then. That explained why these two sailors had also chosen to sneak down to this dark and (as far as they knew) deserted spot for a bit of privacy. He did hope they wouldn't be too long about it.

Sam sat unavoidably listening to the muffled lovemaking, hoping his cheeks weren't hot enough to glow in the dark and give them away. It was hardly as if such a configuration was unfamiliar to him, his grandparents and great-uncle living how they did, and his namesake had also openly loved men and women alike. He also knew that despite sodomy remaining on the books as a capital crime if convicted, the Navy had slowly given up fighting it with nearly the same vigor as a few generations ago – indeed, there were rumors that if a certain kind of young man wished to avoid pressure from his family to marry and produce children, the Navy was an excellent option (if they were rich enough to buy him a comfortable commission, of course). As long as they weren't caught, and as long as both parties were reasonably consenting about the whole affair, the Navy – much as they still might energetically censure it in theory – had begun to turn a studied blind eye to its rather rampant practice. Bet Grandpa finds that the devil of an irony.

At last, the trysting pair finished their business, pulled up their trousers, and started to leave – only for the sack that Sam was perched on to slide out from beneath him with a loud thump. This put the lovers instantly on their guard – if someone told on them to the crew, they'd be marked men. "Hey!" one of them hissed. "Who's there?"

There were quick footsteps across the hold, as Sam struggled to think what to say – even if you weren't planning to tattle, it was still bloody awkward to reveal that you had been sat there listening to them the whole time. But just as one of them was about to come around the bulkhead, Jack reached out, grabbed Sam by the forearms, and kissed him.

Sam uttered a strangled mrf! of protest, even as he felt rather unaccountably hot from head to toe, especially as Jack kept it up long enough for the investigating half of the lovebirds to catch them in turn. They locked eyes, Jack pulled belatedly away, and while Sam was still wheezing, he saw a very distinct look pass between Jack and the other man – the bloke thought they had gone down here for the exact same reason, and they both silently promised not to tell if the other wouldn't. It was a clever but insanely risky gambit, though that was of course the bloody norm for Jack. Sam wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, which he noticed was trembling again. Possibly also from shock, though of a decidedly different sort than from being walloped.

Jack listened until the lovers had gone, apparently completely oblivious to Sam's continued state of botheration. Then he pushed himself to his feet. "Come on," he said. "Let's go."

Sam still could have said any number of things in answer to that. Really could have. It was just, at the moment, he could not think of one.

He got up, and went.

Chapter 11: XI

Chapter Text

It was very late by the time the colloquy over supper at the King's Arms was finished, and everyone began trudging upstairs in ardent search of sleep. Geneva was the last to leave the table, still chewing over everything, and finally, with an annoying sensation of being spied upon, looked up to see Jim Hawkins hovering a few feet away – well, she'd expected it to be Silver, so that was an improvement, if only slightly. "Well?" she said. "Did you need something?"

"No, I was just wondering if you – " He cleared his throat. "Needed me to, er. Walk you upstairs, or anything."

Geneva was almost charmed at this, if annoyed at the unintentional implication that she, a delicate female, could not walk up the inn stairs without stubbing her toe, seeing a mouse and swooning, or experiencing some other womanly distress. It was not the first time that she had instantly smitten some hapless nearby boy, to be sure, though she thought that the titillation and novelty of a Lady Captain was most of it, rather than any deep personal considerations for her. "What? Hoping to have to carry me across the threshold? Be assured, Mr. Hawkins, that I can manage. Good evening."

"I'm not trying to be a patronizing arse, I swear. It's just, the last night I spent in an inn with strangers interested in Skeleton Island, the damn place burned down. I'm obviously hoping it doesn't again, but. . ." He shrugged uncomfortably. "Your. . . your uncle had to rescue my mother, and I. . . never mind. It's foolish."

Despite herself, Geneva was touched, as well as curious about Jim's peculiar reaction every time Liam Jones had been mentioned in the evening's conversation. "How was my uncle?" she asked instead. "Apart from being abducted, that is? Did he seem well?"

"He. . ." Jim looked even more uncomfortable. "Actually, for the last two days, I, ah, I was under the impression that he killed my father, so I wasn't exactly. . . that is, I suppose he seemed well enough, yes."

Both of Geneva's eyebrows flew up at that little cannonball in the middle of an otherwise innocuous sentence. "You thought my uncle killed your father? Aren't you the son of Mr. Hawkins, their old purser? As far as I know, Daddy and Uncle Liam were great friends with him, they served together from their first days in the Navy. He died in Nassau somewhere, but my uncle would never have killed him."

"Mr. Silver said he didn't." Jim looked back at her, as if eager for more confirmation. "I'm not quite sure why he claimed to have done it, but – "

That stumped Geneva too, but she added it to the ever-growing list of reasons why they had to track down Liam, Billy Bones, and Lady Fiona as soon as possible. "Just so you know," she said, "Mr. Silver is far from the best place to acquire reliable information, and I would be wary of putting too much stock in anything he tells you – even if it is true, he undoubtedly intends to charge you for it later. But in this case, yes, he's right. There's no way it was Uncle Liam."

Jim paused, then blew out a breath. A shy, crooked grin emerged that gave Geneva's own stomach an unexpected flutter. "I can't deny I'm relieved," he admitted. "It would have been uncomfortable if we were spending time together with that hanging between us, to be sure."

"Aye, it would at that." Geneva got to her feet, feeling the exhaustion settling onto her like lead. She was grateful that they had made such good time to Bristol, even with the trial of the storm, and obtained some much-needed clarity on their objectives, but the thought of turning straight around and setting back across the Atlantic in another week or so was enough to make her quail. If they were returning to the Americas this year, rather than wintering expensively in England or risking an extremely dangerous out-of-season crossing, they didn't have much time to spare. It was the end of August, and they couldn't realistically tarry here much longer than a fortnight, especially knowing that Bones and Lady Murray were ahead of them. She really just wanted to sleep until Christmas, and then wake and find herself home with her family, but that, alas, did not appear to be an option.

"Well," she said. "I'll bid you good night, then."

"Good night, Geneva." He caught himself. "Captain Jones."

"Thank you, Mr. Hawkins, that will do." Geneva couldn't help biting a slight smile as she moved past him to the stairs, which creaked and cracked underfoot as she climbed to the narrow, winding second-floor corridor. She started down it to the room at the end, only to be surprised by a shadowed figure, standing and staring out through the diamonded window glass at the dark city beyond. Recalling Jim's mention of inns mysteriously burning down with him inside, she was briefly suspicious, but relaxed as she realized that it was Madi, lost in what looked to be considerably unquiet thoughts. "Hey. Are you all right?"

Madi turned with a start, blinking hard, though not fast enough for Geneva to miss the tears in her eyes. This concerned her further, as Madi, to say the least, was not someone easily prone to crying. "Did someone hurt you? Did you and – you and Silver have a – "

"No. None of that." Madi brushed the back of her hand over her face. "You should go to sleep."

"No, I mean it. I'll go if you really don't want to talk, but. . . what's wrong?"

"This city," Madi said quietly. "This entire stinking city. It is built with blood money, fattened on slaughter, stuffing its pockets on the proceeds of the slave trade, and congratulating itself because so few of my brothers and sisters ever actually set foot here. These walls, this house, these streets, these ships, they are all bought and paid for by Bristol's proud status as the origin of the traders' triangle. I hear them screaming everywhere I turn. I see the whip falling on brown backs, crammed together in an airless hold, chained and crushed, every time I close my eyes. I cannot sleep in this place. It is a city of monsters."

Geneva started to say something, then bit her tongue. She was aware in an academic way that Bristol was the port through which nearly all of England's overseas trade goods – mostly purchased, exactly as Madi had said, by the profits of selling African slaves to Caribbean plantations, and by the harvest of those plantations worked by the same slaves – arrived, and she was none too easy with the fact herself, but she knew that she did not experience it at all as Madi did, and had no right to offer any opinion on Madi's feelings as a result. "I'm sorry," she said at last. "For getting you mixed up in this. I. . . if I should not have brought you here, I – "

"You did not bring me here, like an object. I chose to come." Madi turned to look at her, gaze dark and level. "I was not trafficked, helpless to your will. I decided. Do not make the mistake of thinking otherwise again. But I appreciate your concern."

Geneva opened her mouth, then shut it, and nodded. "We will be leaving soon. I think we'll all be happier when we do."

Madi nodded in return, lips tight as if she was doing her best to hold herself together from crumbling on the spot. Geneva hesitantly reached for her hand where it clenched the windowsill, unsure if Madi wanted her comfort, when the creak of the hall boards made both of them turn. Silver was standing in the shadows, watching them but not venturing any closer, and held up a hand in clear expectation of their accusations. "I couldn't sleep either," he said. "This place is also no tender homecoming for me, that's all. If not quite to Madi's monsters, I daresay I see a few beasts as well when I lie down in the dark."

Geneva expected Madi to brush this off, as she had done after the storm when Silver tried to check on her, but she didn't. She looked back at Silver with something close to raw, unguarded yearning, as if she wanted more than anything to forget however he had let her down so badly, lost her trust, driven them apart, and for just for a short while, even knowing it ultimately changed nothing, to return to how it was when they loved each other. Despite mistakes, despite cracks and flaws, despite catastrophe and fatality, despite secrets and time and death. Madi looked away, then looked back, something in her softening just enough to let him know to come closer. He paused, then did so, crutch thumping on the knotted wood.

Geneva, feeling suddenly rather awkward, retreated a few paces as Silver joined Madi at the window. They stood there in silence, Geneva telling herself to go but not quite following through, until Silver raised a hand and put it on Madi's shoulder, as slowly and gingerly as if expecting her to go off with a bang. But a sigh that was half a sob shuddered through her from head to heel, she turned, and then all at once, her hands fisted in his ragged blue coat, she pulled him against her, and kissed him hard.

Silver was too surprised to do anything except go along with it, as his free hand hovered in the air behind her head, unsure if it had permission to grasp hold, open her mouth, deepen the intimacy. Then it moved to her face, and his callused thumb stroked the bold arch of her cheekbone, made circles in the hollow of her throat. Their noses brushed, they shared space and air and simple existence, in cooperation and not competition for the first time in who knew how impossibly long, eternities and eternities. "Madi," he breathed, soft and broken, as his forehead rested against hers. "Madi, you're tired."

Her lip trembled, as if the one time she wanted him to be selfish as usual, and take what he clearly still wanted from her, he wouldn't. He put his hand on her shoulder again, pushing her very gently back from him, and turned to Geneva, without apparent perturbation that she had just witnessed all this. "Captain Jones," he said. "I'd be indebted if you could see her to bed for me."

Geneva hesitated, absurdly tempted to tell him that he could call her by her first name after all, but she didn't. Instead she nodded once, stepped up, took Madi by the elbow, and steered her to their room, shutting the door behind them but not barring it. The women silently undressed and changed for sleep, turning back the worn quilt and settling side by side on the feather bolster. Geneva was so exhausted that even before she reached a fully horizontal position, she could feel the soft hands of sleep dragging her under, but Madi lay with hands folded on her chest, eyes open but opaque, like a tomb-carving in a cathedral. Geneva wanted to stay awake, to keep her company for a few of the dark watches of the night, but she physically could not. Her eyes closed, and she was gone.

She slept deeply but not entirely peacefully, haunted by the spectral, seaweed-draped shadow of Mr. Arrow flitting in and out of her dreams, and did not wake up, or even stir, until very late morning the next day. The spot next to her in the bed was smooth and empty, so it was impossible to tell if Madi had actually gotten any sleep, and Geneva rolled onto her back with a groan, flopping her arm over her eyes to block the offensive sunlight. She still felt as if she had been clubbed repeatedly by a very large troll. Come to think of it, surely there wasn't anything she was urgently required for today, and she would have gone straight back to sleep if not for the fact that she was starving to death and pressingly needed to use the chamber pot. Bloody inconvenient, really.

Grumbling and groaning, Geneva heaved herself out of bed, wondered when she had gotten so derelict and elderly, did her business, and shuffled to the dressing table, avoiding looking at herself in the mirror in case she turned to stone. She sat down with another groan, fished her silver-backed hairbrush out of her things, and began to do battle with her tangles of dark hair, which stuck out wildly in all sorts of salt-and-wind-whipped directions. She would absolutely see about a bath tonight, as she could feel grime lodged up every nook and cranny, and made a note to ask the innkeeper to arrange to have a tub drawn. There was nothing much to be done for her hair until then, aside from coil it back into its pins and put on a hat, and pull back on her old dress, no matter that it could practically stand up by itself at this point, as she didn't want to wear any of her clean ones until she had properly washed. Feeling as if the troll comparison was more apt than ever, Geneva reassured herself that it was only temporary and it wasn't anyone she cared about impressing, then went to see about breakfast. Luncheon, really, but never mind.

When she reached the common room, the only member of the traveling party there was her uncle, inspecting a copy of the London Register with abstracted, academic interest, a cup of half-finished tea at his elbow. Evidently it was not merely Madi and Silver struck by the weight of this place, but Thomas as well, staring down at the broadsheet – with its details of society marriages, unflattering caricatures of whatever minister was presently most disliked in Parliament, patriotic appeals to support the war against Spain, notices for required household staff or vicars for parishes, theatre evenings in Drury Lane, dispatches from the Navy Office or the East India Company, and its obsession with noting the worth in pounds of prominent landed gentlemen – as if it was a document from a completely alien world. "I used to read this every morning at breakfast," he said, as Geneva slid in next to him. "It all seemed so important then. Now. . . I can't for the life of me recall why."

"Are you all right? Bristol seems to be. . . a bit more than any of us were quite bargaining for, personally speaking."

"Aye, I'll manage." Thomas picked up his tea and briskly downed the rest of it. "It's nice to have a good cup, at least – what with the ridiculous tariffs they keep putting on tea in the Colonies, it's turned into rather a rare luxury, and I am still enough of an Englishman to appreciate it. We could afford it, of course, but James takes it somewhat personally that such taxes are levied especially for the purpose of paying for the latest of His Majesty's wars. Thus, gustatory pleasures have been sacrificed in favor of political principles." Thomas quirked an eyebrow with wry mischief, reaching for the pot to pour another. "Don't tell your grandfather about this, eh?"

Geneva grinned, even as she could tell that Thomas was using his gentle humor to move them away from the subject of his own feelings on actually returning to England, which could only be raw and complicated and surreal to the point of dreaming. "Where are the others?"

"Mr. Silver left early this morning." Aside from a slight tightening of his mouth, Thomas gave no evidence of his opinion on this. "He took young Mr. Hawkins with him, something about sorting out the preparations for our return journey. I believe he had some idea about finding a replacement for Mr. Arrow, at which I reminded him that you would have to approve any man he thought was suitable. As for Madi, I've not seen her. She must have left early as well."

Geneva took this in, not sure what she thought of Silver presuming to appoint a new first mate for her – well, unsurprised, but still severely annoyed. Every time he seemed to take a step forward, it was immediately followed by a dozen back. She hoped that whatever infatuation or interest Jim felt for her would not be overridden by extended exposure to Silver's company, as she did know that Silver was supposed to have a peculiar knack for making men see things from his point of view. Either way, it sounded as if nobody was spending the day loafing in bed, so good thing she had not either. She beckoned for breakfast, ate quickly, kissed Thomas on the cheek and told him to have all the tea he liked, then set out.

The day was fair but very windy, and Geneva's skirts whipped hard against her legs as she made her way down to the harbor front, thinking it was the most likely place for Silver to be holding interviews. If she found them, she intended to stride pointedly in and see if he had enough shame to be flustered in even the smallest degree, though she wasn't putting much stock in it. She hoped Madi was all right; an African woman would most likely be mistaken for a household servant and left to her own devices, but there remained the obvious possibility for trouble, especially if Madi felt like making her hatred for this place more concretely known. Not that Geneva blamed her in the least, but still.

After a preliminary circuit through the docks failed to turn up Silver, and Geneva had ensured that the Rose was being berthed and refitted to her satisfaction (though first having an argument with the port master to convince him that it was her bloody ship and she had the sole right to make decisions regarding it – God, she hated men sometimes) she could not help but want to have a wander up to the sailors' church, the one where Daddy and Uncle Liam had usually visited before leaving from here on the Imperator. Not that Geneva was overly religious – she tended to favor the work of the young Scottish philosopher David Hume and his Treatise of Human Nature, published just last year, and that of the other empirical skeptics – but it was a piece of family history, and she was curious. So she left the docks, climbed the steep path, ignored the offered assistance of half a dozen passing gallants (she really hated men) and made it to the church, with its distinctive arch of a whale's massive jawbone. The door was made of driftwood, and Geneva politely removed her hat, as a gentleman would, before entering.

The sanctuary was cool, dim, and smelled as did every church. A few women who must be sailors' wives were lighting candles beneath the mural of Christ standing on the headland, guiding venturing souls safely home through the storm. Geneva paused, waited until the women had moved away, then put a ha'penny in the collection box and lit a candle of her own, feeling that they could do with any extra help they could get. The walls were inscribed with the names of all the ships who had made their home port here, and she followed them around until she came to the Navy stone. Running her finger down it, she stopped at A.D. 1706 – HMS Imperator. At least she thought it was that. The name had been half effaced by what looked like a chisel blow, as if someone, hearing of the vessel's treason, had decided it no longer deserved this honor and tried to strike it out.

Geneva ran her fingers lightly over the crack, fighting an odd sense of personal affront. What had become of the ship herself – renamed the Jolie Rouge, feared across the Caribbean during her father's brief but spectacular career as a pirate captain, and then taken command of by Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny after the war – nobody was quite sure. Rackham and Bonny had sailed a few years with their cohort, Mary Read, but there was not much space left for that way of life in the Caribbean. They might have gone east to the Indian Ocean, following Edward England, one of their old colleagues on Charles Vane's crew, or all the way south round the Horn and into the Pacific, or somewhere else entirely. Like Flint, there had been scattered stories of their capture or surrender, but none, so far as Geneva knew, had been verified.

She hesitated, then moved to the next marble slab. Here was a list of the Navy men from Bristol who had met their end in its service and were worthy of humble and holy remembrance, and she found Js. Hawkins, HMS Imperator, 1715 easily enough. Nothing for her uncle or her father – which, given that they weren't, strictly speaking, actually dead – wasn't terribly surprising. Still, the message was unmistakable. They had been excluded, cast out, shunned from this place, from the dignity of its memory or the shield of its protection. If she sought it for herself, she would have to reckon with that legacy.

Geneva turned away, just as she became aware that one of the women from earlier was watching her, and had clearly been doing so for several minutes. She was a handsome blonde woman of middle age, with nonetheless something of a perpetually girlish cast to her features, her eyes cool and calculating. Seeing that Geneva had noted her regard, she inclined her head, but it fell short of any actual apology. Then she moved closer, skirts rustling. "Good afternoon."

"Good afternoon." Sensible of it being a church, Geneva likewise kept her voice down. "May I help you?"

"Forgive me if I am mistaken. But by any chance, would you be Emma Swan's daughter?"

Geneva, who had found the fact that everyone seemed to know her by repute unsettling enough on Nassau, was completely flummoxed to have it happen again in a place as bloody far away as Bristol. Perhaps she should have expected it, having just been lost in thoughts of her family's past, but still. "I – I am, yes," she said stiffly. "Geneva Jones."

"I thought so. I saw you looking at the Imperator." The woman smiled, though not with much real warmth. "Besides, I've heard a few interesting rumors recently. My name is Mrs. Eleanor Rogers. Your mother and I. . . knew each other quite a while ago."

"Eleanor – wait." The penny dropped. "Eleanor Guthrie?"

Something imperceptible flickered in the older woman's eyes. "That was my maiden name, yes. Your mother and I worked together on Nassau, when she was Captain Swan."

"Wasn't that before you married Woodes Rogers and turned against all of your old associates and friends?" Geneva had heard a thing or two about this woman, yes. "Even sided with Robert Gold, if he would give you the rule of Nassau as you wanted? And after your husband was imprisoned, you did – what? He eventually managed to become governor again, but we never heard anything about you going back there. You knew what sort of reception you'd receive."

"Well," Eleanor said. "Aren't you your parents' daughter."

Geneva took this as a point of pride. "You betrayed all of them. People remember that."

Eleanor waved a hand shortly. "For your information, when my husband was imprisoned, I managed to liquidate some of his debts through my grandmother's holdings in Philadelphia. We both agreed that it was wise for me not to go back to Nassau when he accepted another term as governor there – or rather was forced into it. Thus I never saw him again, since he died several years ago – which you, so well informed, doubtless know. The children of his first wife inherited what was left of the estate, any further rights and royalties for A Cruising Voyage Round the World, and the chance to look down their noses at me for the rest of their days, not that they needed any help in that regard. I was allowed a pittance of money from the settlement and to live in one of the Rogers family properties here. I managed to secure our son a Navy commission, but we barely have two pennies to rub together."

"Your son?"

"Aye. Captain Matthew Rogers, of HMS Griffin." Eleanor set her jaw. "He's been gone since last year, he's posted to – ironically – the Indies during the war. Truth be told, I suspect they'll find some way to make sure he never returns – why have him here, potentially mucking about in his half-siblings' inheritance and affairs, when they can keep him toiling at arms' length? They're terrible people, they don't give a whit for him. And he their own flesh and blood."

Geneva had attempted to keep a polite expression on her face, but at this, she finally interrupted. "And this has. . . what to do with me, exactly?"

"I thought. . ." Eleanor looked as if this was causing her considerable personal effort. "I realize, as you say, that I wronged friends of mine in the past. If this could be amended, perhaps I could accompany you. England's a f*cking miserable place, no wonder we left it when I was a girl, and if I can get back to my son. . . I've got bloody nothing from the Admiralty here, not even the pension I am due as Governor Rogers' widow, so perhaps Royal Navy headquarters on Antigua can be more induced to listen to my case. And of course, this venture of yours, given what I heard about other recent visitors to the city – "

Geneva was briefly impressed to hear another woman use the sort of language she was known to resort to at times, but not enough to overlook her skepticism of this entire proposal, especially as she was in absolutely no mood to be saddled with any more blasts from the past. "Let me get this straight. You think I'll agree to haul you along just so you can get one up on your stepchildren, go to the Navy and badger them for your pension, which you got from marrying the chief enemy of the pirates, the man who tortured my father for information and nearly killed my mother and grandfather? Then while you're about it, get a cut of the lost treasure so you can once more live in comfort? No. Bloody no. I'm sorry for your circ*mstances, but they appear, Mrs. Rogers, to be entirely of your own devising. So I'll bid you good day and be on my – "

Any remaining pleasure in the visit decidedly evaporated, she started for the door, even as Eleanor trotted determinedly after her. They emerged into the bright sunlight, Geneva clapping on her hat and feeling in need of finding Silver so she could profitably yell at someone – only to be halted by the sight of the man himself, Madi, and Jim just coming up the path. Whether they were going to the church (it seemed unlikely) or somewhere else was unclear, but in any case, both the adults stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of Geneva's unexpected companion. Eleanor, for her part, appeared just as stunned to see them. A nasty silence reigned.

"Mrs. Rogers." Silver, unsurprisingly, was the first one to recover the power of speech. His tone was ostensibly polite, but the edge was unmistakable. "A long time, hasn't it been?"

"Mr. . . Silver." Eleanor might have been slightly more forewarned of his presence here, but only slightly. "And. . . Madi, was it not? Mr. Scott's daughter?"

"My father worked for you on Nassau a long time, yes." There was no warmth at all in Madi's tone, feigned or otherwise. "I arrived there near the end of the war with the Walrus. I understand by that time, you had already changed your allegiances to the English."

"Indeed." Eleanor gave a tight little smile. "I've just been speaking to Miss Jones here. I came into the city in hopes of finding the arrivals, when I heard there had been a ship from Nassau. I suppose it is only to be expected that you were aboard it."

"Indeed." Silver remained watching her, while Jim looked utterly baffled as to how everyone knew each other and what on earth was going on. For her part, Geneva could not help but wonder what the result would be, when two such supremely self-interested people were brought into conjunction like this. No equal arrangement, that was for sure. Silver went on, "And how, exactly, do you imagine we can help you? Surely you cannot even think we would? After – "

"Aye, so I was informed," Eleanor snapped. "I betrayed all of you. That does not seem to have disqualified your presence here, does it? I've heard a few things about what you were have said to have done yourself, so do you really wish to pursue that line of attack?"

Silver started to say something, then stopped smartly. Then he said, "I am aware of my perdition, believe me. But I think Madi and Max run New Providence quite well these days, without you."

Eleanor flinched, ever so slightly, at the mention of Max, as Geneva was left to speculate interestedly on any number of potential prior connections. Madi herself looked almost pleased at the compliment, before remembering that it was Silver who had given it and for ulterior motives, and her expression turned cool again. Eleanor herself drew in a sharp breath through her nostrils and said, "Much as you will not believe it of me, I have no more ambition for Nassau. That foul f*cking arse-crack of a place is welcome to do whatever it pleases. I wish, as any mother does, to be reunited with my son."

"Son?" Both Madi and Silver, who had personal experience with Woodes Rogers' cool, competent, and ruthless nature, looked alarmed at the revelation that there might be a man with his cold blood and Eleanor's cornered-cat ferocity running around out there. "His?"

"Of course it was my husband's child, what do you think?" Eleanor's eyes flashed. "Not that he ever knew him very much, given as it was first debtor's prison and then a return to that horrible island, in thanks for everything Woodes had done for them. Matthew is my only priority now, not Nassau. And while you may have no children of your own, Mr. Silver, I hope even you can understand that. Or can you not?"

Madi and Silver exchanged a look, an odd continuation of their intimacy from last night, but in a different way, as they silently sought the other's opinion and verdict on the matter. Geneva had no way of knowing if they had ever imagined or hoped for children for themselves – Madi had said they had lived as husband and wife for many years, had the question really never arisen at any point? Or perhaps it had, and they did not have the same answer, and that had contributed to their estrangement. It was clearly something very private that did not concern her, even as she pushed away a brief, unwanted pity (unwanted for Silver, at least). Then Silver said, "It is a moving tale, to be sure. But even if we were inclined to pursue it – "

"I wasn't interested," Geneva interrupted. She had made her decision, and nobody got to go over her head and override it, even if she didn't think Silver was in much danger (for bloody once) of that; his feelings on Eleanor were clearly no warmer than anyone else's. "Therefore, the matter is closed, and I am sure we all wish Mrs. Rogers a very pleasant day."

With that, she pushed past the lot of them and began to march down the hill, internally seething. There was a pause, then a rustle as Jim hurried after her, followed belatedly by Madi and Silver. When they reached the street, Geneva whirled on the latter. "Oh, and don't think you're excused. This plan to go behind my back and hire my new first mate for me, did you ever possibly imagine that I would be remotely pleased with – "

"I wasn't going to hire him for you." Silver had the temerity to look somewhat stung at this accusation. "I was merely going to examine a few options, see what was available. We are running short-handed, you know. Mr. Arrow wasn't the only man we lost in the storm, and I can promise that at least a few of them will prefer to stay here over the winter, rather than immediately signing on for another long crossing. Besides, it can't hurt to have more fighters on our side, if we are likely destined for a confrontation at some point."

"So what? Hire the local Bristol street thugs, as long as they can handle a sheet?" Geneva felt her temper scraping thinner and thinner. "Or some old sailor I don't know and who will feel his opinion to be preferred to mine on everything? I'd almost rather sail short-handed, if that's the choice foisted on me!"

"Or," Silver pointed out, "you could make me first mate. At least you do know me."

Geneva stopped, tilted her head, and stared at him coolly. "And suddenly I wonder if that was not your plan all along. Threaten me with some unknown and untrusted commodity, so you could then present yourself to me as familiar. Is that how you managed it with my grandfather? Aye, I know you, and bloody little of it is to your credit, especially given how your last post as quartermaster ended! Whatever else she may be, that Rogers woman is right. Betrayal did not disqualify you from being here somehow, but why should I encourage it?"

"Geneva – " Forgetting protocol, Silver reached out a hand. "Either way you look at it, it becomes twisted into malign intention on my part, is that it? Hire an outsider, and I seek to challenge your command and give a stranger a position of authority aboard your vessel. Suggest myself, and I have only craftily misdirected and misled for my own advancement. What can I suggest that you would believe?"

"Perhaps nothing!" Geneva jerked out from under his touch, finally provoked beyond all endurance. "Did you ever consider that, Mr. Silver? Perhaps you should suggest nothing! Not everything is in your purview or requires your contribution! Perhaps it is my responsibility, as captain, to decide who I needed on my crew and when, and there is absolutely no call for your feelings on the matter at all! I daresay if you did that once in a while, or even considered the concept in your life, clever man like you, you might have a few more friends!"

Jim's eyes went wide, as he was wearing an expression that could only be described as "oh damn," and Madi looked almost on the verge of smiling, but as someone who had been too personally hurt by Silver's deficiencies in this regard to find it very amusing. There was an extremely tense pause as Geneva and Silver stared at each other – the one looking furious, the other almost (if not quite) chagrined. Then, slowly, as if worried of making her shout again, Silver raised a hand. "Aye. That makes sense, I understand. I will furthermore leave the question of Mr. Arrow's replacement entirely up to you."

"Good." Noting Madi's gaze flickering between them, and then back to Geneva with something almost concerned in her eyes, Geneva nodded to her, turned about, and left the three of them behind, presumably to elucidate Jim on just who Eleanor Rogers, née Guthrie, actually was. She hoped they had seen the last of that woman, but these sorts of people were not easily shaken off – she should know, given as she had already been dragged from Nassau to Bristol by one, and had no intention of being dragged from Bristol to Nassau by another. Either way, before they were going anywhere, they were going to France. Geneva intended to get in contact with her aunt Regina as regarded her uncle Liam's whereabouts, and warn her about just who was responsible for his disappearance. If Regina then wanted to come along, well, yet another strong-minded woman to make Silver's life difficult could not go amiss.

Geneva spent the rest of the afternoon doing some interviewing of her own – there were always men who hung around docks in hopes of employment on a ship, and since she knew that Silver was right about some of the crew choosing to stay here and return next spring rather than hauling arse straight back, it would behoove her to have at least a few replacements lined up. Half the applicants were immediately gotten rid of, either by refusing to serve under a female captain or clearly thinking they could co-opt the chance for themselves, until there were only a handful left.

After a further few questions, Geneva had about made up her mind, even knowing it was not a completely safe choice, to settle on a taciturn, grizzled, bearded old salt who said that he had sailed with Blackbeard's crew back in the day, and who had been aboard when Woodes Rogers took the Queen Anne's Revenge by trickery, killed Blackbeard with unusual viciousness, and chased the Walrus to Skeleton Island. Anyone could have claimed this, of course, but he knew enough details for it to be plausible, and while he was clearly more than slightly mad, he was courteous enough to her. Moreover, when she mentioned John Silver, his eyes narrowed in a way that Geneva thought might do Silver the world of good. "That sneaking, stinking, slithering sh*t? I've heard of him. If you have him aboard, aye, I'm most interested in the post."

"We will see. There are still some preparations to be made, but I anticipate we will be leaving before the fortnight is out. No need to join us until then; I think it's best that Mr. Silver does not know you are traveling with us beforehand. I prefer him unprepared." Geneva smiled, close-mouthed. "Is that clear?"

"Aye, mum."

"Good. Then I'll see you soon, Mr. . . .?

"Hands." He inclined his head, but his eyes remained avid, intent as a vulture's in his scarred face, biding its time until its prey wheezed its last. "Israel Hands, at your service."

Sam's head felt rather far away from his feet as they climbed out of the dark hold and – very cautiously – up to the deck, which at least kept his mind, somewhat, off the continued throbbing of his striped back. It might not scar, but it was clearly going to be torture waking up tomorrow morning, not that it was presently too enjoyable either, and his shirt was unpleasantly sticking, causing him a hiss of pain every time it peeled off the welts. He had not forgotten that he had been rescued before the flogging was finished, and for all he knew, a few of the bo'sun's brawny mates would grab him, hold him down, and make sure there was no leaving early this time. Whether or not they were technically enlisted, the Griffin's officers would not be happy about having their authority so openly and violently flouted – let Jack get away with it, and the rest might think that they could too. Somebody was going to kick up a fuss.

Sam was quite confused, therefore, when they made it back above as unobtrusively as they could, and nobody looked twice at them. The crowd gathered for the spectacle of a whipping had dispersed – well, they wouldn't want anyone else playing the hero, he supposed – and all the men had returned to their stations. Given as there were now two of them somewhere who thought that he and Jack had popped off for a spot of refreshing buggery, Sam wondered if they should be careful not to emerge together. Though that was supposed to be secret, hence the whole point of the kiss, and those blokes were not likely to speak up and draw attention to themselves. Should be all right. Should be.

In fact, they managed to get through the rest of the afternoon without anyone taking the slightest bit of renewed notice in them. Sam was relieved, but suspicious – could be they were waiting for nightfall, below decks – and wondered if he and Jack should strategically relocate their hammocks. Though that in itself could be questionable, if it looked as if they were hiding out (or, he supposed, off for round two) and Sam found himself almost looking forward to getting to Barbados, for any number of reasons. There had to be ships there heading back north. They'd get one of those. Scenic tours of the Caribbean might be all well and good, but he would rest a deal easier away from the Royal bloody Navy.

He and Jack ate with the rest of the sailors that evening, again without incident, and when it was time to retire, Sam shifted and squirmed and flopped about for ages, trying to find any position that did not sting like a fistful of nettles on his back. As there was only about eighteen inches of space per hammock – the deck was crammed to every side with sleeping men, smelling pungently of sweat and salt and musk and fart and arse and armpit – this quickly attracted hostile hisses and whispers ordering him to quit thrashing before they tied his balls around his throat and loaded him into a cannon. Events of the afternoon being what they were, Sam did not think it wise to press the matter. He lay curled uncomfortably on his side like a kipper, back burning, listening to the progressing racket of slow breaths and snores, unable to drop under despite being more exhausted than he had ever been in his life. How he was going to take another few days of this, he had absolutely no idea.

Sam had lain in a restless half-doze for what felt like close to an hour, before – startling him considerably – somebody put a hand on his shoulder. He jerked his eyes open, expecting to see Jack, but it was the cabin boy. He motioned to Sam to come with him, and Sam, after a moment wondering if this was an entirely wise idea, got out and followed the lad's example by crawling on hands and knees under the dim, swaying shapes of the hammocks, so as not to disturb their occupants. The deck boards were foul with spittle and spilled grog and other things Sam did not want to know about, and he reached the far side with relief, straightening up and clambering up the ladder, sucking down a breath of cool, fresh night air that was immeasurably welcome after the hot, cloistered reek of the sleeping quarters. The gun ports had been left open for ventilation, but that still did not do much, and Sam gulped gratefully until the funk had cleared from his nostrils. Remembering, however, his last sojourn on deck at night, he narrowed his eyes suspiciously at the cabin boy. The little twerp was barely ten; if he tried to throw Sam overboard, he was the one going swimming.

The cabin boy, however, did not have such villainy in mind, and beckoned Sam across to the door of what was unmistakably the captain's quarters. Sam, realizing that the villainy might only have been delayed to arrive in a different form, felt an unwelcome lurch in his stomach, but there was nothing for it. Mouth dry, hoping that the entire lot of them were not about to jump him, he followed the boy into the low-ceilinged, candlelit cabin, rear windows cranked open and the dark sea smooth as glass beyond the stern lanterns.

Inside, Captain Rogers, cravat undone and jacket off, was playing cards with the warranty officers – two lieutenants, the purser, gunner, and surgeon, by the looks of things – but at the sight of them, he quickly finished the game and gestured for his guests to leave. Sam did not find this a particularly auspicious beginning, but forced himself to control his nerves, standing as noncommittally as possible until the last "G'night, Cap'n, sir," had been muttered, and the two of them were alone. It was plain that despite his youth, Rogers had the respect, and perhaps more than a little fear, of men ten or even fifteen years his senior. Sam also did not find this very reassuring, but still refused to fidget. Whatever this was about, he was liable to find out uncomfortably soon, and was more than happy to wait.

"Mr. co*cker," Rogers said. "Sit, if you would."

Sam hesitated, then moved into one of the vacated chairs at the card table. There was a snifter of brandy at Rogers' elbow, but he did not appear to be at all inebriated, and Sam doubted that he was about to be offered a friendly drink. He tried not to let on the way his heart had sped up – the bugger was just Jack's age or so, nothing more than an older boy at school who thought he knew everything, no need to be scared. And as well, no need to make this any worse. "Captain."

A faint smile turned up Rogers' lips. "James co*cker," he said. "That is your name, isn't it?"

"Aye."

"And your friend is Richard Jones?"

"Aye."

"Who are your parents, Mr. co*cker?"

"Uh – Bartholomew. Bartholomew and Ruth co*cker, of Georgia." Sam thought about saying Virginia or some other place, but he'd already mentioned that he was with Oglethorpe's army, no need to muddle the picture. "They're greengrocers."

"Are they indeed?" Rogers sipped the last of the brandy, set it aside, and folded his hands on the table, surveying Sam with that level, appraising look of his. "Fascinating though the work of a greengrocer doubtless is, it is not your parents that I intend to discuss tonight. My concern is rather with your. . . friend. Mr. Jones made quite a spectacle earlier."

"Er, yeah," Sam said. "Yeah, I suppose he did, a bit."

Rogers smiled another of those smiles that never got anywhere near his eyes. "Forgive me, since you have already changed your story on me once, if I cannot help further curiosity into you two's origins. Oh, I believe you are an English soldier, if a somewhat unenthusiastic one – the Crown, after all, does not ask us to love it, only obey it. I will, however, believe a Covent Garden whor* is the Queen of England before I believe the same of your friend. Who is he, really?"

"J – Richard?" As if there was anyone else they could be discussing.

"Indeed. You may be interested to hear that Mr. Sherwood, the gunner's mate, will be all right in a day or so, though with a very nasty bruise on his neck. If Mr. Jones had done him more serious injury. . . well, one cannot help but think it was mere chance that he did not. Rather a vicious temper, especially when it comes to defending you."

Sam, who had been about to point out that Mr. Sherwood deserved it, decided this to be unwise. He wished Rogers would quit staring at him like that, or at least blink a few times. "Aye," he said, trying to sound friendly. "Dick is a pain in the arse, all right. Know what I mean?"

"Is that a joke, Mr. co*cker? A rather ill-advised one, at that?"

"I – what?" Sam blinked. "Oh, Jesus. No."

"I'm relieved to hear it." Rogers leaned back in his chair. "So, if that is your honest opinion of him, and as I said, it's apparent he's no English soldier – again. Who is he?"

"How do you know he's not? He's English. He clearly can fight. He could be a soldier." Sam debated whether to mention that Jack's father was a Royal Navy captain – that might reveal that his name was not Richard Jones, aye, but it might give Rogers pause about doing anything too drastic to him. But Sam knew that Jack had not told him that just for him to turn around and blab it that same night, especially to this man. "I'd – well, probably just don't let the crew pick any more fights with him, we get to Barbados, and go on our way, free as a – "

Rogers took his jacket from the windowsill, removed a knife and a small block of wood, and shaved a long, delicate curl off it. "Nights are long at sea," he explained. "Often with nothing to pass them with, so I've taken up whittling. Useless, of course, with a dull knife. Useless and frustrating. To get anywhere at all, one must keep the knife sharp and be patient. Carve away at the block bit by bit, even if it looks nothing like one hopes, until some sort of shape is revealed within. It does take effort, and forethought. And of course, if one is not paying attention, one could cut oneself rather badly. Not something one does absently, whittling."

Inexperienced he might be, but even Sam was not thick enough to miss the decided – and decidedly sinister – double meaning of this remark. He resisted, again, the urge to fidget or gulp, instead gazing as blandly back at Rogers as if they were actually talking about woodwork. "Oh? What're you trying to make, then?"

"I'm not sure just yet." Rogers turned the small carving in his hand. "That, though, is the other thing. You can't wait too long to decide, must set your design and commit to it. Wood, after all, is not a very malleable substance – you cannot start to make something and then change your mind halfway through, or all you do is ruin the work. You must etch one likeness, or another. Helps build one's resolve, shall we say. Tell me, Mr. co*cker, what does a greengrocer's son do for recreation? Toss onions about? I imagine with sufficient practice, you could even learn to juggle them."

"For recreation?" Sam repeated. "Same as other lads, I reckon. We're not some strange and separate species."

"So I see." Rogers continued to regard him thoughtfully, until Sam was seriously tempted to do a stupid thing and just order him to get to the bloody point. But this one did not hurry, and that was the danger of him. It reminded Sam of something, some story he'd heard, especially. . . well, the thought had crossed his mind. But Rogers was nearly as common a surname as Jones, and was no proof at all that this deliberate young man with his elegant whittling threats and air of polite incredulity was, in fact, the spawn of Governor Woodes Rogers – whom Sam had never met, and thank God for that. He knew about the man, of course, for the role he had played in the history of their family and Nassau alike, but to Matthew, even allowing for an unfortunate event where he was the governor's son, it would be likewise just old stories. Or would it?

After a moment, when Sam volunteered no more information, Rogers put the block back in his jacket, but kept hold of the knife. "You asked," he said, as if continuing their earlier conversation with no interruption, "how I could be sure that Mr. Jones was not an English soldier. You say your parents hail from Georgia. I realize, of course, that the colony is a large place. . . but with a name like Jones, that look and coloring, such clear hatred for the Royal Navy and everything it stands for, and knowing that Georgia was the last place we can establish the residence of Killian Jones, formerly Captain Hook. . . Mr. co*cker, do you know who your friend really is?"

Sam just managed to keep the telltale lurch of shock off his face. "What are you suggesting, exactly?"

"I am suggesting," Rogers said, with some impatience, "that your ruffian of a friend is, in fact, the son of a notorious pirate, who himself deserted from the Royal Navy long ago and poses, I am told, a severe and ongoing threat to the English Crown's interests both in the Caribbean and elsewhere. I am under specific orders to find and secure this individual at all costs. If your friend is the child of Captain Hook, I am afraid – "

"He's not." Sam's hands were shaking under the table, so he clenched them. "I know his parents, they're, ah, their names are John and Jane."

"And why does the son of John and Jane Jones hate the Navy so much, Mr. co*cker?"

"Well, you know. They can be a bit. . . not to everyone's tastes."

"Indeed." Rogers studied him a moment longer, then raised his voice. "Come in, please."

Outside, there was the sound of scuffling and struggling, a yelp, a thump, and then the cabin door opened again, to admit, with difficulty, Rogers' former card-playing partners. The two lieutenants were wrestling Jack by either arm, the gunner (doubtless with a personal vendetta for Jack having left him short his mate for the time being) had him in a headlock, and the purser was watching the whole thing with a sort of grim satisfaction. They made it inside, the purser shut the door, and the lieutenants forced Jack, again with considerable struggle, to his knees in front of the captain's table. "Got 'im, sir."

"Indeed," Rogers said again. He regarded them critically – one had a split lip, the other a black eye, and they were both out of breath – and then turned to Jack, who was glaring up at him through the long lock of black hair that had fallen in his face. "Good evening, Mr. Jones."

"The f*ck it is." Jack's gaze slid briefly sideways onto Sam, almost as if he had to make sure that Rogers hadn't hurt him any more while they were alone together. "Go ahead, beat me all you want. I figured this was coming."

"No, I don't think so," Rogers said. "But if you'll excuse me, I just need to perform a brief test of a hypothesis. Warwick, hit him."

The lieutenant in charge of Jack's left arm passed custody of it to the gunner, then stepped around, squared up, and as his fellows hauled Jack into a half-standing position, slugged him in the stomach. Jack doubled over momentarily, but unlike Sam, he clearly knew how to take a punch, and he was straightening up again even as he was, breathing heavily and gulping hard but with evil stare undimmed. "Four men to come get me while I'm sleeping?" he rasped. "No wonder England is so proud of having all you brave heroes in its service."

Lieutenant Warwick cracked his knuckles threateningly, but Rogers raised a hand. "That will do, thank you. That was all I needed to know. You are, Mr. Jones – as does not surprise me, given your lineage – clearly not a man whom violence can break. You are too used to it, and it only strengthens your recalcitrance. Therefore, I see no call for effort and unpleasantness to be expended in beating you. We can make this simple. Are you the son of Killian Jones, better known as Captain Hook?"

"What? No."

It was clear that Rogers did not believe this, and Sam fought an insane urge to yell out his real identity, as he had admittedly been doing a bit too freely on this adventure to date, but bit his tongue at the searing look Jack threw him. The captain paced a measured circle around Jack, looking down at him with slight disgust, as if a man so clearly governed by his passions and darker impulses was little better than a savage of some distant land, far from sharing in the exalted exercise and virtue of Reason that, the new philosophers assured them, was special and unique to Western men. "Are you then," Rogers said, more coldly, "related to Killian Jones in any way, or have some knowledge of his current whereabouts?"

"I don't have a f*cking clue. Are you done?"

Rogers raised an eyebrow. Then he nodded to the gunner and the purser, who – leaving the lieutenants to manage Jack – suddenly and alarmingly grabbed hold of Sam and slammed him down on the table so hard that he saw stars. The gunner pinned him with a beefy forearm, while the purser opened one of the drawers and removed a riding crop. To say the least, riding crops were not normally required aboard a ship, so this one must be present for the exact use to which it now threatened to be put. "I quite believe that we can make no headway on your resolve by violence applied to your own person," Rogers said, as if explaining a simple concept to a rather dull-witted schoolboy. "But given what efforts you went to this afternoon to save Mr. co*cker from a thrashing, I wonder if that also holds true when applied to him?"

For a moment, which was somehow more terrifying to Sam than the fact that he was thrown flat on a table and possibly about to be whipped again, he saw Jack go white. He did not have a sharp answer ready for that, and Rogers smiled with a distinct air of victory. "You know," he went on. "I am aware of the certain. . . attachments that can sometimes form between crewmen, serving together in close quarters for long periods of time and deprived of the society of women. Unlike other captains, I have not seen any call to go to violent lengths to root it out, as long as it does not interfere with the smooth and orderly running of the vessel. So please do understand, Mr. Jones, that this punishment is not for sodomy, but for insubordination. Unless you wish to spare your little Patroclus, and tell me the truth?"

Jack opened and shut his mouth. As if in an attempt to ascertain his resolve, the purser yanked Sam's shirt over his head, and the gunner dealt a ringing blow with the crop that lashed right into one of the welts from earlier, making Sam utter a strangled scream despite himself; he could feel hot blood trickling down his back. He struggled with a ferocity that surprised even him, but the gunner banged his head back onto the table and belted him again. Sam twisted around and tried to bite him, but a backhand full across the face sent him reeling, and his ears were ringing enough that he almost missed Jack yelling. "Bloody hell! Bloody hell, you f*cking bastards! All right, I'm his f*cking son, does that make you happy? Jesus!"

Sam's jaw dropped – which, considering that it had just gotten soundly clocked, made it hurt considerably. He was on the very verge of speaking up, but Jack gave him another of those searing looks warning him not to do it or he'd kill him personally, and he snapped his mouth shut. The air was tensed to the point of total explosion, as Rogers, with that same measured stride, approached Jack once more. "For clarity and confirmation's sake, I think we'd all like you to repeat that. You are – ?"

"I'm his son. Killian Jones' son." Despite being unspoken, You motherf*cker hung in the air loudly enough for them to hear it anyway. "Satisfied?"

"It's a start." Rogers glanced to the lieutenants. "Until we reach Barbados, I think it's best if Mr. Jones is kept in the brig. My lord will undoubtedly wish to question him personally, so anything that leaves him out of shape for talking is strictly forbidden. I will be very angry if this order is found to be flouted. Am I clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Take him away. As for you, Mr. co*cker – " Rogers turned back to Sam – "you are excused from further obligation to serve on the crew for the rest of our journey. We will instead find you something suitable for the skill of a greengrocer's son – swabbing the decks or mucking the head, perhaps, or helping Mr. Alfred in the galley. As long as you make yourself useful, the crew will be informed that the matter has been settled, and any man who pursues a grievance with you will be punished. Test me again or challenge my authority, however, and you will very much wish you hadn't. Likewise, am I clear?"

"Yes." Sam's lip felt fat and painful, but that was not the only reason the word was difficult to choke out. "Sir."

"Good," Rogers said again, with one last lingering look between them. "Well, gentlemen. I'm glad we've sorted everything out. Good night."

The rest of the voyage to Barbados passed in something close to a blur. Sam knew that it was more than his life was worth to sneak down to the brig, but he was still angry at himself for the cowardice of this – surely if he was brave enough, he would do it anyway, especially as Jack was taking what should have been his sentence. Why on earth the stupid git had decided to come over noble for once in his life and lie about this, Sam had no idea – he assumed that it would have been entirely in character for Jack to sell him out quick as spit, just as he had with Da Souza. Evidently, however, Jack hated the Navy a lot more than he hated Sam, and thus was willing to endure the slings and arrows of one if it meant sparing the other. Exactly why, well. . . Sam figured it wasn't a good idea to think about that too much. The kiss had just been a ploy, and besides, there was still this mysterious Charlotte. Best not to go getting things confused.

At least, Sam supposed, he wasn't still being forced to muddle along with sailing, but it was almost worse than if he was. Everyone knew he was officially not good enough to hack it with them, taken pity on and made to do odd jobs that he could handle without calamity – scrubbing deck boards and scouring pots for the cook, sluicing out the reeking head after the crew had all taken their morning sh*ts. Something suitable for the skill of a greengrocer's son. No wonder Rogers had never been troubled by a single flicker of suspicion as to whether he had gotten the wrong man. Jack was the exact sort of son that everyone would expect Dad to have. But Captain Howe was the real monster of a father, and not Captain Hook.

Sam tried to focus on what was before them, to remember that this was doubtless building his character, and he would probably be able to laugh about it some day. But for a boy like him – so proud of making friends, of being liked, even as he feared so greatly that he wasn't – he nonetheless struggled with some kind of hatred that was building slowly in him like poison, that almost made him want to be sick. Hatred of who or what exactly, he didn't even know.

They reached Barbados two evenings later, gliding into Bridgetown harbor on the gilded road of the setting sun and dropping anchor. Despite the lateness of the hour, Rogers was insistent on paying a call at once, and Jack was hauled up from below, wrists in irons, and marched across the deck to the jeers of the crew. He and Sam exchanged half a glance, and Sam couldn't tell if Jack was disappointed or not, if he had expected Sam to come up with some plan to get them out of here before it came to this. Probably not. Jack was likely not at all surprised that he had spent the last few days in the brig pretending to be Sam, and not seen hide nor hair of the real one.

With Sam joining the visiting party thanks to the gunner grabbing his arm and dragging him along with Rogers, Jack, the lieutenants, and a dozen men with muskets, they went ashore and rode in a pair of carts up the hill, into Bridgetown, and toward the impressive estate that sat magisterially gazing down on the port. Rogers spoke in a low voice to the guards on the gate, and they were admitted through at once, rattling down the immaculately kept drive and up to the white-columned house. Jack and Sam were roughly extricated and escorted up the steps, Rogers knocked, and a servant let them in. Another quiet word was exchanged, and they were pointed to the back of the house.

Sam was starting to have a bad feeling about this for more than just the fact that they were in another important bigwig's house after Güemes in Havana (though as allies – maybe – this time, instead of adversaries) and Rogers thought their delivery important enough that it couldn't wait until morning. He had said he'd been told that Killian Jones remained the greatest threat in the Caribbean, that he was under specific orders to find him, and that "my lord" would want to question Jack himself. All of this added up to an individual that Sam was suddenly quite certain he did not want to meet, and that bad as things might look right now, they might be about to get several orders of magnitude worse. Why didn't you think of something, you bleeding idiot? Why didn't you get us out of this? Completely bloody useless, James co*cker the greengrocer's son. Completely!

They reached the door into what looked like a study, but as Rogers raised his hand to knock again, it opened, spilling golden lamplight into the dark hall. The figure thus revealed was a slight man, leaning on a cane, with long grey hair tied back, hooded eyes that reflected almost black, and a ring with a star emblem gleaming on his first finger. He was at least Sam's grandfather's age or older, but likewise still just as dangerous, if not more so. He surveyed his unwilling guests, turned to Rogers, and smiled.

"Ah, dearie," he said. "Do come in."

Chapter 12: XII

Chapter Text

Killian woke, to his fury, to what sounded like a whole passel of feral cats yowling in the alleyway, or perhaps some loitering drunkard running afoul of the night watchman and being pitched headlong into a barred wagon, thus to contemplate his poor life choices at leisure. Better you than me, mate. Yet Killian's fury did not stem from this unharmonious awakening, per se, as much as the fact that it had jerked him out of a highly enjoyable dream about Emma, which had just been getting to the best part. As Killian thought it grimly likely that he would be deprived of his actual wife for a while yet, it was doubly unjust to then be ripped away from her intimate society in dreams, and he kept his eyes shut, trying to conjure back what precisely had been about to happen, and where everything had been positioned.

In this, at least, he had an excellent well of experience to draw upon; he supposed it was somewhat surprising that they had only had two children. But then, Emma knew where to get her hands on vodou drugs and herbal draughts and the like, which lessened the risk of an inadvertent seedling. Geneva of course had been completely unexpected, but they had deliberately decided to try for Sam, had wanted him so much, and the day he was born – perfectly healthy, but giving them a terrible scare with the cord wrapped around his neck – had been both the worst and the best day of Killian's life. If there were other children after that, he'd not have minded in the least, but Sam seemed to make their family complete, and they'd been happy ever since. Speaking of which, it had to be nearly Sam's birthday – it was a fortnight after Killian's, on the seventh of September. He'd be twenty. No longer a teenager, in all ways a man.

A pang of melancholy went through Killian at the thought, chasing away the remnants of frustrated oneiric lust, and he fell back on the hard, thin pillow and scratchy straw mattress of the tavern bed, staring at the woodsmoke-stained ceiling and trying to remind himself that it would not be forever. He'd see his family again, finish things properly with his wife, kiss his daughter, hug his son, have a good chat about books with Henry. It would help a great deal, however, if the Le Havre authorities would just quit their valiant search for Rufio's killer. Killian and Regina had been holed up in this reeking sh*tshack for four days waiting for the heat to die down, which it had not yet done, and from that, Killian could tell that someone, somewhere, was keeping the pressure on them to continue looking. They wouldn't be going to all this effort for ordinary riffraff otherwise, so this mysterious employer of the Lost Boys must be someone with both influence and money. Lady Fiona, or one of her deputies. Brilliant. Bloody brilliant.

Killian shifted restlessly, tempted to creep to the window and have a gander. Maybe it hadn't been feral cats or a stray drunkard, maybe it had been something else. But the floorboards creaked like the devil, and waking Regina early – after doing it the last few days just to annoy her, as she usually kept to a much later schedule – had somewhat lost its savor. They were still pulling like mules tied to opposite ends of the same rope, both determined to go in their own direction and hang the other, but Killian had decided (with some regret) that they were over fifty years of age, and this continued squabbling did not befit their seasoned dignity, dubious as it might be. Besides, too much more of this and they'd strangle each other before they ever got out of France. That, at least, could be safely assumed to be counterproductive.

Instead, Killian lay there, darkly congratulating himself on his restraint and watching the grey light creep up the wall, until he could hear rustling from downstairs, more clatter from the street outside, and Regina stirred and rolled over. She peered at him with the vaguely hopeful expression of a woman also wanting to wake up and find her spouse there, which then went sour as quickly as curdled milk when she realized it was the other Jones brother. "Oh," she said, turning back onto her side. "You."

"Still me, yes." Killian pushed himself upright. "And good morning to you too, love."

Regina's lips went rather thin but she likewise held herself back from any more caustic comment. Instead, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up. "If I have to spend another night being munched on by whatever is breeding in those sheets, I swear. . . it'll be a miracle if we ever get to England. Why the devil haven't they given it up yet? Rufio can't have been that important."

"I had a theory." With that, Killian filled her in on his unpleasant hunch, to which Regina listened with her customary expression of suspicion and exasperation. At least she listened, however, and did not interrupt, and finally he said, "So unless we can find whoever's paying them enough to keep up the search, we might not – "

"I'll have to do something about this." Regina tapped her fingers together. "They're not looking for me, after all. Do you think you could possibly keep yourself out of further trouble if I did?"

"How long is that going to take, then?"

"No more than what you've already cost us." Regina went to the corner and began digging for her clothes. "If I had any sense, I'd leave you here and just continue the search for Liam myself. But I suppose he'd want us to stick together, and for me to fix your mistakes, so – "

"Aye, Liam might have a thing or two to say about that," Killian said, rather more sharply than he meant. "At least about keeping me around, troublesome as I might be. You know, though, he's no saint either. I'm sure the both of you have worked quite efficiently at getting things done, however you need to. But then, you're used to it only ever being the two of you, aren't you? Never even have to try to like anyone else."

Regina flinched. "What Liam and I do isn't your – "

"Bloody hell, we're family too. Much as neither of us like it, but we are. And we've lived apart so long that it's not surprising we're no good at it, but right now, we are what the other has. So if we just put a little bloody effort into working together instead of – "

"What you said. About it just being the two of us. Yes, it has. And we. . ." Regina seemed to be struggling with the words. "You and Emma, you have a whole family, you have so many people. Did you – did you have to?"

Killian was perplexed. "Did we have to do what?"

Regina twisted the hem of her petticoat. "Take Henry and Geneva back."

"What?" Whatever Killian had expected her to say, it was not this. "Aye, they're our children, of course we did! When we gave them to you and Liam, it was so you could take them to safety, and raise them if we died. Well, happily – though you may disagree – we didn't. I know you'd had them for a bit and I'm sure you became fond of them in your way, but still – "

"You could have had more!" Regina did not seem to want to say this, but it burst out of her. "You did have more, you and Emma had another son! If you'd let us keep Henry and Geneva, or even just Henry, we could have raised them just as well, we could have had children too, not just the empty house with the two of us and Liam's nightmares. I might know more about this, about how to be a mother, how to care, how. . ." She waved a hand, eyes too bright, mouth too tight. "I can't. Have children of my own. It was my decision, a long time ago, to hurt my mother, and I. . . I'm not proud of it, and I've done well enough in my life besides, but. . ."

"Aye, we had Sam, but that's not how it works. You can't replace one child with another. My bloody father tried it – in this very city, I'm sure you remember Liam Junior – and look where that got him, got both of them! We couldn't have had Sam just to put in Henry's place. You could have taken in another orphan, a fosterling, some other street urchin who needed a – "

"As you said." Regina gripped the back of the chair as hard as if she wanted to break it. "You can't replace one child with another."

They stared at each other for a long, uncomfortable moment, neither of them wanting to have been this honest, to bare these depths of wounds to the other, but no longer able to turn back and pull away. At last Killian said, "I didn't realize you cared for Henry so much."

"I expect you don't realize a number of things." Regina's voice was very quiet, the barb made by reflex, as her fingers loosened their stranglehold but did not relinquish it entirely. "You never came back to France after you left. I know it's a long voyage, but a family of sailors like you, you could have made it, once the children were a bit older. I know Liam wanted to see you. Why did you stay away? Was it just to punish him? Punish us? Salt the point home that you had what we could not? Until you became Hook, you and Liam never spent a moment apart. How did it turn into almost twenty-five years?"

Despite himself, Killian was caught off guard. After the battle of Nassau, he and Emma had made the trip to France late in the year, willing to take the risk of a winter crossing if the alternative was waiting months and months longer to see the children again. They had been married in Paris on New Year's Eve, and then returned to the Americas the following spring. Every time Killian thought about returning after that, some excuse had arisen for him to postpone it. Someday, he told himself. Someday, of course, he would see Liam again. Someday, when the children could make the trip with them. Then Sam was born, and the clock reset, and then they reunited with Flint and Miranda and moved to Georgia, and then. . . on and on.

It was only now, for the first time, that Killian was forced to admit that there had been more to it. That he loved Liam and always would, but did not want to live with him anymore, or even with him nearby. That he had spent so long living in Liam's shadow, clinging to him for protection, scared and powerless, that something of that still remained in him whenever they were together. Liam still tried too instinctively to parent him, to protect him, and while of course that had kept him alive when they were boys, Killian did not want it any more. For better or worse, he wanted to make his own mistakes, live as his own man, rather than the two halves of one creature, each barely sure of anything without the other, that the young Jones brothers had been. Could not risk it happening again, not when they could never go back, not when he did not want to, but still almost thought that Liam might. And so, unconsciously, then intentionally, stayed away.

Regina was still looking at him, waiting for an answer. Killian was not sure how on earth to explain this to her, or if she would remotely understand. Finally he said, "Well, if we catch up to him, I'll see him then, won't I?"

Regina eyed him as if she was about to push for a better explanation, then thought better of it. Instead, she turned and resumed getting dressed without a word, evidently feeling that they had talked about enough emotions for now, and Killian followed her lead. He had long since learned to do most things with one hand, including this, but it could still be a bloody hassle, and he was used to having Emma to help with the odds and ends. He, however, was categorically not asking Regina to step in, so he awkwardly tugged and tied his laces himself. He too was more than ready to see the back of this place.

When they were presentable, Regina said, "I'm going to see if I can't do something to convince this lot to crawl up someone else's arses. Stay here and don't kill anyone else."

With that, they headed down to the taproom, which was mostly empty at this early hour, scoffed an unappealing breakfast, and Regina, switching to French, put on her most charming manner to ask the tavern keeper something, presumably where to find certain important people and what would be most effective in changing their minds as regarded a few small difficulties. After another dubious look at Killian, she told him it would likely be several hours, and slipped out.

The idea of sitting here by himself and waiting for Regina to miraculously sort everything out was less than pleasant, the barman was giving him very dark looks for continuing to occupy a seat without paying, and going upstairs to swelter in their tiny, smelly room sounded like torture worse than the month-odd he had just spent on the Pan. Finally, even knowing that he really should not, that he'd blow everything sky-high if caught, Killian nonetheless decided that it could not hurt, with hood well up and hook hidden, to step outside a moment. As long as he did not draw attention to himself or try to board a ship – no bloody chance of that, unfortunately, given as Regina was the only one of them who had money – he should be all right.

The day was cool and murky, with a strong sea fog blowing in off the Channel, and Killian had to keep a firm hold on his hood as he walked, lest it whisk down and do the French authorities' work for them. Regina would not be pleased, but then, Regina was never pleased, and he was more than willing to endure her ire in exchange for some fresh air. He had been unable to rid himself of the nagging thought that by some nasty coincidence, the tavern where they were staying was the one that his father had run, passed into new ownership and (further) disrepute after Brennan Jones' departure for the Colonies, even as he knew that it was no more likely to be so than any other public house in Le Havre. Besides, he was still troubled over his realization from earlier, about Liam. Some time to think would be either good, or bad.

Killian had been confronted long ago with the fact that Liam was only as flawed and fallible a mortal man as any of them, and he had mostly made his peace with it, but he was starting to understand as well that he was still angry about it. Angry at the world for what it had done to them, angry at Liam for what he had done, the lies he had told, and angry at himself, for constantly feeling as if he had not once made Liam's impossible task any easier for him. No wonder it had been preferable to wall it away and forget about it – he'd learned the truth, fallen from grace, become Captain Hook, been estranged from Liam, and then reconciled, only to be parted again, all within the space of a year. Perhaps it was no wonder that the wound remained, in some ways, unhealed, considering how diligently he had been avoiding it, involving himself with his new life and family, proving he could do it on his own. I suppose Regina is right. I am punishing him. But surely, almost twenty-five years was long enough, then? How much longer did this, now acknowledged, have to go on?

Killian did not have an answer for that question, and stood staring over the docks and their usual hustle and bustle, wishing he had someone to talk to. Emma, of course, would have been his first choice, as the two of them had taken a while to learn how to come to the other with their past hurts and their old secrets, but now they could confide anything (well, usually). Flint would also not have been a bad second option, as the two of them had gotten very used to each other, could be honest about their similar demons, and if you squinted, you might even be able to call their relationship roughly affectionate. But if all choices were possible, and not merely living ones, Killian would have given his other hand to talk to Sam Bellamy again. Just once, just for an hour, the two of them by the seafront here. Sam had always understood him with that sheer and marvelous clarity and compassion he gave to everyone so freely, but his close loved ones in particular, and it had been as easy as breathing to love Sam.

Indeed, as Killian could not forget, he had killed Hawkins, the Imperator's old purser and his and Liam's mentor, because Hawkins had wanted to hand Sam over to the Navy and make terms to end their piracy, and led a mutiny of the still-loyal men in an attempt to do so. Yet Killian had noted to him that he had sworn to kill anyone who tried to hurt Sam, and then kept that promise, even when it came at the cost of a man to whom he had once been very close. I had already killed my own father at that point, what was another? Hawkins had had a wife and an infant son, born just before they left England with Robert Gold. Sometimes Killian still wondered what had become of them. Nothing you can change now.

He took a slow, painful breath, reminded himself that it would be too easy to spiral if he let too many of the old skeletons out of their closets, turned away, and was about to continue on his way to nowhere particularly when something caught his eye. A slight, cloaked figure that looked like a woman had just slipped out from one of the dockside houses and hurried down the quay, glancing nervously left and right and holding her hood tightly. It was clear that she expected to be pursued, and indeed a bare few moments later, another door opened and two large-sized individuals barreled out. They sped toward the woman with intent, ugly looks on their faces, hands on the hilts of their shortswords.

Killian hesitated agonizingly. After all, the last thing he needed was to be in the middle of another altercation, and he had promised Regina that he would make no more trouble. But it went against every fundamental instinct in his body to turn a blind eye and walk away with a young lady in clear peril behind him, and before he could once again remind himself how stupid this was, he moved smoothly to intercept the two thugs, pretending to stumble right in front of them and forcing them to pull up. One of them called him several unflattering things in French (Killian only caught fils d'un putain malade, though he was sure the rest of it was in a similar vein) and the other tried to shove past him, but at that, he sprang up. "Going somewhere, lads?"

He deliberately allowed his accent, which he had trained since adolescence to be correctly English instead of the Leinster Irish of his young childhood, to slip into it. This was because while Englishmen were instant beacons of trouble for any Frenchman on principle, they liked the Irish very slightly more, because they both hated the English just as much (the same principle that had first forged the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland, at the end of the thirteenth century). As well, the Irish were fellow Catholics, while the English remained heathenishly Protestant, and while the thugs glared at him, they did not do so with especial loathing, just annoyance for being interrupted. "Get out of our way, Paddy," one ordered. "Maintenant."

"I'm afraid I can't be doing that, if you won't leave the lass alone." Killian folded his arms, both to look more authoritative and to disguise his lack of a left hand. "Step on your way and bother someone else, eh?"

"It is none of your business." The taller one pushed Killian roughly, but he had planted his feet. "We have been paid to fetch her back. Move, or you will get the same."

"I don't think so." Killian had to wanted to draw attention by wearing a sword, as most cities had strict ordinances about openly carrying them, especially if you were not a soldier or part of a garrisoned regiment, but he had brought a dagger, which would do if needed. He moved his hand into his jacket to grip the hilt. Perhaps if he could delay these muttonheads long enough, the girl could just get on a ship and make it out of here while they were –

Unfortunately, the second man had twigged onto the same thing. He burst past Killian and his fellow, sprinted down the dock while shoving aside startled and angry onlookers, and reached the ship at the end, clearly about to climb on board. Killian remained where he was an instant longer, then shot after him, the other thug hot on his heels, and they all reached the spot at about the same time. Thug the First grabbed Killian's arms as the other prepared to clock him, remembered that if they both fought him they would let their prey get away, and tore back up the gangplank, leaving his compatriot to handle the pummeling. None was actually done, at least on his part, as Killian twisted sharply away and landed a punch of his own, then turned to see Thug the Second hauling the struggling girl over his shoulder. This was starting to attract attention, and a voice shouted indignantly, "Bâtards! Vauriens! CESSE IMMÉDIATEMENT!"

Killian would have liked nothing better than to do so, but duty still called. He ran at Thug the Second and head-butted him squarely in the small of the back, causing him to lose his grip on the girl, then whirled and threw Thug the First, as a simple matter of continuing his already-established momentum, into the murky green water of the harbor. If the panicked splashing that ensued was any indication, the bugger could not swim, and was in danger of sinking like a stone until a pair of nearby fishermen threw him their net and charitably pulled him out. The girl had picked herself up and was staring, but Killian yelled, "Run! Courir!"

Thug the Second seemed wary of getting too close to him, after the watery fate that had just befallen his partner in crime, and Killian grabbed a barrel from a nearby pile, launching it at him as if bowling for quoits. The effect was instant and spectacular. Thug the Second flew five feet in the air, landed smack on his arse, and was then flattened by the rolling barrel's fellows, bundled over the edge of the pier and headfirst into the weedy soup below. The fishermen looked at each other, decided that this one could shift for himself, and got out of there, leaving Thug the Second to cling to a slimy piling and shout for someone to pull him out.

Feeling it extremely wise to be out of there himself, Killian walked as fast as he could without running, up the quay and back onto the street, unable to stop himself wondering if those two idiots had been paid by the same high-level miscreant that was financing the Lost Boys. He did not, however, have to wonder long. A hand caught his sleeve, pulling him under the eave of a slate-shingled roof, and a voice hissed, "Monsieur!"

It was the girl he had – at least for the moment – liberated. Her hood had fallen down in the commotion, and he saw that she was about his daughter Geneva's age, maybe a year or two younger, with a long, intricate dark braid, big brown doe eyes, and the pale porcelain complexion of a wealthy woman who never went outside without a hat and parasol. Killian briefly thought she was going to kiss him or offer other tokens of her gratitude, and struggled to remember how to say, "You are a very lovely lass, but I'm a married man," in French, but she did not. Instead she said, in English this time, "Who are you?"

"I – ah – " It was natural that she would want to know the identity of the mysterious dark stranger who had swooped in out of nowhere to assist her, but still a problem. "Never mind that, are you all right?"

She studied him warily. "Yes. Fine. Are you working for my father too?"

"Father?"

"Armand Saint-Clair, of Montparnasse." Her lips tightened. "Are you?"

"No, I've never heard of him in my life. He's the one who sent those delightful gentlemen after you?"

"I expect so, yes." She kept looking at him, eyes dark and searching. "Why did you help me?"

"I. . .well. . ." Killian coughed and scratched behind his ear. "I saw them giving you trouble, lass, and I. . . I just didn't feel as if I was going to stand for it. I suppose you reminded me of my own daughter a bit, as well. Can you get away before they come back?"

"I – I think so." She seemed to be evaluating something, deciding whether to trust him. Then she said, "My name is Alix."

"Mademoiselle." Killian politely kissed her offered hand. "Is your ship still there?"

"It should be, I hope." Alix glanced down the docks, then dug in the purse at her waist. "Please, let me give you something for assisting me."

Killian was about to protest that she did not have to, but as he was utterly skint at the moment, he could use some disposable income, and she pressed several silver coins into his hand. Then before he could stop himself, seeing as she too had been trying to sneak out, he said, "Do you perhaps know who to bribe around here, to give one an. . . ah. . . chance at departure?"

"In fact, yes. Give Monsieur Jean-Paul Martel, the port master, a few livres and a box of candied violets, it worked for me." Alix looked at him curiously. "Are you going to the American colonies?"

Killian was furiously tempted to say yes. His family was back there, the dangerous mystery in which they were embroiled, and he could leave Regina – and Liam – behind once more, put off that reckoning for later, later, later. To buy time, he said, "Are you?"

"Yes. Philadelphia." Alix jumped at the sound of shouting from down the alley. "I should go."

"Philadelphia? My stepson might be there. Henry Swan and his family." Killian bit his tongue as he said it, wondering if it was a mistake to give her Henry's name, but for some reason, as she had done with him, he had decided to trust her. As the shouting started to come closer, he took her elbow and hurried her down the lane. "Right, lass. Time to go, indeed. Good luck."

Alix smiled slightly, then raised her hood and darted off without another word, as Killian made his own exit down another alley, until he was reasonably sure that he had not been spotted. He doubled around a few times to be sure, then set off at a casual trot, keeping his eyes peeled for anywhere that might sell candied violets.

By some stroke of well-overdue luck, he finally stumbled on them in a little shop offering fashionable Parisian delicacies, bought a box at a correspondingly extortionate price, and began to search this time for Regina. Hopefully she had made some headway on Monsieur Martel already, but if not, well, he could at least offer some useful information. He hadn't actually killed the thugs, though he was quite sure they would have deserved it if he had, so he had not added any more concrete wrongdoings to his account. He did hope that Armand Saint-Clair was not someone with the ability to do him ill in the future, but sod the wretch. If he was sending brutish henchmen to forcibly haul back his daughter, he was clearly not someone with whom Killian would ever see eye to eye.

It took him a while, but he finally collided with Regina, emerging from some grubby hole-in-the-wall with a disgruntled expression. He pulled her aside, acquainted her with his information (while neglecting to mention how he had gotten it) and thrust the box of candied violets at her, so she could get on with applying it in the proper location. It took quite a while, as well as several more close shaves, but the end result was that when the tide went out that evening, they went out with it, crammed aboard a small trader headed first for London, and then up through the Scandinavian and Baltic ports of the old Hanseatic League. Killian did not quite dare to believe in their deliverance, even as he watched Le Havre shrink behind them, but as it was a relatively short journey across the Channel and up the Thames, he could be setting foot on English soil tomorrow morning, for the first time since that fateful departure from Bristol in the early spring of 1715. He had a feeling that England was in no particular hurry to welcome him back.

He slept intermittently, squashed against grain sacks in the hold, and woke before dawn, with the whiff of rain, soot, sh*t, and smoke that could only mean London. He and Regina went on deck to watch as they made their slow way up the river in a headwind, the ghostly shapes of the docklands drifting by in the mist. Killian could just spot the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich on the opposite bank; the Royal Observatory was just on the hill above, likely even now occupied by some industrious sort applying themselves vigorously to the longitude problem. Further down the river, he could distantly make out the dome of Saint Paul's Cathedral, and beyond that would be Southwark, to the one side, and Westminster, to the other. He wondered where exactly they were going. If it was digging into Lady Fiona they were after, it would likely have to be somewhere around there.

They were put ashore near London Bridge in another half hour or so, and once up on the path that ran along the bank, stood there for a moment, looking down at the filthy children who scavenged along the river flats for anything valuable that might have fallen in – the mudlarks. Killian remembered doing this sort of thing a time or two himself, grimaced, and, trying not to inhale too much of the stench, turned away. "Right. We should get started."

Where exactly that was, they were still unsure, and there remained the fact that they could not simply march into the Exchequer or the Chancellor or the House of Lords, or anywhere else that might point them in the right direction. However, Regina had been a brothel madam on Antigua for a very long time, and in the course of her work, compiled extensive files of incriminating information on every Navy officer who passed through her premises and talked to her very lovely (and carefully trained) girls. All of these men were now retired or dead, of course, but they very likely had families, sons who had followed them into the service, or other obvious interest in not having the debauchery of their relatives become a matter of public record.

Thus they went to Whitehall, knocked until they made themselves such a nuisance that someone came to deal with them out of sheer exasperation, and – as Killian watched in considerable admiration despite himself – Regina elegantly threatened, coerced, and charmed their way past several levels of bureaucracy, caused a very amusing expression to appear on the face of a stout and elderly rear admiral who clearly remembered her, and finally achieved them a brief chance to look at some of the official ledgers and records. They had no idea if Lady Fiona would be in here or not, but the Murrays had to have some presence in the archives somewhere, especially if Gideon was governor of Charlestown.

As Regina warded off the clerks' various attempts to get back in the room, Killian flipped feverishly through the pages. He didn't even know what he was looking for – it was not as if Lady Fiona would have taken time to register her nefarious plot with the authorities, after all. There were arrival and departure records for the Navy ships leaving out of London, however, and sometimes a notable passenger or two was scribbled on the manifest, along with the name of its captain and its intended destination. If Lady Fiona had come through here with Liam, there might be at least some kind of a note of it. . . unless she'd used an alias or lied outright, of course, but still. . .

Killian was now months and months back in the records and knew he had gone too far – this was much earlier than Lady Fiona would have been here, this was a dead end, and he was about to slam the ledger shut in disgust. But then he noted something at the bottom of the list for April 1739, a few months before the official declaration of war against Spain. A departure of HMS Griffin, under the command of Capt. M. Rogers of Bristol, for Bridgetown, Barbados. Aboard the ship was Lord R. Gold, intended for a minor administrative post in the Leewards.

Killian stared at it until he was almost seeing double, heart hammering. He knew that being arrested for treason was not always the end of a nobleman's career, or even often. With enough money and influence, you could make almost any charges disappear, and Lord Archibald Hamilton had managed to be elected as a Member of Parliament and a Lord of the Admiralty after his release from prison for his Jacobite activities and sponsorship of piracy as governor of Jamaica. Hence, it would have been very difficult to get such unsubstantiated rumor as the re-establishment of the Star Chamber to stick, especially if you were as well-connected and ruthless as Gold. After all, to every appearance, he had been virtuously trying to stamp out piracy, and Woodes Rogers had likewise gotten himself a new term as governor despite his defeat in Nassau. Indeed, to see the names Rogers and Gold together raised Killian's hackles beyond all measure. He knew that Woodes' beloved brother, the one he had lost on his round-the-world voyage along with much else, had been named Matthew, and while this was of course wild conjecture, if this new Captain M. Rogers was a son of the governor. . . a son, perhaps, of the governor and Eleanor Guthrie, who had also turned to Gold's side just before the end of the war. . .

"What?" Regina said, seeing his face. "What?"

"Look at this." Killian shoved it under her nose, thinking of how she had asked him at their first meeting if Gold was still alive. "Look!"

Regina looked, seemed about to say it was nothing, and then went pale. "You think it's him?"

"I don't reckon there can be many other Lord R. Golds, can there?" Killian's heart felt as if it was about to burst from his chest. "If he's been in the Indies since last year – it strikes me how very bloody well he would be positioned to, say, pass intelligence to Billy Bones that Flint and the rest of us are still alive. Also could be just as well positioned, if he knew where we were, to send the assassins after us in Savannah. We thought this whole time that Billy just up and decided to go off and do all this – well, what if he didn't? What if he was given a little push?"

Regina stared at him again. "So – what?" she said at last. "Gold's trying to kill all of you?"

"If I'm not mistaken, he's tried to do that at least once. Or ordered them to do a very good job of failing – which they did, because Flint and I killed them – so we'd know we were being hunted, but not why or from where." Killian's pacing was starting to turn frenetic. "That, or he just bloody wanted us to – "

Regina gripped him by the arm, which startled Killian enough that he, for the moment, actually stopped. "Listen to yourself," she said. "You're raving. Seeing monsters in the shadows. I agree that it might be him, but you have absolutely no proof that he's responsible for anything."

"If I wait for proof, it'll already be too late. Do you think Gold was ever going to just accept what we did to him, destroying everything just when it looked like his ultimate moment of triumph? He's probably spent these last two decades rebuilding his traps to a far bigger and better scale, no mistakes this time, accounting for all possibilities, while we lived happily and thought we were safe. We should have killed him. We should have left no stone unturned until he was dead, not counted on bloody England to do it!"

Regina tightened her grip. "Killian. Listen to me. You can't just – we came here for Liam, remember? Liam."

"Aye," Killian said. "Liam."

Regina looked at him in surprise and wariness. Then she drew herself up. "My husband is in danger, we know this, we can prove this, while this diversion about Gold is nothing but wild speculation and vengeful fantasies. Leave it, just forget it, don't – "

"You'd like that, wouldn't you? Me leaving my family to Gold's tender mercies, so we can do what you want, make me feel your same pain at not having one! Once again, my whole world has to be Liam! I thought that was your job, now. Believe me, I don't want it back!"

Regina stared at him as if she had never seen him properly before, and in the terrible, queasy silence that followed – broken only by the renewed pounding of the clerks on the office door – Killian himself wished he had not said it. Knew he was lashing out at her from a place of his own fear and desperation that his oldest and most dangerous enemy might still be alive, carefully coordinating everyone and everything he loved toward ruin, when he had so much more to lose than last time. Feeling trapped that of course it had turned on him like this: to choose between his old family or his new one. Had just been thinking of how he did not want to give everything up for Liam again, his sensitivity to the prospect. . . didn't want to just cut his brother loose and wish him a nice life, of course, but weighed against this. . .

They continued to stare at each other. Then Killian said, "I'm going to Barbados. You can come with me or not, but you had best not get in my way."

"You're just 'going to Barbados'?" Regina's eyes flared. "That's it, then? After I saved your hide in Le Havre and got us to London – "

"I saved my own hide in Le Havre, thanks, and I got us here as much as you did, so I'm afraid you don't get all the credit, love. I'll do whatever it takes, I don't care. I do understand you'll want to stay and look for Liam, but between you and me, I doubt he's around here any more. I don't know if Gold and his sister are in cahoots or they're determined to destroy each other, but either way, Lady Fiona isn't going to be loitering. As I said. Your choice."

"If they both know about Skeleton Island – "

"I wouldn't put it past either of them for this to be some sort of complicated lure to draw all of us there, but I can't be sure. You know what I'm going to do. Are you coming or not?"

Still, for a long moment, the silence remained. Then Regina, with considerable effort, broke their standoff. Looked down and nodded.

Yet again, nobody slept that night. Emma, Henry, and David took turns sitting up to keep watch, the hours of darkness seeming to stretch interminably and unendurably long, as Miranda, Violet, and the children, by the sounds of things, barely closed an eye either. Everyone was pale-faced and puffy-eyed by the time Monday morning finally consented to arrive; Henry normally worked Mondays at the print shop, but he did not appear in any haste to rush off through the dawn streets alone. They sat around the kitchen table, picking without appetite at their breakfast, as Miranda kept glancing in the direction of the front door. Rather than more assassins, though those appeared to be a regrettably repeat possibility, Emma knew she was worrying about Flint. She couldn't blame this, but Flint had told her that he might be a while making it back, after all. No need to assume the worst. Yet, at any rate.

Emma pushed that thought aside, trying instead to think about what the seven of them could do in a comparatively small house all day without going completely stir-crazy. Yet danger or no danger, she didn't like doing nothing while someone was out there actively plotting against them, and around eleven o'clock that morning, she put down her hand of cards and said, "This is foolish. We shouldn't be cowering like scared rabbits down a burrow. We should be doing something."

"Maybe so," David said, with a look that suggested he had had the same idea. "I don't know exactly what, but – "

"We can figure it out." Emma got to her feet. "You and I should go. Henry, you stay here with Miranda and your family. I don't want to have to rely on Charlotte happening to hear a struggle and running over again."

"We could invite her," Henry suggested. "She's a good shot, as we discovered last night, and you know I'm not terribly – "

"No," Emma said flatly. "Yes, she saved us once, but I don't want her around again until we know more about what she's doing – and who Jack is. It might be entirely innocent, or it might not. She still could have passed information on us, whether or not she meant to, or knew what the consequences would be as a result."

Henry raised an eyebrow. "You're starting to sound like Grandpa."

"In this case, I'm not sure that's a bad thing." Emma looked at Violet. "You're the one who knows her the best, or at least what she's told you. Who's Jack?"

Violet, still looking unappreciative of these slanders upon her friend's character and motives, nonetheless decided, for the time being, to excuse them. "Her husband, I think."

"You think?"

"Well, she's never actually said, but the way she talks about him, I'd wager so. I don't know where he is, not Philadelphia, and she's never said exactly what it is he does, either." Violet gave a defensive shrug. "But that's hardly strange, especially when it's a war. We haven't known each other that long, why would she rush to tell me if it's sensitive? That doesn't mean she's a bad person, or they're up to no good."

"No," Emma said, "but it does mean they have at least some experience in keeping secrets and working in the sorts of places that value that as a skill, which means – "

"I'd not point fingers!" Violet interjected. "The lot of you being pirates for however many – "

Henry, who was looking extremely uncomfortable as he watched his mother and his wife argue, cleared his throat loudly, making everyone jump and glance around at him. "All right," he said, "we won't invite Charlotte over, at least for now, but we'll also keep the possibility in mind that she genuinely didn't have anything to do with this. Agreed?"

Everyone paused, then nodded, subsuming personal feelings in the face of the fact that they still needed to remain united if they were going to get through this. Emma and David pulled on jackets, boots, and weapons, preparing to depart, when Miranda unexpectedly stood up. "I'm coming with you."

"Are you sure that's a good – "

"Perhaps not," Miranda said crisply, "but I still am. It leaves Henry with one fewer person to have to defend, if our unfortunate new friends pay another call, and I want to know what happened to James. Be assured, if it comes to more shooting, I will not get in your way."

With that, and strict assurances that they would be home by nightfall, they set out. David had scrounged up a cart from somewhere so they did not have to walk in the muck – though knowing the state of Philadelphia's streets, it would scarcely be any faster, and for several minutes, they bumped along in silence. Then, now away from the house and thus feeling somewhat more free to speak her mind, Emma said, "Do we think Charlotte was responsible?"

"I would be surprised if she did not have some hand in it, to good or ill result." Miranda looked over at her seriously. "But for all that, Mrs. Bell's intentions do not seem malicious to me. I cannot explain it, other than that she reminds me of myself, in some way I cannot quite put my finger on. I believe she was sincere in what she did for us last night. I owe my life to her, and I do not feel as if you should push Violet too hard over it. It is her children's lives as well that were saved by Charlotte's quick thinking, and excellent aim with a pistol."

"Yes, but if Charlotte was somehow responsible for that man being there in the first place – "

"I do not think she was," Miranda said, gently but very firmly. "Certainly not in the least intentionally. I will not deny that she is clearly keeping secrets. Yet as a family with a few of our own, do we really have every right to demand them arrantly from others?"

Emma opened her mouth, then closed it. She did not say anything more as they drove across the city to the print shop, informed Franklin that Henry would not be in today and the reason why, and received his indignant assurances that he would write a lengthy and scathing editorial about the disgraceful behavior of such reprobates imagining that the law did not apply to them, and urge the public to stringently condemn such terror and disorder. Emma was not altogether sure how much practical effect this would have, but she appreciated the gesture. When they had emerged from the printer's lair (Franklin with another rather hopeful flourish of his hat at Miranda) she said quietly, "Do you think there's anything to be had from returning to the house where we met our Jacobite contact? At least ascertain how the drop went?"

"He did say he'd kill us if we attempted to see his face," David pointed out. "And if it did go astray, I doubt we should draw more attention to ourselves by once more being spotted in the neighborhood. Emma, where you and Flint were planning to take the chest after you retrieved it – I'm sure we can think up an innocent reason to take a pleasant daytime drive along the shore. At least see if there are signs of a struggle."

Miranda went rather pale at these words, and Emma was reminded that last night was the first that she and Flint had spent apart since their reunion twenty years ago, that after so much turmoil and grief and suffering and separation, they had never again wanted to leave the other's side, and kept devotedly to it. Emma herself felt a qualm at the idea of what might await them out there. But either way, knowing was better than wild speculation, and would enable them to craft a more solid plan as a result. If it was the possibility of finding Killian's body out there, though. . . no wonder Miranda looked somewhat faint, and Emma squeezed her hand. "If you want me to go look first – "

"No," Miranda said. "I need to see myself, and I would never want you to have to tell me. Let's go."

David hesitated, then picked up the reins, and they headed south out of the city, following the Delaware River past the spot where they had lain in wait for the aborted sting, over the rough, rocky shorelands, and out to the remote point where their instructions had indicated them to take the money for the Jacobites to pick up. The closer they got, the harder Miranda gripped Emma's hand, until it was nearly painful, but Emma did not try to pull away, feeling their shared heartbeats hammering in their fingers. No sign of the Saint Peter, not that she had expected the ship to hang around either way, and no way to tell if the dunes looked particularly disrupted. The wheels of the cart stuck and sank in the wet sand, and so they got out, David hanging behind to keep an eye on it, as Emma and Miranda foraged across the uneven, muddy ground, Emma having to hurry to keep up despite the older woman's physical frailties. Then they came around the spur of the headland, skidded down into a low, boggy tide plain, saw something – someone – sprawled facedown among the wrack, half-heaped in sand and pebbles and broken driftwood, and Miranda made a terrible sound, as if a blood-curdling scream uttered only in a choked gasp under her breath. Then she pushed past Emma, and, filthy skirts flying, ran.

Emma froze, then bolted after her, hurtling the slimy log in her way and feeling her own fear clench like an icy fist around her throat. By the time she reached Flint as well, Miranda had already knelt beside him and rolled him onto his back, hands frantic to stanch the deep, ugly gash in the side of his head, still making that terrible noise every time she breathed but not hesitating an instant in what must be done. She tore some clean cloth out of her petticoat and began to clean the encrusted sand and dirt and salt away, hands only shaking slightly, with a composure that Emma doubted she could have achieved if it was Killian lying there. She stood up to yell for David, and he came scurrying up, panting, then stared when he saw Flint. "Is he – "

"He's breathing," Miranda said, not looking up as she tore off another length of her petticoat and fashioned an impromptu bandage for the wound. "The foolish man, going off alone like that – he's lucky his skull is so bloody thick! When he wakes up, I'll kill him properly myself!"

Emma and David, with a considerable effort, hoisted Flint between them and carried him back to the cart. By the time they got him loaded in, fresh blood had begun to stain the dressing, and they exchanged a grim look; it was a long and bumpy journey back to Philadelphia, and crashing and thumping over every obstacle in the way could not be good for him. Yet it was just as plain that he urgently needed more care, had been out here for hours already, and a large number of his pistols appeared to be missing. He had gone down fighting, at least, but one man of nearly seventy, even the famed and feared Captain Flint, against an entire ship's crew of soldiers and smugglers – indeed, he was terribly fortunate not to be dead. All they could do was hope that he was stubborn enough to stay that way.

They began to lead the horse carefully back across the sand and toward the muddy road. Miranda sat in the cart, carefully holding Flint's head in her lap to prevent more jostling, as they climbed the embankment and began to toil back toward the city. At last, in another hour, they reached it. It was inevitable, however, that someone would take notice of their burden, and the redcoat captain at the gate frowned down at Flint's prone form. "Who exactly is this, madam?"

"My husband," Miranda said. "He's hurt, you can see that. Please, let us get him to a physician."

"Coming from the south, were you?" The redcoat considered them shrewdly. "How exactly did this happen, Mrs. . .?"

Miranda hesitated. "Barlow."

"How was your husband injured, Mrs. Barlow?"

"I don't know," Miranda said, which was, after all, the truth. "Please – "

"We've had a queer night here. Reports of attacks, rumors that it was to distract from some sort of rendezvous down the coast. Your husband would not be able to tell us anything about this, would he?"

"He can't tell anyone anything right now!" Miranda said angrily. "Captain, do you think this is a remotely suitable time or place to – "

"Sir," David interrupted. "Speaking as a man who shares your rank and service – Captain David Nolan, formerly of HMS Windsor, lord sheriff of Charlestown – surely you can allow Mrs. Barlow to tend to her husband before you commence interrogating her? I have an address down by the red-lamp district that would be more fruitful for you, anyway. If you would – ?"

Miraculously, David's upstanding-citizen aura worked one more time, they were allowed through with no more questions, and rather than taking Flint to one of the charity hospitals – which were for lepers, cripples, paupers, and the like, and usually filled with filth and despair – they conveyed him hastily to the print ship, exchanged a quiet word with Franklin, and carried him up to the small apartment above. It was not much, but there was a bed with reasonably clean sheets, some water for washing, and as Miranda pulled up a stool, carefully unwound the stained strips of her petticoat, and began to dab at the crusted dark blood, Flint groaned, the first sound he had made. His eyelashes fluttered, but did not quite open. "Where. . . where'm. . ."

"James, shh, it's me, you're safe." Miranda rinsed her handkerchief as David reappeared, hauling two buckets of fresh water from the courtyard pump. "Lie still."

Flint groaned again, and a slit of woozy green showed under his eyelids. "Head aches. . . like the devil."

"No wonder," Miranda snapped. "You only went and got it split open. James, do be quiet, I'm working."

Emma let out a shuddering breath of relief; if Flint had regained consciousness and was grumbling, and Miranda felt confident enough of his survival to rebuke him for recklessness, the worst was probably over. Miranda had certainly patched him up from any number of unfortunate injuries before, and she accepted the bottle of brandy that Franklin fetched up, used it to swab the gash while Flint swore loudly and Emma held his legs down, and packed it with clean wool and bandaged it with a linen turban like an Indiaman's. Only then did she wash her bloody hands, sink back with a shuddering sigh, and ask, quietly but with unmistakable anger, "James, what was that about?"

Flint grimaced. "Took the chest. Met. . . the ship. Not my fault. . . they tried. . . to kill me."

"Yes," David said. "Seemed to be a lot of that going around last night."

Flint looked briefly as if he was set to burst out of bed on the spot, and they hastened to assure him that everyone was all right (deciding not to mention Charlotte until later). He fell back on the pillows with an inventive string of curses, then said, "They got. . . the money. Then decided that. . . I was no longer needed. . . in any capacity. I took out. . . a few, but one. . . caught me with a shovel, and. . ." He grimaced, indicating his head. "Must have thought. . . that did the job. No idea. . . where the bastards are now. I'd guess. . . halfway back to Charlestown."

"Charlestown?" Emma repeated. "I thought you said they'd be going to Italy, to meet up with James Stuart and his – "

"Aye. So I thought then. But now I'm inclined to think. . . it was a test." Flint grimaced again. "If the ship arrived in Charlestown with the money on it, Murray would know. . . that we had followed instructions and everything. . . went as it was supposed to. If it didn't – "

Emma, Miranda, and David exchanged looks. "Do you still think the money is intended for the Jacobites, then?"

"Oh, I do. But Murray needed proof that we – ah." Flint winced horribly and stopped talking for a long moment. "Cooperated," he finished finally. "Now he has it. So I'm not sure. . . how killing us. . . would fit in. At least now."

"Yes, well. About that." With that, Emma explained what had happened last night, and their growing conviction that someone apart from Gideon was the one trying to have them murdered. He wanted them alive, at least until they had made themselves useful, but someone seemed to be working at cross-purposes against both their family and Lord Murray alike, pursuing some shadowy agenda of their own. Given their history and extensive list of enemies, it could be just about anyone, which was hardly heartening. Finally, with black humor, Emma said, "You don't suppose Jennings has somehow come back to life, do you?"

Miranda shuddered, eyes closed and lips white, and she at once regretted it. "You know I was just – "

"Not like him anyway." Flint coughed. "f*cking bastard. . . would prefer to torment us face to face. This, though. This would be the work of someone. . . much more subtle."

There was an ominous silence. A name had instantaneously occurred to Emma, but she reminded herself that there were no grounds for it. Instead she said, "So if we've proved our compliance to Lord Murray, but nearly got killed by someone else for it, what the hell do we do now? I'm not sure I'd feel safe leaving Miranda behind after this, and not any safer bringing the whole family along. Maybe if David and I go back to Charlestown and try to find what Murray – "

Here she stopped, waiting for Flint's inevitable complaints about David and general sense of offense about his continued presence, but they didn't come. Rather wondering how hard, exactly, the smugglers had hit him, Emma said, "James?"

"Aye. Maybe." The words seemed to come hard for more reasons than just pain. Flint stared up at the ceiling. "You're all right, you know. I am old."

Emma blinked.

"I am old, and I didn't have any bloody business. . . thinking that I could take on an entire ship single-handed. Nearly getting myself killed. . . was the least I could expect for it. This whole time, I've been determined. . . that nobody can call me old, and so. . ." Flint fell silent again, briefly. "And David's here being so bloody helpful and chivalrous and fatherly. . . of course you're coming to rely on him more. If that's – that's what you want – "

"My dear," Miranda said wryly. "Are you sure that you are feeling quite yourself?"

Flint gave her a look that nonetheless was well aware that he had deserved that. "I'm no use at the moment, am I? And you. . . if Emma wanted. . . if you wanted. . ."

Emma bit her lip, both amused and deeply touched. "James," she said again. "None of us can deny it's been good to have David around. But he. . ." She looked somewhat awkwardly at David, who nodded graciously, encouraging her to continue. "He can't replace you. You're still who we need, the head of our family, even if you can't fight as well as you used to. That's not the only use you had to us, and it never was."

Flint let out a long, slow breath, coughing and looking away. His eyes seemed rather bright, and he took a moment to compose himself. Then he said gruffly, "That's something, I suppose."

"Oh, James, for heaven's sake," said Miranda. "Tell your daughter that you love her."

Flint looked briefly as if he might prefer to be hit with the shovel again, but after another moment, glanced back at Emma. "Aye," he said, and harrumphed. "Well. I do."

Emma paused, then leaned forward and kissed his unbruised cheek. Flint had fallen rather backwardly into being her father, as Miranda had become her mother first and foremost, and sometimes she still could not help but wonder if he resented the obligation. He had been her mentor since her first arrival on Nassau, but that too had originally been for Miranda's sake, and their relationship, while she knew that he would more or less protect her, had been a long way from warm. And yet if nothing else, Flint's constant grousing about David was helping her realize how deeply he valued what they had become, not just for the grandchildren he clearly adored, but as Miranda had said to her the other night, for Emma herself as well. She had to brush a hand across her own eyes, then straightened up. "We can't go anywhere until you're at least a bit mended. Besides, if we fulfilled one part of Gideon's infernal bargain, I'm not so sure we should go running back to him to ask for more. He wants to talk, he can come to us."

"Aye, that's my girl," Flint said, with a grim smile. "I can promise you, I will not be in that snot-nosed brat's presence again without. . . immediately trying to strangle him. And if his henchmen think they've killed me, that gives us some time to come up with a new plan. Finding Killian is still our priority. . . but I don't think Murray has him somewhere he can immediately hurt him if we disobey. I'm presently more interested in the question of. . . who could try to have us killed in both Savannah and Philadelphia. Not Jennings, for obvious reasons. . . but. . ."

Emma hesitated, wondering whether to mention her earlier thought. Finally she said, very delicately, "Gideon Murray's father, perhaps?"

Heads turned sharply. "What did you say?"

"Gideon told David and me that he was Lord Robert Gold's son, his real son, remember? His aunt Fiona adopted him. But he just said that Gold had been disgraced, he never actually said that he was dead. I think we can all agree that Gold would have motivation, means, and ability to ruin our lives, if he could find any way to do it. I'm not sure he knows that Gideon is his son, they can't have had much contact, and Gold was away from England when he was born. If all he knew of Lord Murray was that he was a dangerous young rival with a too-keen interest in Skeleton Island, which we can be quite sure Gold wants for himself, he could very easily plant spies and informants among his men. Some of whom would then be ideally placed to turn on us."

Everyone frowned at Emma, but clearly in alarm rather than thinking that this was not possible. "Christ," Flint said at last. "So what are we supposed to do, if so? Contrive a touching father-son reunion? You said Murray hates his father. . . he might just stab him on the spot." He brightened. "Do you think he'd stab him on the spot? Could we possibly be so lucky?"

"Not sure. Murray knows that Gold is his father, but I don't think he knows anything about him or if he's still in the Americas or the Indies somewhere. Gold, meanwhile, might know where Murray is, but not that he's his son. If we could tell Murray this, if we could find some actual trace of Gold, he'd have bigger things to worry about than blackmailing us or fundraising for the Jacobites. Not to mention, I think we, to say the bloody least, would like to know that too."

"Aye," Flint said, "but I see several holes in this plan. Those being. . . we know absolutely nothing about where to start looking for Gold. . . if he's even the one behind all this. . . and where in the entire New World he might be. In addition, I'm laid up. . . we've nearly all been killed once and that only since we got here. . . and of all of us, you and David – possibly Henry, if he'd feel safe leaving his family, I sure f*cking wouldn't – are the only ones fit for more travel and misadventure. So how do you propose. . . we even start to go about – "

"You know," Emma said. "I think it's time we find out just who Jack Bell is."

Chapter 13: XIII

Chapter Text

For the longest moment, as he stared, Sam could not rid himself of the inexplicable feeling that he knew this bloke from somewhere, and that the connection was not at all pleasant. All he knew for certain was that he really did not care to make a closer acquaintance, and that if it was the same to everybody, he'd just be on his way now, thanks. Not of course that he was going to be given the chance to do that, and he remained stuck to the spot like a bump on a log, as one of the soldiers dug him in the back with the butt of his musket. "You heard him. In."

Slowly, discovering that his feet suddenly did not want to work with him anymore after almost twenty years of profitable coexistence, Sam stumbled over the threshold, Jack was pushed in after him, and Rogers brought up the rear, pulling the door shut with a clunk that sounded distinctly ominous. "My lord," he said, with a crisp bow. "I apologize for the visit at this late hour, but I think you'll find – have I interrupted you?"

"Not at all, dearie, not at all." The man gestured. "Mr. Hunt and I had only just gotten started."

A considerable shock flashed through Sam at these words, which strengthened as he whirled around and beheld the other young man in the room, perched uncomfortably on the davenport and balancing an untouched cup of tea on his knees. Sam and Nathaniel stared at each other for an excruciating moment, both doing their utmost not to blurt anything out loud – but they might as well have shouted, that reaction of thunderstruck recognition being just as good. "Mr. Hunt," the man said – my lord, Rogers had called him, lord of what, Lord who? "Why don't you introduce us to your friend here?"

"co*cker," Sam interrupted, hoping Nathaniel would get the drift. "James co*cker."

"Ah – yeah." Nathaniel shot a wild look between him and Jack, shut his still-open mouth, and nodded smartly. "That's him. James co*cker."

"And then this one would be?"

"His name is Richard," Matthew Rogers said, his sharp eyes lingering on Sam and Nathaniel; he had clearly caught the stumble. "Richard Jones, Your Excellency."

"Is it indeed?" The lord turned to Jack with that crocodile smile. "And am I to gather, given your presentation here, that your father's name is Killian?"

Jack jerked his head in a movement barely qualifying as a nod.

"Forgive my rudeness," the lord went on, in a tone that clearly implied more rudeness would be forthcoming, forgiven or otherwise. "Your father and I are. . . old friends. My name is Gold. Lord Robert Gold, the honor is mine."

A second, even more considerable shock jolted through Sam. He knew that name, had no reason to expect friendship or even remotely good things from it, and while he was burning to ask Nathaniel why the devil he had been sent (or abducted, probably) from Havana, the situation could not have been more delicate. Nathaniel, of course, knew perfectly bloody well who Sam really was and who his father was, that Jack was the Spanish agent they had been saddled with back in Cuba, that they were supposed to be tracking down Skeleton Island for said Spaniards if Nathaniel wanted to still be alive in six months, and all about the rest of Sam's family and what he had tried to barter in exchange for guaranteed protection. Obviously Sam did not think that his best friend was going to open his mouth and sell him out on the spot, but Lord Robert Gold was a caliber of monster far beyond anything either of them had any experience with. This was the man who had destroyed Dad and Uncle Liam's lives in the first place, and very nearly done much worse to the whole world. How could he be here, he couldn't –

"Well," Gold said, when the nasty silence lingered. "Do sit. Matthew, my boy, how was the journey from Antigua? This is earlier than I expected to see you."

"There's a reason for that, sir," Rogers said. "Rumors of some Spanish miscreant wreaking havoc around Nevis. I was dispatched to ascertain the truth of the matter, and collected Mr. co*cker and Mr. Jones on the way. Mr. Jones was then most illuminating on the subject of the culprit. A man named João da Souza, evidently. Portuguese, in the employ of Madrid."

Nathaniel twitched again.

"Oh?" Rogers glanced at him. "Mr. – Hunt, was it? Have you crossed paths with Captain da Souza yourself?"

"I – probably not." Nathaniel smiled weakly. "Thought I recognized the name for a moment, but no, I don't know him."

Rogers' eyes remained on him, flicking once more between him and Sam, as – when nobody sat down as ordered – Gold looked at the soldiers, who raised their muskets. Drinking tea was thus decided to be preferable to being shot, and Sam and Jack sank extremely stiffly onto the davenport on either side of Nathaniel. Throwing a tense look at his compatriot, Sam saw that Jack was almost rigid with restrained fury, fingers tapping uncontrollably on his knee, as if any second he would leap up and go for Gold's throat with bare hands or teeth. While this would be quite spectacular to watch, and also quite satisfying, it would undoubtedly get them thoroughly killed, and Sam tried to catch Jack's eye and silently talk him down. He couldn't exactly reach across Nathaniel to hold Jack back without being bloody obvious about it.

The three young men sat there like mutinous moles popped out of a hole, as Nathaniel gave Jack a healthy proportion of side-eye – after all, the last he knew of, Jack was their more or less sworn enemy. He then shot another look at Sam, clearly asking how the last three weeks had gone with this maniac in tow, but Sam shook his head. It was already too dangerously apparent that they knew each other, and he had a terrible feeling that Gold was about to start really sinking his teeth in. Just as being thrown overboard had seemed preferable to flogging, now flogging seemed preferable to a cozy chinwag with the actual devil.

A servant arrived in a few minutes with a heavily laden tray, as Gold resumed his seat in the handsome striped-silk armchair, and Matthew sat down in a matching but slightly less ostentatious chair to his right, the vizier preparing to advise the sultan. The tea was poured, the fresh-baked crumpets split and spread with clotted cream and strawberry compote, and Sam's painfully empty innards squirmed with longing. Sensing him staring, Gold raised an eyebrow. "Do feel free to help yourself, Mr. co*cker."

"I'm not hungry," Sam said loudly, as his stomach growled fit to wake the dead.

"Of course you aren't." Gold seemed amused. "Fed well on the ship, then?"

Sam looked pointedly at Matthew, who gazed inscrutably back. Unable to decide whose face he wanted more egg on, he finally said again, even louder, "I'm not hungry."

"Suit yourself." Gold stirred his tea with a silver spoon. "Well. Now that we are all present, we can get on with discussing a large proportion of the matters which have been sadly – "

"I'd like to invite you to eat a large proportion of my arse." Jack spoke for the first time, in a voice close to a snarl. "Or at least get on with shooting us, rather than dragging out this complete farce of a – "

Sam, who very much did not want anyone to get on with shooting them, shot Jack another look and shook his head vigorously.

"Angry young man, aren't you?" Gold inspected Jack as if he were a mildly interesting curio. "Though if Hook is your father, I can see where that comes from. Is that what he told you, Captain Rogers? Who's the other one, then?"

"That is indeed what he told me," Matthew said, stirring his own tea but never taking his eyes off Jack. "Albeit after some persuasion. As for the other, I'm not quite sure. It was my impression, however, that he and Mr. co*cker were. . . particular friends."

Rogers' inflection of the word particular left no one in any doubt what he meant by it, and Nathaniel's jaw dropped, head swiveling like a searchlight to stare at Sam, as Sam experienced an overwhelming desire to disappear into the davenport cushions. "We're not," he blurted out. "Barely know each other at all, really."

Rogers smiled, clearly not buying a word of it. "Mr. Hunt, does my assessment surprise you? How do you and Mr. co*cker know each other, then?"

"We, ah, we." Nathaniel could transparently be observed fishing for a lie. "Know each other a bit, yeah."

Gold, who had been watching these clumsy attempts at deception with the air of a schoolmaster disappointed in a particularly imbecilic pupil, cleared his throat. "Permit me to speed this along somewhat. Mr. Hunt arrived at the governor's mansion in Havana a little over three weeks ago, in company with a young man described as Captain James Flint's grandson, both in pursuit of a Spanish spy carrying vital intelligence about Britain's future plans in the war. As I, obviously, have informants in Güemes' household, the better not to be taken off guard by a situation such as this, they quickly decided that Mr. Hunt should be forwarded along to me. We were not expecting to see his companions quite so soon, but this, then, must be them. Whichever one of you is Hook's son is also, I'm wagering, Flint's grandson, and the other the Spanish agent. So. . . if previous statements hold true, that makes you, Mr. co*cker, the Spanish spy."

Rogers' sandy eyebrows nearly flew off his head. He stared narrowly at Sam, as if certain that nobody could actually be that gormless, and he must have been up to some diabolically clever deep-cover act the entire time. While it was oddly flattering to have him think that Sam was a dastardly genius rather than a bumbling idiot, this did not affect any improvement in their current position, and likely in fact made it worse. "Sir," Rogers said. "Sir, I thought he was just a – "

"No matter, Captain. A spy would, of course, be skilled at dissemblance and misdirection. If he is the one." Gold turned back to Sam and added something in Spanish. "Si?"

Sam blinked. "Er. . . what?"

"Surely, as a Spanish agent, you speak the language? Your employment would be rather difficult otherwise." Gold took a bite of his crumpet, leaving a bit of strawberry compote on the corner of his mouth like blood. "So what would your answer to that be?"

Sam did his utmost not to look at Jack for help, but at this Nathaniel, who plainly could not understand why they had not just come out with it, pointed at Jack anyway. "Oh, for Christ's sake. He's the Spanish spy. Now how about you shut up and leave Sam alone?"

There was a hideous pause. Gold could not have looked more delighted if he had been appointed Supreme Ruler of the Universe on the spot, while Matthew's knuckles went white on the arms of his chair. "Sam?" Gold repeated. "Haven't you assured me, as well as Captain Rogers, that your name is James?"

"That is my name," Sam said feebly. "My middle name."

Gold dabbed away the compote with a napkin. "Samuel James," he remarked. "And who exactly would you be named after? I would hazard a guess that the answer includes both Captain Bellamy and Captain Flint. So that means you're Hook's son? The apple clearly fell a long way from the one-handed tree."

Nathaniel shot a horrified look at Sam, only now realizing the ramifications of his slip of the tongue, as Sam scrambled to think of something to say and only came up with a wall of nothing. Gold, meanwhile, had turned to scrutinize Jack. "You, now – I must say, you have the look of a Bellamy yourself. Black Sam's son, perhaps? Who's your mother, Miss Swan as well? Those three shared like a Turkish harem, didn't they?"

Jack started to rise to his feet, only to be stopped by the co*cking of half a dozen muskets from the soldiers standing guard behind Gold and Rogers' chairs. He was visibly vibrating with rage, and it took a clear and tremendous effort to sit back down. "As a matter of fact," he growled. "No. No, my father was as foul, evil, and depraved as only the Royal Navy can make them."

"In that case, you're clearly much more like your father than Mr. Jones – I think we can all drop the pretense and acknowledge that that one is Mr. Jones, not you – is like his." Gold sat back with an expression of infinite enjoyment. "I don't blame Captain Rogers for originally concluding that, though. It was quite clever of him to guess at all that one of you was Hook's spawn, and I still sense a fascinating story about how the pair of you ended up on the same side. But if you are a Bellamy, Richard – and we can likewise agree that's not your real name either – it doesn't surprise me in the least that you wound up attached to a Jones."

Jack sat unnaturally still, eyes burning like dark coals. Finally he said, "Is there a point to this, or do you just love the sound of your own voice?"

"Of course there's a point." Gold sipped placidly from his teacup. "Samuel here is the offspring of some of the biggest traitors ever known to the English crown, and you, by the sound of things, are actively colluding with the Spaniards – who, it may have escaped your recollection, are presently at war with said English crown. My understanding is that you promised to find Skeleton Island for Güemes and company, Mr. Jones, if they would set you at liberty and protect your family. Your failure would cost the life of Mr. Hunt. Is that correct?"

Sam felt as if he had been stricken with a sudden case of lockjaw. He wrenched his teeth apart and said furiously, "Yes."

"Pardon me for saying so, but I suspect that if you had the faintest clue how to actually find the place, you would not be waffling around aimlessly in the middle of the Leewards. I, of course, have removed your friend from Spanish custody, so they cannot apply penalties to him for your inadequacy, but it does leave us with all manner of new possibilities. Make no mistake, the prospect of Skeleton Island intrigues me as much as anyone, but I have already set other pieces in play toward that end. You recall a man named Billy Bones? I don't suppose you would."

"You," Sam said. "You bloody told Bones about this – this whole thing, and sent him up to buy Mr. Kerr's maps on Nevis."

"Oh, I did a great deal more than that, dearie." Gold grinned. "But that was part of it, yes. In any event, I have Mr. Bones and his tedious but useful grudge against your grandfather covering the Skeleton Island end of things, I don't really need you for that. So – "

"If you think I'm telling you where to find my family, you – "

"I expect I could make you tell me quite a bit, if I put my mind to it. But I don't need you for that either. I have informants and assistants and agents embedded in nearly every city in the Colonies by now. For quite some time, they have been devoted to the project, on my orders, of finding Captain Hook and his family. Usefully, that includes Flint, as you have just confirmed for me, so it was very easy to promise Mr. Bones that I would arrange Flint's convenient demise if he would play his part. Your family tried to stop me from re-founding the Star Chamber, and I have to say, I've decided that they were quite right. Why try to resurrect an old institution with all its shortcomings and limitations and archaic rules, all its troublesome associations, when I could wipe the slate clean and start from scratch? I have my own society now. My own rules."

"Oh?" Sam tried to keep his tone light and casual. "And what's this one called, then?"

"Surprisingly good attempt, dearie, but it's none of your business. Merely know that I've become far, far more powerful than back in the benighted days of yore. I can pull any string, twitch any web, make any deal, grant any favor – or not. I really do have your lot to thank for it. If they hadn't so energetically opposed my earlier attempts, I would never have gotten to where I am now. So you see, Mr. Jones, there isn't anything you can offer me that I don't already have. Except the one. I don't like to leave loose ends, and your parents have always been. . . interfering. If they knew you were here, and in danger, that might induce them to turn up, mightn't it?"

Sam opened his mouth, then shut it.

"Unless, of course, you fear they would have better things to do than risking themselves for you?" Gold went on, with wickedly precise intuition. "I must say, I'm not sure I'd make a particular effort to rescue you either, but I know the way your parents think. I doubt they'll be able to resist. And I have been very much looking forward to seeing them again, especially your dear old dad. So yes. Just sit there like a good lad. Oh, and I don't believe we need Mr. Bellamy, you can shoot him."

This order was given so offhandedly that nobody moved at all for a moment. Then Sam reacted by sheer instinct, diving across the davenport and tackling Jack off it, just as the boom and kick of two muskets in the small drawing room nearly deafened them, a thick plume of smoke wafted over the tea tray, and two heavy lead slugs tore into the upholstery exactly where Jack had just been sitting. Nathaniel yelled and dodged the other way, arms over his head, as Sam braced for the lot of them to be blown up at any second. He was shocked, therefore, to hear Matthew bloody Rogers of all people shout, "Sir! No!"

Gold glanced at him, hand still raised in preparation of ordering a second volley – once they peeled Sam off, presumably, as he wasn't much good as bait if he was dead. "No?"

"If Mr. – Bellamy is indeed a Spanish spy with personal interest to Güemes, it is wasteful in the extreme to kill him before questioning him." Rogers took a step. "I realize that you said you have an informant in the governor's household already, but that only gives you a scattered insight or two into his personal dealings. Mr. Bellamy's intelligence is likely much more up to date, and much more comprehensive, especially as it relates to our plans for Cartagena. I believe it wise to return him to my custody."

"Indeed?" By the look on Gold's face, he could either have been impressed at this evidence of political guile from his young protégé, or he could have ordered Jack to be shot just to see how everyone would react. "That is true, I suppose."

"Yes, sir. And if I may add, I observed aboard the Griffin that Mr. Bellamy has considerable aversion to seeing Mr. Jones hurt – in fact, it tends to spur him to rather reckless and violent acts. If that was to be put to further use – "

"A Bellamy do reckless and violent things to protect a Jones? In my experience, it was usually the other way around." Gold finally lowered his hand, nodding at the soldiers to stand down. Speaking to Sam, he added, "Your dear father set half the Caribbean afire because he was mad at me, and the other half, touchingly, for Captain Bellamy's sake. They were very fond of each other, those two – even more than your mother? I've always wondered if she ever felt second-best. So good to see it carried on in the younger generation."

Sam, who became very aware just then that he was still lying on top of Jack, rolled off quickly, but remained planted between him and Gold, staring up at the bastard with as much icy disdain as he could possibly muster. Knowing him, it wasn't much, even as he did not like the direction the conversation was going. Be kept alive as a trap for his parents or as a punching bag to make Jack talk – either option did not sound in the least fanciable. Why is it that when he picks fights, I'm the one who gets hit? To judge from the renewed throbbing in his back, he had broken open his whip welts, and he could also sense Nathaniel staring at him again, unable to fathom why Sam had just jumped in front of multiple guns on behalf of their adversary. The nasty silence made an even more nasty reappearance. Then Sam got to his feet and said to Gold, "Not that this bothers you in the least degree, but you're a really terrible person."

Gold raised an eyebrow, but did not otherwise react. "And you're a surprisingly spirited young man. I admire that. Well, this doesn't need to be bloody. Shall we make a deal?"

"What deal, you evil git?"

"Captain Rogers wants to keep your. . . friend alive for questioning. He's also noted that this might be easier if we were to beat you a bit, but frankly, it is rather crude, and I don't want you too damaged. What say you were to cooperate with me, and neither of you would be hurt? Or," Gold added, with a pointed look at Jack, "you can try to brawl your way through me, Captain Rogers, the dozen men in this room, my household guard, the streets of Bridgetown, and the entire crew of the Griffin. I'm sure that would be entertaining, if not so much when it ended."

Sam sensed Jack standing angrily behind him, having gotten to his feet as well and clearly all too eager to go to town on these feculent execrating arseholes, but if Jack had thus far protected him for his reasons and by his methods, Sam had to do the same. He reached back and put a restraining hand on Jack's wrist, then looked coolly down at Gold – face to face, miserable plotting bugger though he might be, he was shorter than both of them. "Fine," he said. "For now. We don't try anything, and you don't hurt us."

"Very well, Mr. Jones." Gold smiled and offered his hand, and Sam shook it with two fingers. "I'll have someone show you upstairs. You must be tired after all your adventures. Separate bedchambers, or is that a further cruelty? I am, you know, always a supporter of true love."

Sam could feel his ears burning again. He just stood with his arms crossed, trying to match Jack's supremely haughty and disinterested air, until the servant arrived to escort them and Nathaniel upstairs. The upper floors of Gold's mansion were dim and cool, walls lined with beautiful paintings and sculptures and other such treasures that Sam felt sure he had acquired to stash here like a dragon's hoard. The servant stopped in front of one door, showed Nathaniel through it, led Sam and Jack further down, and gestured at another one with an expression that made it extremely clear that he preferred not to think about what they might do behind it. Naturally. Work for the evilest wee bastard in the entire New World, have a fit over the idea of two blokes together. Logical.

While Sam was opening his mouth, not sure if he was going to tell the servant that he was mistaken, or that they were going to spend all night enthusiastically breaking every rule in the Book of Leviticus, Jack seized him by the arm and pulled him through, slamming the door in the servant's face and turning the key. He then prowled around the entire room – a handsome high-ceilinged chamber, with furniture upholstered in moiré and a tall four-poster bed – clearly in search of a spy, an asp in a basket, a Puritan minister, or some other instrument of instant destruction. Evidently finding none, he whirled back on Sam. "You can't get us trapped here! You should have let me – "

"Should have let you what, make it halfway across the veranda before they shot you or dragged you off for more special attention from our good mate Matthew?" Sam was very tired and in pain and not in the mood for Jack Bellamy's nonsense. He sat down on the dresser stool. "Obviously, we need to get out of here. But we need to think about how, and I'm not leaving Nathaniel behind. He's been my best friend since we were kids, and I'm the reason he's here, whether in Havana or Bridgetown. We don't just leave him for Gold to play with before eating."

As Jack opened his mouth, presumably to argue or to point out that Nathaniel had given them away, Sam snapped, "Just because you don't care for anybody or have any loyalty to anyone aside from three people, or whatever it is, doesn't mean I do. Besides, you are not going to defeat Lord Robert Gold by punching his henchmen. It's just not going to happen. I reckon that's pretty much exactly what he wants and is expecting you to do, so he can point out that our deal is now broken and do whatever the hell he pleases. It's my whole family that's in danger if Gold succeeds in luring them here – do you really think I'm not taking this seriously, or that I'm being a coward about it? They will probably all die! I am taking it bloody seriously!"

His voice had risen to the brink of a shout, and he forced it back down – there were bound to be enough people listening at keyholes in this house, he didn't need to make it any easier for them. He and Jack stared at each other for a long, frozen moment, until Jack finally looked away, the hint of a flush climbing his elegant, sun-browned cheekbones. "No," he said grudgingly. "I don't think you're being a coward."

Sam, who had been prepared for precisely the opposite answer, was caught off guard. He snapped his mouth shut hard enough to hear his teeth click. Then he said, "Oh."

Jack blew out a slow breath and sat down on the bed, running his hands through the long black locks that had escaped from his ponytail. "Just let me punch Rogers at least once before this is over."

"Be my guest," Sam said. "But not right now. Besides, if we have any hope of getting out of here, it's with him."

Jack looked at him disbelievingly. "He hates us."

"No." Sam looked down. "I don't think he does, exactly. Right now we're in his way, and he's treating us accordingly. I'm not sure, but I think he's Woodes Rogers' son – the old governor of Nassau, the one who brought down the pirates' republic. And he's only around our age, so I'm guessing his mother was Rogers' second wife, Eleanor Guthrie. Mum and Grandpa have told me a bit about her, she was. . . she was a piece of work. If all of this is so, then of course Matthew's completely devoted to the Navy and wanting to follow the rules and prove himself worthy. You heard Gold back there – 'Matthew, my boy.' Probably acts like his dad, has been sympathetic to him, gave him a job and a chance to prove himself. The son of a controversial second marriage to a woman of no background who worked for pirates – believe me, English society looked down their noses at Matthew all the time. He's needed to do everything the hard way, make his men respect and fear him, and by the looks of things, he's done that bloody well. And then here comes Gold, who needs a foot back in the door, recognizes Matthew's talents, and sees the total delicious irony in finally getting Woodes Rogers' son to work for him, because Woodes Rogers himself never did. I'm just saying. It's perfect."

With that, he glanced up at Jack, who seemed unsure whether to be impressed by this perspicacity or point out that he, of course, had no proof as to Matthew Rogers' parentage, and thus the rest of his conclusions. "I was thinking it about it on the Griffin," Sam went on, before Jack could do either. "I can't be sure, but, well. . . I think so, yeah."

"So. . . what? Even if this Rogers is the governor's son, what the f*ck are we supposed to offer him to make him take our side? You think telling him that Gold's an evil, lying sack of sh*t will make any difference to him? It's a noble idea, I grant you, but there's no way he'll – "

"I don't know. Maybe it's stupid." Sam tapped his fingers on the dresser. "But if Matthew thinks he's serving one cause, and he turns out to be serving another – aye, I think that would matter to him. Seems to, in my experience."

Jack did not quite have another argument on hand for that, and Sam did not want to hear it anyway. Whether or not they were going to be brutally axe-murdered in the night, he did not care. He stood up, shucked his boots and trousers, and strode over to the bed in just his shirt, trying to ignore the odd, fluttering knot in his stomach. "Budge up. I'm going to sleep."

Jack paused, then got up, and Sam crawled under the covers, collapsing flat on his back and staring up at the curtained canopy. Even if it was in Robert Gold's lair, Sam could more than appreciate a soft, spacious bed that did not rock and jerk beneath him (and which was not surrounded by a hundred smelly, snoring men) and he did not move, even though it hurt to lie on his flogging wounds. Finally he rolled over onto his stomach, then opened an eye to see Jack now perched on his old spot on the dressing stool. "I swear, if you're waiting for me to fall asleep so you can sneak out and do something stupid, I'll kill you."

Jack looked vaguely guilty. "I. . . no, I wasn't planning to."

"Bollocks," Sam yawned, almost dislocating his jaw. "Course you were."

"No, I was just. . . I thought I'd sit up and keep watch."

"Look," Sam said. "If they burst in and try to kill us, I don't think it will make much difference. I'm not dragging your sleep-deprived arse around, it'll make you even more charming and personable than you usually are, and we need our wits about us. Here or on the rug, I don't care, but at least lie down."

Jack glanced up at him again, with some sort of challenge in his eyes. Then he shrugged, shucked his own boots and trousers, and crossed the floor, climbing in next to Sam and helping himself to several pillows. He settled onto his back as well, one eye on the door, as if ensuring that his path to spring out and fight intruders was clear. Then with one last sidelong look at Sam, he closed his eyes and appeared to drop immediately under.

Sam watched him in the dimness, suspecting that he was feigning but deciding that he didn't want to know. Jack looked younger, and quite a bit less fierce, like this, and he must have learned long ago not to make any noise or motion when he slept, to wake quickly and silently. The thought made Sam sad – and incredibly angry. His own childhood had been so happy that he shrank from even imagining what must have been the horror of Jack's. How could you do something like that, to your own son? Sam knew of course that bad people existed in the world, they presently being the unwilling houseguests of one, but it seemed to take a special kind of evil, beyond even Gold's, to be such as Captain Jonathan Howe. Someone should make him pay. Someone should. But was death, the ordinary punishment for ordinary crimes, even sufficient?

Sam did not know, and it was getting harder and harder to keep his own eyes open. With a final glance of his own at the door, which remained silent and still, he let go, and fell into swirling, troubled dreams.

Geneva was feeling considerably satisfied, if very tired, by the time she returned to the King's Arms that evening. Aside from Israel Hands, she'd hired a dozen new sailors to compensate for possible deserters, haggled a good price on the Rose's resupply, and talked to a beggar down at the docks who, in exchange for a few silver pennies, told her of a man matching her uncle Liam's description, leaving with a tall blonde man and a slight dark woman, which had to be Billy Bones and Lady Fiona. So far as the beggar recollected, their destination had been somewhere in the Indies, and this, at last, all but confirmed that they were heading for Skeleton Island and could not be too far ahead. Geneva was even cherishing the unwarrantedly optimistic notion that with the wind on their side and a few days' hard sailing, they could draw even. But if there was to be any chance of that, a detour to France would cost them valuable time, possibly embroil them in further difficulties trying to find her aunt Regina, and otherwise take them off course. If they could just catch up to her uncle and rescue him themselves, it would not matter if they told anyone where to theoretically find him. Problem solved.

Geneva was thus mulling over the idea of leaving as soon as possible, rather than lollygagging for another fortnight, and made a note to check how much was left to load. There was still some minor storm damage to consult a sailmaker and cooper about, but that should be simple to attend tomorrow. Then they could get the blazes out of here.

Accordingly, she strode into the inn's common room alight with this – well, not delightful prospect, but at least a diverting one – and was surprised to see Madi and Silver sitting together in a corner, having some sort of argument in hissed whispers. Not that the arguing was the surprising part, but they both looked more distressed than in their usual skirmishes, and both of them stopped on a dime when they spotted Geneva. "Ah, Captain Jones," Silver said, with a clear and strained effort at sounding jovial. "Productive day, then?"

"Aye." Geneva glanced at them, unable to restrain her curiosity. Madi was knuckling hard at her eyes, as if she had once more been crying. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to intrude, but is everything all right?"

"Everything is fine," Silver said, with just enough of an edge to remind her that since she had told him in no uncertain terms to keep his nose out of her business, it was the polite thing to return the favor. "Mrs. Rogers' appearance today merely. . . caught us off guard, that's all. I'm sure you're very weary, the innkeeper had your bath drawn. Don't waste it while it's hot. Aye?"

Able to recognize that she should not push, Geneva nodded to him coolly, stole one more concerned look at Madi, and headed up to their room, shutting the door, stripping off her clothes, and submerging herself in the big wooden tub with a heartfelt groan. She lay against the edge, steam rising in the golden evening light, soaking off what felt like an entire calcified hide of grime. There was a cake of fine milled French soap, with which Geneva scrubbed enthusiastically, washed and rinsed her hair over one of the buckets, and was finally feeling somewhat human by the time she wobbled out, jelly-legged, and wrapped up in one of the towels. The water looked like the runoff from a colliery, and she was sitting by the vanity and staring into space, hair loose in damp tangles down her back, when there was a knock on the door and it opened a crack. "Gen – Captain Jones? There's supper downstairs if you – "

Geneva jumped to her feet, as she had let the towel slip down around her waist, and snatched it up again. "Bloody hell, I'm not – shoo!"

The heat of Jim Hawkins' blush could nearly have reheated the tepid bathwater on its own. "Oh Jesus," she heard him mutter. "That's me dead then, isn't it."

Despite her annoyance at being interrupted while decidedly not decent, Geneva could not help but feel rather bad for the poor boy – well, he was about her age, but he still seemed a boy in some ways. If you lived on a ship with men for as long as she had, you developed a rather permissive attitude toward nudity, as it was bound to occur in some capacity. Geneva herself was assuredly no fainting damsel who regarded it as the height of scandal for a gentleman to inadvertently glimpse her whilst unclad, and she raised her voice. "It's all right, I was just taking a bath. You startled me, is all."

"I, ah." It was clear that an extensive amount of Jim Hawkins' capacity for intelligent thought had left him cruelly in the lurch, and showed no signs of returning. "I – I didn't, I'll just – "

Geneva wrapped the towel firmly under her arms and – knowing it was slightly unkind, but not particularly caring – crossed the room to look out at him. Jim was a color to which even 'scarlet' did not do much justice, both trying to decorously avert his eyes and unable to resist stealing half a glance. Some of the steam was still wafting off Geneva as she leaned on the jamb and grinned at him. "Let me guess. First time you've ever seen a naked woman?"

Jim ran a finger under his collar. "It is not."

"Oh?" Growing up in a house accustomed to the anything-goes morality of Nassau, where everyone was too busy scheming and stealing and drinking and stabbing to give the absolute remotest damn who was doing what in bed with who, Geneva had acquired a much more informed – and much more laissez-faire – attitude toward the subject of sex than would have been deemed at all proper for a young lady of Quality. Her mother had given her a small chat at the age of sixteen, which Geneva had found complete agony to sit through, but which boiled down to the fact that so long as everyone involved was sensible, consenting, and happy about the whole thing, she should feel free to do as she wished – oh, and it was probably best not to tell her father. Emma herself, who had gotten pregnant with Henry at the age of seventeen, and then unexpectedly again with Geneva, was insistent that her daughter tell her if she was engaging intimately with a man, so she could see about getting the herbal drafts and tansy oils and other things that reduced the risk of conception, and Geneva – who had no desire to be a mother just yet – had accordingly done so. She was no virgin, to be sure, and if that had been a major impediment to a man she was thinking of marrying, she wouldn't marry him. Not that she was intending to marry Jim Hawkins, or even necessarily do something which might plant the idea in his head, but she found his stumbling and blushing irresistible to poke at, just a bit.

Jim, for his part, seemed determined to remember where exactly he had seen a naked woman before, but could not quite bring it to mind. His eyes flicked to her neck and shoulders, and then away. "I, ah," he said, taking a large step backward. "I'll just. . . be on my way. Downstairs. Yes. Downstairs. That's it."

With that, tripping over a floorboard, he practically sprinted, as Geneva watched him go with a smirk, then turned around, sauntered back into the room, and barred the door this time. She was considerably intrigued to see if Jim would be able to look her in the face again without having his head set afire like a Roman candle. He was a good-looking young man, clearly did not object to beholding her more intimate aspects, and if she was being dragged along on this entire ridiculous journey, it seemed unfair not to get at least a bit of personal enjoyment out of it. That, however, would have to wait. As well, Geneva did not want to sleep with him and then discover that he was an idiot, or convinced they were destined for each other, or otherwise possessive and obnoxious. She did very much enjoy certain things about men, but it was not to be denied that they were absolutely the denser half of the human species.

Dried, dressed, brushed, and otherwise fit for public viewing, Geneva went downstairs for supper, noticed that Jim knocked over his plate and took a long time about fetching it, and that Madi's eyes were still red. She and Silver kept exchanging half-glances as they ate, and Geneva, looking over at Thomas, saw that he had noticed this too. They raised their eyebrows at each other, but could not discuss it in front of the others, and Geneva cleared her throat and informed them of her accomplishments. "So," she finished. "It's almost certain that my uncle, Billy Bones, and Lady Fiona Murray are in fact headed for Skeleton Island, so I think we should be after them as soon as possible."

"What about a first mate?"

"I hired a new one." Geneva helped herself to another spoonful of cherry tart.

"Did you?" Silver evidently could not decide whether to be impressed or wary. "Who?"

Geneva gave him a sweet smile. "Experienced sailor. I'm sure you'll get along."

Silver seemed about to say something else, then stopped. The rest of supper was conducted more or less without incident, but Thomas slipped after Geneva as she went outside to sit in the back courtyard,. "My dear," he said, shutting the door. "I see you're not about to tell Mr. Silver, but might I be permitted to know the identity of your new crewman?"

"Aye, of course." Geneva beckoned him to sit next to her. "His name is Israel Hands, one of Blackbeard's old men. He's been to Skeleton Island himself before, and he particularly dislikes Silver. I think he'll be a solid addition."

She glanced at her uncle, waiting for his approval, but instead Thomas frowned. "I'm sorry, did you say Israel Hands?"

"Yes. Why?"

"It's only, I'm sure I've heard your grandfather mention him. He was violent and disruptive even by Nassau's standards, tried to challenge Blackbeard for captaincy of the Queen Anne's Revenge once, and was otherwise a loose cannon." The fine furrow between Thomas' weathered brows drew deeper. "If he wants to come with us, I cannot doubt it is for some secret design of his own, and not one we should necessarily welcome."

"I did get the sense he was a bit cracked, but – " Geneva frowned as well. "He'll keep Silver in check, at least, and you and I can both agree that is a top – "

"Believe me," Thomas said, "I did not expect to be uttering these words either. But there are worse men than John Silver for us to have aboard our ship."

"Our ship? It's my ship."

"Yes, it is, and you know that I have consciously stepped back and let you take the lead, supported all your decisions. But Jenny, I cannot help but remark – and you know as well that I love you, that this is meant in no malice – that you have your father and grandfather's flaws as well as their strengths. You are pushing more and more into that side of them, and you, that is reckless, vindictive, and determined to take risks even, and especially, when you are counseled against them. Given how we found ourselves on this venture, I understand, I do, your desire to keep punishing Silver for it. But I must be plain. I do not think Israel Hands is a wise idea, or a choice that will assist in what, no matter how, we have been set to do. It is a decision made purely from spite, and you're too smart for that, my dear. Dissolve it now whilst still you can."

This was not at all what Geneva had expected to hear, and she felt a prickle of wounded pride at being rebuked by her uncle, with whom she had always been very close. "I can manage Hands. And besides, when did you become such a Silver devotee? Didn't you tell him to stay away from me, that he had a complete lack of care for anyone other than – "

At that, she came to a screeching halt, as Thomas looked first confused, wondering how she could have possibly known that – then, as realization dawned, stunned. "You. . ." he said. "You listened to our conversation that night on the Rose?"

"I – " Geneva's face went hot. "I. . . may have heard. . . a bit of it, yes."

"I heard you go into your cabin. Or at least, I thought I did." Thomas surveyed her with that piercing light-blue gaze of his. He didn't sound angry, only surprised and saddened. "You intentionally deceived us to stay out and listen? Why did you do that?"

"I just. . ." Geneva was only able to mumble a few words about it being her ship and having a right to know, all of which sounded fabulously feeble when spoken aloud and which did nothing to ease the flat, grim line of Thomas's mouth. "I'm sorry, Uncle Thomas, I just. . ."

"I understand your curiosity, of course," Thomas allowed, after a moment. "It was what drew us originally to Nassau, after all, and John Silver is an enigma into which we have likewise both, in our different ways and reasons, become drawn. As well, it is natural that you should want to know more of your grandfather's past. But as we must accept that our parents are mortal creatures, we must also accept that there are some things which we as their children simply do not have the need or entitlement to know. I am also, I must say, rather insulted at the idea that you thought I might say one thing to you, and altogether another behind your back. I spoke as I did to Mr. Silver because I thought you were not listening – well, you were, and that cannot be taken back. But you have, as a result, compromised my trust. I do not wish to treat you as a girl, when you are a woman and the captain of your own vessel, but Jenny, you have very much acted as one, and I did expect better. Perhaps that was my mistake. You are still very young."

This quiet, matter-of-fact disappointment was worse than if he had shouted at her, and Geneva's cheeks felt as scalded as Jim's must have earlier. She twisted her hands in her lap, biting her lip, feeling a hot prickling behind her eyes and unable to meet his. "I'm. . . sorry," she said again, forcing the words past the hot band constricting her chest. "I. . . didn't mean. . ."

"Thank you," Thomas said politely. "I accept your apology, and I expect that it will not happen again. Perhaps we should go inside? It's getting quite dark."

With that, he rose to his feet, offered his hand to her, and led her back into the inn, then inclined his head and strode off to the stairs, leaving Geneva standing in the corner and rubbing her eyes hard. If Silver turned up now, getting a whiff of distress that he could profitably and sympathetically insinuate himself into, she would hit him, but he didn't. When she started down the corridor toward the common room, thinking she might get another drink before going up to bed, she heard the murmur of voices, and looked out to see Silver and Madi still sitting by themselves at the table. Too absorbed in their low-voiced exchange, they did not notice her, and having just been reprimanded for illicit eavesdropping, Geneva certainly did not want to do it all over again. She turned smartly and started to leave, but could not help but catch a few fragments.

" – no right to ask it of us, not when she – "

"I know," Silver said wearily. "But we both know that it is not her you're truly angry at. And in that case, Woodes Rogers is dead, and his widow could be useful, especially if her son is serving aboard a – "

Madi made a sound that was half a laugh and half a sob. "Useful," she repeated. "Of course, even now, that is what you prize the most, is it not? It was useful, the arrangement you came to the first time? Do you even remember what that cost us, or should I refresh your memory?"

"Madi – " Silver reached for her hand, but she snatched it away from him. He sounded harrowed and haunted, a man desperate to find his footing on a crumbling sandbar, even as the water rose and rose. "Do you think I have not thought about it every day since? You never let me come close, you never let me even try to – "

"You could not have mended it." Madi looked away, her face stony but her voice ragged. "Not when you destroyed it."

This absolutely did not sound like the sort of thing that Geneva needed to hear a word more of, and she silently backtracked, managing to reach the stairs without them knowing they had been, even briefly, spied upon. Her legs felt leaden as she climbed up, let herself back into the room – the tub had been emptied and removed – and undressed. All her self-satisfaction seemed to have dissipated, leaving only a cold fog, and she lay down in bed and stared up at the ceiling, wondering if she was still committed to employing Hands. Thomas had no reason to vouch for Silver out of any personal liking or desire for more of his company, so he could only be doing it out of genuine conviction that the alternative was worse. But he would be the first to admit that he knew nothing about piracy or the truth of those days. . . it had been twenty-five years, even if Hands had been a problem then, there was no automatic certainty that he was now. . . she still wanted to keep Silver good and uncomfortable, even as she could not help but hear Thomas remarking that she was giving into the family tendency to hold grudges and seek vengeance even when it came at considerable cost to oneself. . . aye, Silver had tricked them into this, but now they were going to rescue her uncle Liam and everything would be. . .

Lost in unquiet thoughts, Geneva barely noticed when the door opened and Madi let herself in, face cool and carven and remote in the moonlight, as if she had gone beyond grief and anger and into somewhere simply numb. Geneva watched under her eyelids, then shut them, thinking she should pretend to be asleep. The bed creaked as Madi climbed in, whereupon she tried to lie still, but the air around her was so unsettled, her presence so raw, that Geneva could not get comfortable again. Finally she whispered, "Madi?"

The older woman started slightly, and looked over at her. She seemed to be wondering if she should say something, then shook her head and sat up. "I am sorry," she said. "I should not have brought this here. I will sleep elsewhere tonight."

"You don't have to. . . I just. . ." Geneva did not want to make this worse again, fumbled to think how to be honest. "I couldn't help but overhearing a little earlier, and I – I left, I swear, but if this is about allowing Eleanor Rogers on the ship, I wasn't planning to, but if it's personal to you. . ."

She grimaced, afraid that Madi would feel that her confidence had been betrayed as Thomas had, but Madi did not appear outstandingly angry. She regarded Geneva for a moment, head to one side, considering. "How much did you hear, exactly?"

"Not much." Geneva fiddled with the sheet. "I came back inside after Uncle Thomas. . . after we. . . never mind. I was just going to get a drink, but I heard Silver say that it might be useful to take Eleanor along after all, and you. . ." She stopped, hideously embarrassed. "Well. You didn't want to. But earlier, he didn't seem all that interested in taking Eleanor, he said – "

"You have made the first mistake of dealing with John," Madi said. "Assuming that what he said earlier can be trusted to hold now, and that he has ever encountered a situation which, no matter how much personal discomfort it may cause him, cannot be amended in the pursuit of advantage and opportunity. But you should not feel bad. I made the same, and I have known him much longer than you. Even now. Even in this, I thought – "

"I'm sorry," Geneva said quietly. "Please. You don't have to tell me."

"I know." Madi looked back at her. "Of course I do not have to. You do recall what I said earlier, about making my own choices, that you have not forced me to do anything? But you are the captain of the Rose, and thus the one with whom rests the decision whether or not to take Eleanor along. And I suppose you have the right to know why I object to it."

Geneva opened and shut her mouth. She could not help but think of Thomas' adjuration that there were things which children had no right to know of their parents, but then, Madi was not her parent, and she seemed to be offering the information freely. "All right."

Madi was quiet for a long moment, as if thinking how to communicate this as efficiently and impersonally as possible, as if writing a dispatch from the War Office. Then she said, "As you will know, Woodes Rogers was released from prison after serving several years for debt. He returned to Nassau for a second term as governor in 1728, which was a great shock for all of us living there. We had not expected to be confronted by that man again, after everything we had fought and suffered to be rid of him. It nearly started another war, and there were many of us who thought the risk was worth taking. I was among those who thought that we were justified in working to resist him. I would have done more, but – "

She stopped.

"Yes?" Geneva prompted tentatively.

"But," Madi said, looking up at her with that calm, flat dark gaze, "I was pregnant."

"You – " At that, Geneva remembered Madi and Silver's strange reaction to Eleanor's claim that they should sympathize with her desire to get back to her son if nothing else, and felt a large chunk of ice drop into her stomach, suddenly understanding at least some of how tragic this story was going to be, and not wanting to understand any more. "Oh, Christ, I'm sorry."

Madi shrugged. "John had been. . . unsure about it, about how much of a father he thought he could be. He did not want war with Rogers, again, and felt that Max and I were taking too hard a line in being determined to demonstrate to the governor that matters had changed, that we ruled Nassau now and he did not. We argued. I reminded him that Rogers had kidnapped me during the first war, that I well remembered what sort of man he was, that we could not let him have power over us again, and I was prepared to pay the price. He said he had given up enough to stop that first war, and would not let it go in vain. He. . ."

She considered, twisting the bedspread between her fingers, staring intently at the wall. Finally she said, "He went to Rogers behind my back, and offered him a deal he had no right to propose, with authority he had no right to delegate, about which powers Rogers should have, and which we should retain. I believe he felt that he was solving the problem, that he knew best and could come to some sort of compromise, and that would be enough to make the conflict go away. He then did not tell me that he had done this, until I received a letter a week later, asking me to go to the governor's mansion, to confirm it. To go back to Woodes Rogers and present myself and kneel, to swear myself a loyal subject, a. . ."

She stopped again, as Geneva reached out to put a hand on her arm. Madi barely seemed to notice, eyes bleaker and blinder than ever. The silence hung over them until she said, "Once more, we argued. He did not even seem to understand how he had betrayed my trust, how he had disregarded everything I had asked of him, still thinking he was doing the right thing for us, for Nassau. I suppose it was too much. Our son came that night, three months too early."

Geneva did not want her to keep talking, to have to say this, but now that Madi had started, it seemed impossible to hold it back, and the words spilled out of her as if she had to, she had to tell someone, she had to make them understand. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "He was perfect," she said. "Absolutely perfect. His head fit in the palm of my hand. He had black curls, and all his fingers and toes, and he was brown as a walnut, halfway between us. He was still alive for a little while after he was born. He never made a sound, he never cried. I would have given my own life for his. If he could have grown up, if he could have opened his eyes, if he could have breathed on his own. There is nothing – nothing – I would not have done for that, and what could I do? Nothing. I could do nothing. I hope you never have to know what it is like to sit there in that darkness, in your bloody bed, singing to him, and see, as the moon came out from behind the cloud, that he was gone, and you did not even know the moment when."

With that, Madi doubled in half and began, for what must have been the first time in twelve years, to sob. She bent over on all fours, clutching the sheet, shaking and twisting it and gulping and shivering, as Geneva put both arms around her and pulled her in, tears running silently down her own cheeks. She rocked Madi as if she was a small child herself, feeling half the daughter that Thomas had been disappointed in and half the mother who must put that aside, knowing again that there was no way for her to fully comprehend this pain. "I'm sorry," she whispered, as she had said it to her uncle, in similar form but different meaning, feeling more than ever the insufficiency of mending back such things, so great and terrible, so raw and tender and impossible, impossible. "I'm sorry."

Madi did not answer, still shaking, until her head rested heavy against Geneva's shoulder and she went quiet. At last she spoke again, in a distant, dreamlike voice. "From that day, things were never the same between us again. John kept trying, he kept trying to fix them, and yet inevitably, they became worse. He never understood exactly what he had done wrong, and Rogers died four years later, but that did not mend it. Why is it that African mothers lose their sons the most, when the white man kills them either intentionally or simply through ignorance? And now Eleanor dares to ask this of us for the sake of her son, for Rogers' son. She hopes that even we can understand that, she says. I know my father worked for her for several years. I know he was, in his way, fond of her. But I am not sure I can see her again, and not want to claw her eyes out."

"We don't. . ." Geneva's voice sounded rusty. "If Eleanor does come back, we. . . I wasn't intending to take her with us. I'm sorry that happened to you. I'm sorry."

Again Madi said nothing, before she sniffed once more and straightened up. "So," she said, as calmly as if continuing a prior conversation. "I had hoped that might be enough, for once, for John to hold fast in refusing to allow Eleanor to accompany us. But no. She might be useful. Even now, he must plan for a dozen different potential outcomes, instead of listening to me when I say this is something I cannot abide. Sometimes I still deceive myself into believing that he will change. I am not sure why. Perhaps he justifies it to himself that Eleanor was not there, and took no direct part in the events. I do not know. I wish I did not care. I am so tired. So tired."

"You should sleep," Geneva said, lowering Madi to the mattress as gently as she could, settling her on the pillow, and pulling the quilt up. "Shh. Go to sleep."

Madi murmured something about not wanting to, even as she was already drifting off. Geneva sat next to her until she was sure that Madi was really asleep, then slid down as well, feeling as if somebody had reached into her body and pulled out her backbone. She could not help the uncomfortable thought that it was almost counterproductive to punish Silver further, when there was no one who could punish him as he could himself. Between the secrets she had learned illicitly from him and Thomas, and the ones that Madi had now told her plainly, she began to understand the necessity of keeping them in the past, of trying to let them lie quiet, when they still lived so close to you every day. It was finding that measure of solace, or going mad, and Geneva began to understand the gravity and the struggle of how her parents and grandparents had managed to do it, however imperfectly. It felt very strange to lie there in the darkness and think of this, grapple with its weight. To wonder if this was what it cost, growing up.

The next day was a blur of activity. Geneva was up at the crack of dawn, rather than the long lie-in she had enjoyed yesterday, and scarcely seemed to stop moving thereafter. She was still not yet certain whether to jettison Hands, but did not have much time to ponder; if all kept to schedule, they would be leaving tomorrow evening. Geneva did not think they had ever turned around so fast, but then, they did not have cargo to load and unload, or passengers to wait for, and the Bristol tradesmen from the sailors' guild were located in due course to patch up the Rose. At first they were inclined to charge her double, as she was not a member (as well as doubtless thinking that a female would be less familiar with the value of their labor) but Jim went in and shouted at them for a bit, which proved unexpectedly efficient. "Told them I was going," he added wryly, pulling a tangle of hemp out of his shaggy chestnut ponytail. "Think they would have done the work at any price, if they knew it meant getting rid of me."

"Come now, I'm sure you don't mean that." Geneva smiled consolingly. Jim seemed to have recovered fairly well from his bath-induced heart failure last night, and she leaned on the wall of the quay warehouse, looking up at him (he was a pleasant few inches taller than her, which could be difficult to find in a man, she being of quite respectable stature herself). "But if we are leaving tomorrow, have you told your mother yet?"

Jim glanced away. "I sent her a letter."

"Go see her," Geneva urged, the memory of Madi's grief still painfully close at hand, until she could not countenance the thought of taking another son from his mother without a proper farewell. "If – if we don't – well, I'm sure everything will be fine, but at least see her once before you go. I'm sure she's mourning your absence as much as the loss of the Benbow. Please." She put a hand on his arm. "I'm sure it would mean a great deal to her."

Jim looked at her hand, swallowed hard, and after a moment, seemed to discover that whatever rationalizations he had carefully crafted to the contrary had inexplicably evaporated. "I. . . well," he said. "All right, I'll. . . I'll go see her."

"Good." Geneva leaned up to peck his cheek, at which she feared she might have overdone it, as Jim sped from the docklands with his face once more resembling the great red storm on the planet Jupiter (Geneva, as a sailor, avidly read astronomical publications). She watched him go with another grin, and reminded herself it was cruel to tease him too much, but she needed the moment of levity and distraction after the heavy emotion of last night. She hadn't seen Thomas at breakfast, or yet that day. She did hope he hadn't done anything rash – that was extremely uncharacteristic of him, but if he'd still been angry –

It was not until considerably later that evening, when they had returned to the King's Arms and Geneva was worried enough to think of sending for the constables, that Thomas finally reappeared. His waistcoat was dirty and untucked, his lip split, and his eye blackening; indeed, he looked as if he was fresh off a back-alley brawl, something that Geneva had never imagined of her urbane, well-dressed, gentle, intellectual uncle. She jumped to her feet, even as Silver, Madi, and Jim glanced over in some consternation. "Uncle Thomas! What happened – did somebody – here, sit down, let me take a look at – "

"I'm fine, Jenny." Thomas allowed her to assist him into a chair, but waved her off when she tried for a better examination of his injuries. "I started the fight, if you're wondering."

"You – ?" Geneva goggled at him. She had not thought that Thomas had ever started a proper fight in his life – but then she remembered what he had said to her back in Bermuda, that he had not told James and Miranda everything that happened to him while they were apart, and supposed that he had not survived all those years of incarceration and hard labor with just a charming smile and an excellent command of Cicero. "Are you – that is – what was – ?"

"Suffice to say, Israel Hands will not be accompanying us." Thomas winced, pulling out his handkerchief to dab his bloody lip. "Fortunately, I managed to catch him while he was drunk, or I daresay I would look much worse."

"You went after – " Geneva blinked stupidly. "Oh God, no. Uncle Thomas, you're sixty-eight, you're a gentleman. You should have let me handle it, I would have – "

Thomas looked at her coolly. "And was I to be sure that you would do it, then?"

Geneva stopped short, feeling slapped. She wanted to say that he should have told her, he should have trusted her, but she was sharply aware of why he had not, and after all, she had delayed making a decision on Hands today, trying to avoid committing one way or another until the last minute. It was Silver who said, "Hands? Israel Hands? I knew him by repute on Nassau, if it's the same man – that was the first mate you thought you were hiring for us?"

"Evidently not any more." Geneva wished they would stop staring. "Congratulations, Mr. Silver, it appears the post is yours. I – I don't think I'm that hungry after all. I'll go to bed."

With that, she fairly fled upstairs and into her room, undressing and climbing into bed for lack of anything better to do and lying with her eyes closed, in an uneasy, anxious stupor that stubbornly refused to deepen into real sleep, for what felt like hours. She thought she would hear Madi come in at some point, but when she finally woke up with a jerk sometime in the wee hours, having evidently finally managed to drop off, the other side of the bed was untouched. Wherever Madi was sleeping tonight, it was not here.

Geneva rolled over, managed after another lengthy interlude to get back to sleep, woke again not long past dawn, and finally gave up. She rose and dressed, peering out the window. It was the usual cool and cloudy sort of day that England could be reliably counted upon to produce no matter the nominal season, but it should clear a bit by evening. Not bad sailing weather, at any rate. Silver would have to help her plot the course, as he was the one who knew where Skeleton Island was, but they also had to guess where else Lady Fiona and Billy might be going. If they were skipping the trip to France, that made it doubly imperative that they rescue Uncle Liam. I'm not being reckless in that. I'm not.

Geneva wandered downstairs, ate a quick breakfast, and headed for the docks to oversee final preparations. She herself would not be sad to leave Bristol behind; a little knowledge of the past could be a very dangerous thing. She didn't regret coming, exactly, but she was only starting to realize what she had gotten into, aside from just the physical requirements of the undertaking, and those were grueling enough. Nor did she think it was likely to stop.

The last provisions were stowed around four o'clock that afternoon, the new men brought on board and given their tasks and places on the crew, the anchor raised, and the Rose began her careful journey down the river channel toward the sea. Geneva was too occupied to spend much time watching the city vanish behind the steep banks. They glided into the spectacular Avon Gorge, which took more careful attention to negotiate, and then finally got a whiff of brine, following the sinking sun out west into the Atlantic.

The wind was strong, but fickle in direction, and Geneva kept a close eye on the new recruits to see how they were handling the changes of lines and sheets. Silver seemed to be keeping them decently enough on task, at any rate, and Geneva herself always felt easier on the sea, no matter the circ*mstances in which she had arrived there. It felt better to be pointed back in a roughly homeward direction, rather than the complete unknown, and for the first time, she might almost be able to glimpse the end of this. Wasn't that a thought.

When they were well enough out to sea for the English coast to have vanished, Geneva congratulated everyone on a smooth departure, sent Jim to find a bunk with the crew and Madi to the cabin again, glanced at Thomas where he was standing by the rail, and then went below to check the lashings and to make sure they had properly caulked that leak in the forward bulkhead. She pulled the trapdoor shut and climbed down the ladder, took the lantern from its hook, and started into the cramped hold, ducking the low beam. The dim shapes of piled sacks and barrels lay to every side as she made her way across, pulled her skirts over a snagging nail, and –

Geneva caught movement out of the corner of her eye just an instant too late, and whirled around, just as a scarred hand clamped over her mouth and she was jerked back against the hull with considerable force. She couldn't see who had hold of her, but then she made out a second shape in front of her, and saw Eleanor Rogers rising stiffly from where she must have been hiding for hours – stowed away last night, probably. At that, Geneva suddenly understood who had grabbed her, but a less likely pairing she could not imagine – Woodes Rogers' widow and a man who had once worked for the legendary pirate Rogers had killed? Unless they were so driven as to overlook all prior enmities and – Christ, mess did not even begin to describe this –

"Good evening, Captain," Israel Hands breathed in her ear. "Think it's time to discuss the terms of our passage."

Chapter 14: XIV

Chapter Text

Flint was confined to bed for the rest of the week. As he was well aware that he was extremely lucky to be alive, even he did not complain – at least any more than usual. He did try to get up and carry on as normal on Wednesday morning, which led to him almost falling down the stairs and otherwise causing a disruption, and he was packaged straight back to bed with considerable scolding. After that, it was somewhat easier (if only somewhat) to convince him that a few more days of rest and recuperation were in order, and by Saturday, he was almost feeling his old self, albeit with a nasty, still-knitting gash that would require close minding. They had had to cut his hair on that side of his head to tend it, which gave him a slightly mangy look that he disliked, so Miranda fetched the shears and evened it out. "There," she said dryly, with a final snip. "I'm not certain that our most pressing concern is your vanity, my dear, but there you are."

"Better." Flint inspected his new trim critically in Violet's hand mirror. It had been a long week for everyone – needing to take care of him, wanting to further their investigation into Gold but also wanting to stay close to home in the event of another attack, and waiting tersely for another potential instruction or complication from Gideon – and tempers, while holding reasonably well given the strain, were still fraying around the edges. No constables had beaten down the door to accuse them of collaboration with the Jacobites, at least, so that seemed to remain secret enough, and perhaps the tip that David had given the redcoat captain had led the authorities to nab some of the conspirators. Flint had not wanted them to question Charlotte without him, so Violet and Lucy had been over at the Bell household for most of the week, to keep up a casual, unsuspicious conversation and otherwise not startle Charlotte into running if she thought they were onto her. What there was to be "on" to, if there was anything at all, they still had no idea.

"I don't think you're ready to jump back into full action quite yet," Emma said, as Flint appeared to leap out of the chair and do just that. "You might be able to go visit Charlotte with us, but even then, we're not getting information out of her if you just – "

"If he behaves like himself, you mean," Miranda supplied briskly, unscrewing a small tin of liniment, dabbing up a few fingers, and carefully applying it to Flint's wound. "Do you suppose you could possibly manage not to, James?"

Flint hitched his face up into a hideous simulacrum of a friendly smile. "Does that help?"

"Not at all, really." Miranda continued her examination to see how the flesh was granulating, seemed moderately satisfied by what she found, took the fresh-boiled cotton wool and clean bandages from Emma, and began to tie up the new dressing. "As an old friend once told you, you will need to keep your temper for the duration of the meeting, not merely its inception. One hole in your head is quite enough for you to be getting on with."

Wisely warned by the shortness in her tone not to make any more remarks of his own, Flint held his tongue and sat still until his wife had finished her work, was then not pleased by his resulting partial resemblance to an Egyptian mummy, and sought about for a hat to disguise the infirmity. The only one he could find was a battered old tricorne of Henry's, that when he put it on made him look rather like a villainous highwayman (this impression being, after all, not entirely inaccurate) and which was strengthened when he shrugged on his cuffed black cavalier's coat and slung his pistol bandolier over his shoulder. "I swear, I won't shoot unless someone shoots at me first," he said, in response to Emma and Miranda's renewed askance glances. "But I'm still not walking in unarmed."

Sensing that this was clearly the best they were going to get, the women fetched their own cloaks and shoes and made ready to go. They had decided that it should be the three of them to question Charlotte, as they knew the most about Gold and any link she might have with him, and if it did go sour, it could be blamed on them without tainting Charlotte's friendship with Henry and Violet. Flint, of course, was of the opinion that if this was the case, good riddance, but Emma and Miranda hoped that they could restrain it from undue manifestation. Henry had tentatively gone back to the print shop, as he needed to work to support his family, so David was left in charge of protecting Violet and the children. He had taken quite well to his role as surrogate grandfather; he and Mary Margaret had no children of their own, and he was to be observed playing with Lucy and Richard in the back garden as they left. Flint shot him a very dark look over his shoulder, but for once, did not comment.

It was a pale, breezy, early-September day, the very slightest edge taken off the worst of the summer heat. As they set off down the lane, it only being a brief walk to the Bells, Flint said abruptly, "It's Sam's birthday tomorrow, isn't it?"

"Yes." Emma had not forgotten that tomorrow was the seventh, as she had not forgotten Killian's birthday a fortnight ago, and her heart twisted. It was getting harder and harder to repress the unbearable thought that she might never see her younger son again. "We. . . we should have supper. To mark the occasion."

"You don't think – " Flint started, then stopped. "Never mind."

"No. What?"

"You don't think a young man of Sam's. . . talents, who traipsed off to fight with overheated notions of chivalry and gallantry, who has been getting into trouble before he could walk, and cannot tell a lie to save his life, might have become embroiled in some other mess apart from just the war? If someone in the army worked out who he was, if they found themselves in need of an assistant or an underling for some excursion or endeavor or what have you, is there not a chance they'd settle on Sam? I'd pick the boy from the notorious family of pirates, since I'd know there was a nearly unlimited supply of ways to ensure his compliance. Sam could never resist an adventure, no matter how hare-brained. So. . .?"

Emma glanced at Flint with one eyebrow raised in the way that Killian did so well, as she thought it was a bit rich of him to be casting stones at anyone else for their proclivity toward hare-brained adventures. Still, the rest of what he was saying made a certain amount of sense, both oddly reassuring and further worrying. If Sam had been recruited into a side job or personal favor for someone, that could indeed be the reason he had not come home, rather than that he was badly injured or dead. However, it also meant that he could be literally bloody anywhere in the New World, in God knew what circ*mstances, with God knew which consequences for failure (or, for that matter, success). There was always the possibility that he had made it back to Savannah with the English army's retreat, been extremely puzzled to find his entire family gone with not even a note, and settled in to wait until they got home, but that was most unlike him. He'd set out to look for them at least, and something else, that lingering sense that Emma could only categorize as motherly intuition, continued to tell her that this was not the case. She didn't think he was dead, or simply could not seriously entertain the possibility and stay sane, but she didn't think he was safe, either. Oh God, where are you?

"I don't know," she said heavily, after a moment. "We still can't find out right now. Come on."

They reached the Bell residence in a few more moments, went up the front steps, and knocked. All of them were doubtless wondering if there would be some excitement in its answering, but after a moment, the latch clicked, and Charlotte opened the door. "Yes, can I – oh."

"Good morning, Mrs. Bell." Emma tried to make her voice as polite and pleasant as possible. "Could we by any chance have a word?"

Charlotte's eyes flickered warily to Flint's guns. "Is something wrong?"

"No. We'd just. . . well. Only a few questions, I promise."

Charlotte considered for a moment, then stepped back and beckoned them inside more or less graciously. The house was smaller than the Swans', and nearly devoid of possessions; it was very clean and well kept, but sparsely furnished and lightly lived in. Charlotte led them through to a sitting room with a threadbare divan and one armchair; Cecilia was playing on the floor with a rag doll, but glanced up in startlement at the adults' entrance. "Run upstairs to your room, Ceci," Charlotte said firmly. "Go on, hurry."

"But Aunt Charlie – "

"Room. Now. Off with you."

Cecilia picked up her doll and scuttled out, not without a frightened look at Flint. At Charlotte's gesture, he, Emma, and Miranda squashed themselves onto the divan, and she herself sat neatly in the armchair, smoothing her skirts. As if anticipating what they were going to ask, she said, "I did not send that man after you."

"I believe you," Emma promised. "But it's possible you know something that can help us find who did. Did you speak to anyone about anything you might have heard – or inferred – from Violet?"

"I was asking a few questions at the docks," Charlotte said, after a pause. "It could be that some of the men I approached were connected to the ones dealing with you, but I did not explicitly say anything about you, or tell them where to find you."

"And yet they knew exactly how to thwart our plan," Flint said coolly. "Why is that, would you suggest?"

"I don't know." Charlotte glared at him, and Emma could not help but be impressed that this young, pretty, brown-haired girl was managing to hold her own against a man who had terrified many other full-grown, much older men. "They made a lucky guess."

"I don't believe in lucky guesses."

Miranda cleared her throat. "Might I point out," she said, "that the success of the stratagem did not necessarily rest on intimate knowledge of ours. Of course they would have the wits to carry out their illicit activities as normally and unsuspiciously as possible, not because they were craftily suspecting us of some devious attempt to ambush them. The events at the rendezvous point itself can be entirely explained by a drop of common sense on their part – a quality I note to be rather lacking among certain other participants in them – so the only question we would have genuine need to clarify Mrs. Bell's role in is whether she sent the assassin. And as she herself killed the man, I for one concur with Emma that this is signally and insultingly unlikely!"

Despite himself, Flint's mouth twitched. "It's a pity they don't let women be barristers," he remarked. "I'm fairly sure you would put the fear of God into the lot of them."

"Perhaps I should start by putting some into you." Miranda clearly had still not forgiven him for his near-death capers. "Now, shall we continue the conversation constructively, or do you have something else to divert us with, my dear?"

"No," Flint said politely. "Please, proceed."

Miranda gave him one last extremely pointed look, then turned back to Charlotte. "Excusing my husband's rudeness," she said, "we have had a difficult fortnight. And we also think we may have an inkling as to who was potentially responsible for at least some of it. Have you ever, by chance, met a Lord Robert Gold?"

All of them watched Charlotte's face very hard at that, but there was not even a flicker of momentary recognition. "No," she said, baffled. "I recall the name from somewhere, but I've never met him. Besides, isn't he dead?"

"That is what we would like to know," Emma said. "He was considerably dangerous to us in the past, and I doubt his opinion has improved at all. On that note, I do have to ask if you could help us in some way, and what brought you to Philadelphia. Who exactly is Jack?"

Charlotte hesitated, as she always did when the subject arose. Finally she said, "Oh, very well. He's my husband."

"Is there some reason you couldn't tell us that before?" Flint asked, somewhat less sarcastically than he otherwise might have.

"It's – never mind." Charlotte sighed. "Anyway, yes. Two years ago. We escaped England, but couldn't bring A – my friend. Believe me, we had tried."

"All right," Emma said, trying to keep them on course. "What does Jack do?"

"He's a – he's a soldier."

"And where is he presently?"

"Somewhere in the Caribbean. He was taking a job to make us some money and help liberate my friend. As you can see – " Charlotte gestured at the shabby, bare sitting room – "we are hardly living in the lap of luxury. I still have a little money left, but that's not much, and I don't expect it will stretch beyond another few weeks. Otherwise, I'll have to think of something else."

"I have some money." Emma remembered painfully well what it was like to struggle to feed yourself and a young child, and the constant worry that it would run short. "I'll see you and Cecilia taken care of."

Charlotte looked at her awkwardly, surprised but not unwilling. "I – that would help. Thank you."

"That is all very well and good." Flint clearly thought that all this tender concern for women and children was rather sorely beside the point. "Why don't you know where Jack is? Who is his commanding officer? Why all this secrecy about who he is and what the both of you are doing? Why are you so determined to get this friend of yours out of France? Is it possible, say, that you and Jack are not married at all, and this is some clever deception in service of – I don't know what, exactly, would you care to f*cking enlighten us?"

Both Emma and Miranda started to say something at once, outraged, but Charlotte held up a hand, white-faced, eyes snapping. Then she whirled around and marched out of the sitting room, leaving Flint to be thoroughly glared at by his womenfolk. "If I ever get my hands on this Jack," he muttered, "we will see who thinks they're the clever little – "

For a moment, they thought Charlotte had simply stormed out and put an end to the visit (Emma could not exactly blame her if so) but then they heard angry footsteps on the stairs again, and Charlotte returned with a neatly folded piece of paper, which she unfurled and took the liberty of thrusting directly under Flint's nose. "Does that," she enquired, with truly impressive icy courtesy, "possibly answer some of your questions?"

Flint, Miranda, and Emma looked down at it. It was a marriage certificate from the city of London, issued by a parish church in Marylebone, confirming that on 21 May 1738, Miss Charlotte Goode and Mr Jack Howe had been joined in the bonds of Holy Matrimony. It was duly signed by the priest, Charlotte, a bold black scrawl that must have been Jack's, and two witnesses; by the looks of things, their surnames were Goode as well. This did shut Flint up for a few moments as to whether the marriage was real, but he quickly found another thing to harp on about. "Jack Howe? Haven't you been telling us that his name – your name – is Bell?"

"It is his name," Charlotte snapped. "Howe was his father's name, and his father is – was – a monster. He uses his mother's name now instead. Any other questions?"

"Oh, plenty." Flint started to get to his feet. "And if you don't feel in the mood to provide some actual substantive answers – "

Emma and Miranda both grabbed at his arms, but Charlotte was faster. Evidently the marriage certificate was not the only thing she had gone upstairs to fetch, and she plunged a hand into her skirt pocket, whipped out a pistol, co*cked it with an expert flick of her thumb, and pointed it directly at him. "Believe me," she said. "I don't want this at all. But you know how good a shot I am. Try to hurt me or Ceci, and I will do it, I swear."

Concerned though she was that Flint might get another perforation in his already aired-out skull, Emma could not help but further admiring this – as a former female pirate captain, she was quite sure that Charlotte would have made an excellent one. If Jack was anything like her, no wonder they were such a formidable match. Nonetheless, despite the strong possibility of him deserving it, Emma could not let her aged father suffer a second serious injury in a fortnight, and she got to her feet, moving between them with hands outstretched, as if to separate a young lioness from tackling a grey-maned elder statesman of the pride. "Everyone, take a breath and sit back down. Especially you, James."

Slowly, not taking their eyes off each other, Flint and Charlotte backed to their respective items of furniture and did as ordered. Charlotte put the gun back, but her hands remained tightly knotted in her lap, her eyes flickering to the ceiling in clear alarm that Cecilia had heard the uproar. "I don't know what else you can get from me," she said. "I don't know where Gold is. I don't work for him. I didn't send the assassin."

"All right," Flint said grudgingly, surprising everyone. "But if so, one last question. You know who I am, don't you? You said so, when I caught you snooping. You called us pirates."

"I. . . guessed a few things, yes." Charlotte's lips tightened. "You have been plastered over half the broadsheets and bill-papers in London, you know. And given what Henry's said about his family, I. . . read between the lines."

"Clever girl." Flint likewise had to recognize a display of skill from a rival, however unwillingly, and he raised a gingery eyebrow. "But then, if we're taking you at your word, you didn't rush to alert the authorities about us. Did not tell them that the fearsome Captain Flint was strolling in their very midst. Even expressed your interest in having me potentially work for you – in a rather unorthodox fashion, but never mind. So could we perhaps infer in reverse that you and your husband are no allies of the English crown, and that whoever Jack is working for in the Caribbean, even if not Gold, is bloody well not King George?"

Charlotte blinked. Then she wet her lips, clearly taking a moment to think about her answer. Remarkably skilled as she might be at this game, Flint had been playing it since before she was born, and Emma herself was a step behind him on this; she had not realized that he had put the pieces together to turn the question on its head. There was a silence in which the only sound was the ticking of the carriage clock on the mantel. Then Charlotte said reluctantly, "No. It's not King George."

"So you two are Jacobites, then?" Flint moved to the next most logical option on the list with surgical precision. "Part of the network here, so you might hear things about what we were doing – and what Gideon Murray wanted – whether or not we told you?"

"No," Charlotte said. "We're not Jacobites."

"So. . ." Flint considered, for a long, fraught moment. "That leaves. . . who, exactly?"

"He's a free agent," Charlotte said, almost defiantly. A brief gleam of pride lit her eyes. "He works where the money takes him."

"A mercenary?" Flint's lips went thin. Not necessarily due to any moral objection to the vocation, but because the last mercenary they had tangled with was Henry Jennings, a prospect to chill the very soul. "Who's he working for now?"

"Why should I tell you?"

"Because," Flint said. "I think you know that we're more your folk than the mindless, loyalist sheep of His Majesty's Britannic Government. Your choice. I could be wrong."

Charlotte considered them closely. She opened her mouth, shut it, and started again. Then at last she said, "Jack works for the Spanish. He has since we came here. It was the best way to get close enough to France, and there were other attractions. With the war, there's been plenty to occupy hm. So there. Are you going to turn me in as a traitor?"

"You know I won't, or you wouldn't have told me." Flint shrugged. The two of them were once more staring intently at each other, locked in a high-stakes chess match, testing the other's gambits and defenses. "Well. That does explain your secrecy, I will grant you. And why you felt comfortable with Violet, once you'd worked out who we were – there was at least a better-than-even chance that you would not be hanged as the result of an unguarded comment. But if Jack works for the Spanish, while originally an Englishman, he must be a quite convincing actor himself, as well as having several interesting connections. What if we were in fact to strike a bargain? If you were to help us find Robert Gold, we would rescue this friend of yours from France. Depending on where my son-in-law has ended up, it might be on the bloody way anyway. What do you say?"

A brief, vulnerable, desperate hope flickered in Charlotte's eyes at this, as much as she tried to hide it. "Oh?"

"Can you help us find Robert Gold?"

"I know a few of Jack's contacts," Charlotte said cautiously. "Only by name, we've never actually met. He was working with Governor Montiano in Florida, I know that much. There was some traffic with Governor Güemes of Cuba, as well."

Everyone's eyebrows went up at this, as these were some of the highest-ranking Spanish officials in the New World – no wonder Charlotte had been closed-mouthed, if anything, any word she did not consider carefully might lead hostile parties down this dangerous path after her. "If this Gold is who I think he is, though, he won't be hiding among the Spaniards. He'll have some base in an English territory. The obvious starting point might be Antigua, but – "

Flint grimaced. "We'd all rather avoid Antigua if we could help it."

"I don't think he'd be there," Emma said. "It would be too obvious. He prefers to lurk in the shadows, just off the side of things, and if he returned to Antigua, the word would be out at once. He needs secrecy to operate, it's where he thrives. Jamaica, likewise, is too high-profile. We know he's not on Nassau, we'd certainly have heard, and he's not remotely foolish enough to try his luck there. Much too dangerous."

"So that leaves what, only a few dozen islands to narrow it down to?" Flint scowled ferociously. "Perhaps if we sail around to each of them, hat in hand, we'll have gotten half done by Christmas? If we're not dead, that is?"

"Well," Charlotte said. "Some of them are out. A man like that needs at least some structure to operate, doesn't he? No good to have cunning plots if you're in the middle of nowhere and can't do anything about them. So somewhere lower-profile, but with enough connections to run his empire. That would rule out the smaller islands or places that are too far off the beaten path. That still leaves a list, yes, but a shorter one."

Flint looked at her appraisingly. "Are you coming, then?"

"I can't leave Cecilia," Charlotte said, "and I am not sure I could justify bringing her into danger. Jack's last assignment was supposed to be finished weeks ago, though, and he's not been this late before. He was planning to bring back the money for us before he took a new posting, and. . ."

"Well," Emma said. "It happens we have a few family members likewise unaccounted for, and we can't leave Henry and his family alone here either. If you were to bring your niece with them. . . my brother Charles works on Nassau, and has plenty of connections there. Besides, it was our home, a long time ago. I think we could find something for Violet and the children."

"You do remember what happened when we let Thomas and Jenny go there?" Flint demanded.

"Of course I remember," Emma said, a bit shortly. "But at least Silver isn't there anymore, is he? Not to mention, Nassau would be the best place for us to start our hunt for Gold. It has its ear to the ground on most, if not all, of the Caribbean's sordid gossip. If there is any whisper of some shadowy deal broker, anything like that, any hint of Gold doing what he does, if we are in fact chasing the real man and not just the ghost, someone on Nassau will know. Besides, I thought you wanted to go back?"

"I – " Flint struggled visibly. "I said I couldn't go back, that Captain Flint once more setting foot on Nassau's shores would set off a total f*cking firestorm. Of course they would know something, they always know something, but is it worth the risk? And not just me, but all of us."

"I think we're rather past such calculations, aren't we?" Miranda looked weary. "I can't say I'm particularly eager to see the place again either, but if it is what will give us what we need, we shall have to simply grit our teeth and do it. You know we will never be truly safe again, if Robert Gold is alive and has once more made himself a position in which to interfere with our lives. If he is not, and it is only conjecture and baseless fear, we are reprieved, we can return to our other difficulties. But I do think it would explain a great deal if many of those difficulties were discovered to originate from Gold, and that we could douse the bonfire itself, rather than dashing about in a vain attempt to smother each ember."

Flint, Emma, and Charlotte looked back at her with a variety of expressions. Finally Flint said softly, "My sweet, you shouldn't have to – "

"I've made it this far – in better shape than you, I might add – and someone has to be the voice of reason, James." Miranda got to her feet with only a slight wince. "You yourself already noted that it would be quite relevant to our present entanglement with Lord Murray if we were to find his father. And perhaps you and I always knew that we would have to face Nassau once more in our lives. If we already managed Charlestown, perhaps this is not so terrible – at least we were happy there, once, perhaps. So if Mrs. Bell and her niece are willing to accompany us, then yes, I say we go. Emma?"

Emma hesitated. To her, this felt as if it might take attention away from the job of finding Killian, even as she agreed with Miranda that none of them would be safe as long as Gold lived. But she could not deny that there seemed to be a slow-moving avalanche pushing them further and further in the direction of the Caribbean. Nassau, Skeleton Island, Gold's possible hideout – and, if Flint's earlier speculation was anywhere close to accurate, her son Sam could be somewhere down there as well. That alone was reason enough to agree, and Emma had a feeling that if either Gold or Killian caught the slightest whiff of the other's presence, they would go to any length to pursue a confrontation. Killian had never forgiven the man for destroying his life, and Gold was likewise the sort to hold grudges until Judgment Day, especially considering the ruin of his schemes – he would want to force a reckoning. As much as the prospect frightened her, if she found Gold, she very well might also find Killian.

"Aye," Emma said, and set her shoulders. "I say we go."

It was after dusk when Killian and Regina finally left the Admiralty, faced with the prospect of either rushing to the docks to arrange passage to Barbados immediately, or spending what was sure to be an extremely chilly night in some cut-rate Covent Garden lodging house (which, if Killian knew Covent Garden at all, would come with at least three floozies eager to help him warm things up). Both of them were extremely hungry, having not really eaten since yesterday morning in France, so they stopped long enough to buy a pasty from a food seller on her way home for the evening. Killian wolfed his down in about three bites, and even Regina did not manage to be much more dignified. There was nearly a moment where they smiled ruefully at each other, but awkwardness reasserted itself almost at once. The damp wind whisked at Killian's jacket and Regina's skirt, reminding them that they should see about accommodation one way or the other, and they made their way to one of the many public houses along the docks, which catered to sailors and merchants and passengers about to embark. It was dark and grimy and smelled as if something had long ago died in their attic kingdom, but at least it was a roof to keep the rain off, and they'd trawl the ships at first light tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.

Killian, however, barely noticed. He once more could not sit or rest, possessed of a manic energy that translated even less well to a tiny garret than it had to the Navy record office. Finally Regina, having had more than her utmost limit, exploded, "Bloody hell! If you don't sit down right now, I swear I don't care what Liam would think, I'm killing you!"

Killian, who had been in the middle of running through a feverishly detailed fantasy of how slowly was too slowly to strangle Gold (a question of exceptional mathematical precision, especially when you only had one hand) whirled on her. He was more than ready for her to actually try something, not that he thought she would give him the satisfaction. "Oh, as if you have ever cared what Liam would – "

"I've been his wife for twenty-two years. I do care what he thinks." Regina stared him down. "And for all you claim that you're doing this to protect your family, I'm not the one who has been spiraling uncontrollably down a black hole of vengeance this entire time. You're doing exactly what you hold against Liam. You're not taking responsibility for what you want, and are disguising it in some grander purpose of sacrifice for your loved ones."

That, despite himself, hit Killian hard. "I'm not – " he said, somewhat less than certainly. "You already agreed that we should go to Barbados, that we – "

"I have to admit," Regina said, cutting over him, "I'm not a selfless person. That is how I've managed to keep your lunkhead brother alive all these years, because he genuinely never thinks of himself. But he's not really living. He gets through the days, he manages them, he endures. He's not happy, he's not unhappy, he just is. For all you used to think that you needed him, that you couldn't live without him, he's had a far harder time living without you than you have without him. I know you're a grown man, can't go back and be his little brother again, and he would not want that for you. Now you're asking me to give up the one thing I have, asking Liam to give up the one thing he has, and seeming to enjoy how much it hurts both of us. And after everything he's done for you, no matter your opinion of its morality or necessity or methods, and after I have watched him struggle for over twenty years with what he's done for you and your family and what happened that last night in Charlestown, when I tried everything I know to save Miranda McGraw, after I thought Jennings was going to kill Liam, rape me, desecrate Miranda's body, and do God alone knows what to Henry and Geneva, after Liam finally, finally killed him but part of him died for good as a result – how dare you talk about what Liam feels. How dare you mock me for it. How dare you."

Killian felt as if she had swung something very heavy into his face. He tried to speak, but only a faint croaking noise came out. He was tempted to reach down and feel if he still only had one arsehole. "I. . ." he managed at last. "Regina, I. . ."

She held up a hand. "Save the speeches for Liam. If we ever find him, or if it's just more important to do anything else but. In which case, be so good as to tell me. You have the right to do whatever stupid thing you want, I can't take that away from you. But I want to know, so I can leave before it's too late. If you truly think that I might find him by going to Barbados with you, I'll go. Otherwise, I'll make my own arrangements. My concern for you on Liam's behalf extended as far as getting you out of France. Now that's done. I have no obligation to save you from another reckless revenge quest, and neither does he. But he wouldn't share that opinion, would once more twist himself in half trying to stop you, and he can't do that again and survive. So. What's the truth?"

"You were. . . right," Killian said, after a moment. "With what you said earlier, about me punishing him. I have, for a long time, and. . . I'm not proud of it, but I have. But remember, Lady Fiona is Gold's sister. If she is anything like him, she'll want to gloat, she'll want to rub it in. I don't know if they're working together, but I doubt it. Power is never absolute as long as someone else has any of it, after all, and those two would never play nice together. Liam is nearly as delicious for Gold to torment as I am, so of course Lady Fiona would want to dangle him under her brother's nose and then jerk him back. If nothing else, she'll want to eliminate him as a rival and competitor. If she knows he's in Barbados, and I am betting you anything he does, she'll go."

Regina considered this. "Take your brother to settle scores with her brother?" she said. "How. . . symmetrical. I don't deny it's the sort of thing to appeal to a certain kind of twisted mind. And that is a better argument than anything you gave me in the Admiralty. But if you're wrong – "

"Then I'm wrong, aren't I? That happens. There would be nothing else I could do about it. I'm not going to deny I want to get to grips with Gold. I want it very badly. And I also think that my family is in danger as long as he lives. But I also think there is a very good chance that Liam will, in fact, be involved somewhere in this. Bloody hell, they can't have left that far ahead of us, and if they are going to Barbados as well, we could catch them up. Come on, love. Trust me. Just a little. I know I don't deserve it, but. . . we have to start somewhere."

Regina looked at him uncertainly. He could tell that, significantly against her natural instincts, she almost wanted to. That, however, would also involve Killian trusting himself to deal with this logically, not keep pushing and pushing just in the name of getting to Gold, and not to completely lose the forest for the trees. He knew himself well enough to admit that this would be difficult for him, and he had already made a fine start at flying off the handle, but nothing had not yet been done that could not be taken back. He could calm down, take a deep breath, try to rid himself of that nearly mystical madness that the mere mention of Robert Gold's name had the power to conjure over him. Both he and Regina held grudges sometimes past all sense or justification, to the point the ones they were hurting the most were themselves, and yet, if they were to make any success of this, those painful, decades-old resentments would have to be chipped at, loosened, shifted somehow. And in the question of who Killian wanted hurt for old sins more, Liam or Gold, it was not even remotely close to a contest. The silence lingered.

"Fine," Regina said, breaking the spell. "We should get some sleep."

This was easier said than done, as they were kept awake half the night by the creaking of the stairs, the boom of a nearby church bell relentlessly sounding the hours, and the nonstop wheezing of the bloke on the other side of the thin plaster wall, who was apparently dying of consumption on the instant (at least if he did, it might be quieter). They finally dropped off for a few hours, were rattled awake by the dawn carillon, and got dressed. There was still a lingering stiffness in the air, but they seemed slightly more cordial than yesterday, and they managed to collect their things, head out, and obtain breakfast without a major argument.

This accomplished, then began the unappetizing prospect of searching the docks for a captain willing to take them to Barbados on Regina's limited remaining funds, and not ask too many questions about their names and business. Some of the merchants were planning to return to the West Indies for the winter, but did not want to put themselves to the trouble of passengers, and Killian felt an instinctive revulsion at the idea of approaching any of the vessels flying the distinctive ensign of the East India Company, red-and-white-striped with the Union Jack in the upper left corner. On the one hand, the Company was not hand in glove with the British government, as they hated Westminster's constant attempts to tax their lucrative proceeds and interfere with their independent bylaws. On the other hand, they for obvious reasons regarded pirates as the scum of the earth, and all it took was one of them to have heard of Captain Hook to blow the whole thing sky-high. Gold probably had all manner of friends in the Company as well, who would be more than happy to drop his mortal enemy in his lap, trussed up like a chicken.

After they had been turned down half a dozen times, Killian was starting to get desperate. There were not terribly many vessels left to try, and it was either the last sailing of the season or close to it; it was this or nothing. He had just started to wonder what the odds were of swimming to Barbados when a voice called, "Sir? Madam? Are you in need of something?"

Startled, Killian and Regina turned to behold a handsome older gentleman of possibly Indian appearance, with a shaved head, keen dark eyes, and a navy-blue, gold-trimmed caftan and polished boots. "My apologies for surprising you," he said. "I could not help but notice that you have been canvassing the docks for some time. What is it you are in search of?"

"Ah, well. We're in search of passage. To the Caribbean, actually, but it doesn't seem there's anything bloody left."

"I am sailing for the Caribbean in two days." The gentleman raised an eyebrow. "Have you asked me yet?"

"Wh – you have a ship?"

"I do, yes. Where are you wishing to go?"

"Barbados," Killian said, watching the gentleman's face closely. "Bridgetown."

There was no particular knowing look or flicker at that, and the gentleman nodded. "That is not far from where we are bound. If you are willing, I can take you."

Killian was about to accept, then stopped. He could not help but wonder if such a generous offer, the apparent answer to their prayers, came with some nasty strings attached. "What does it cost? Exactly?"

"I am a wealthy man. I do not have particular need of money. If you wish to pay me, of course I shall accept, but it is not necessary." The gentleman inclined his head. "Captain Nemo, at your service."

"Ah – Killian Jones, at yours." Perhaps he should have tried harder to think of an alias, but the truth occurred to him too instinctively. He took Nemo's offered hand, and they shook. "This is my sister-in-law, Regina."

"Madam." Nemo took her hand in turn, and kissed it. "If you would follow me, I can show you the ship. Then you can decide if you wish to take passage."

Cautious, but curious, Killian and Regina followed him to the eastern end of the docklands, the less desirable spaces where foreign merchants without London connections or regular bribes paid to the port authorities were sequestered. Nemo led them across the labyrinth of quays to the place where a large three-masted junk, built in the Chinese style with angular, pleated sails, rode at anchor. The hull was varnished in smooth black lacquer, the name inscribed on the high stern in polished red letters, both in English and what Killian thought was one of the South Asian languages, which he could not be sure. NAUTILUS/நாட்டிலஸ்.

Nemo was watching them avidly, as if waiting to see if the sight of such a decidedly non-European ship would shock their delicate sensibilities beyond all speech, but he seemed somewhat pleased when it did not. "If she is to your satisfaction," he said, "we depart two days from now, on the morning tide. Do you agree?"

"Ah – yes. Yes, thank you. It's just – I'm grateful, mate, believe me. But why are you helping us?"

Nemo smiled faintly. "Perhaps I felt you needed it."

"We – well, we do. But. . ." Killian wasn't even sure why he was pushing so hard, but to say the least, he had had enough of voyages under unexplained circ*mstances, with unknown masters. "What do you want? Really?"

Nemo considered for a moment. Then he said, "Did you know a man named Edward England?"

"Er – yes, I did." Killian blinked. Edward England had been Charles Vane's quartermaster after Jack Rackham vacated the post, a genial, gentlemanly Irish rascal whom Killian had worked with during the defense and battle of Nassau, and who had invited Killian to come with him to continue his pirate escapades in the Indian Ocean. "I'm going to guess you met him. What happened to him?"

"He died. Quite a while ago. He was marooned on Mauritius with a few of his men, after he refused to kill the captain of a ship his crew had taken. They mutinied and stranded him. After a few months, they managed to sail to St. Augustine's Bay in Madagascar, which was where I met him. He was deathly ill of tropical fever, and indeed he passed away just a few days later. But he had much to say. The natural wish of a man facing mortality and wishing to have his life remembered, his conscience cleared. I myself had recently traveled from Philadelphia, where I had taken another man of England's old acquaintance. We spoke at length. The conversation has stayed with me." Nemo shrugged. "You are the Killian Jones, yes? Captain Hook."

"I. . . yes." Killian blinked again. "Wait – another man of England's acquaintance? Another pirate, you mean? Who did you take to Philadelphia?"

"When we picked him up in his makeshift ketch," Nemo said, "he called himself only Odysseus. Like England, he had too had been marooned on a small island for some time, and had been without human society for at least a year. As he returned somewhat to his wits, he told me that his real name was James. It had once been Flint. He was no longer certain if it still was."

"Y – " Killian's jaw dropped. "Bloody hell! You were the one who rescued Flint from Skeleton Island?!"

"You know him too, I assume?"

"Aye, he's my father-in-law! He and his wife adopted my wife as their daughter a long time ago. We've never known how exactly he escaped, or what happened there. Did he. . . did he tell. . .?"

"That was over twenty years ago," Nemo said. "And what he did say was often less than coherent. I remember nothing that would be particularly enlightening to you."

"Oh." Killian could not help a slight disappointment, even as he wondered if Nemo was being entirely truthful. "Well. You've certainly already done a great service to our family, then. We would be even further indebted for another."

"It is no trouble," Nemo repeated. "Truly. Two days from now?"

"Aye. Two days."

Said two days were less than enjoyable, not least because it rained without cessation and they were trapped in the upstairs room of another dubious lodging house, but it finally cleared the night before, as they went aboard so as to be ready to leave with the ship at dawn. They scarcely had much luggage, though Killian had at least managed to acquire one other set of clean clothes, and the junk was large enough, with multiple small bamboo-walled cabins, that he and Regina could have their own apiece, which was a bloody relief. Everything was crisp and tidy, with a berth and desk of teakwood, a painted screen covered with whimsical designs from some Chinese tale, and small books of fine onionskin paper, calligraphed in elegant characters.

Nemo's crew looked to be of the same pastiche, some Chinese and Japanese, some Ceylonese or Indian like their captain, others North African Mussulmen, still more with the look of Pacific islanders from even more far-flung places. There were at least a dozen languages spoken on board, though Tamil was the lingua franca, and the language in which Nemo gave his orders and communicated decisions; those less fluent got a friend to translate into their particular tongue. Several of them also spoke English, until Killian – himself a reasonably multilingual man, who could count reading of Greek and Latin, and a bit of spoken French and half-remembered Irish to his credit – was thoroughly impressed at their versatility. If he was going to have some time on his hands during the voyage, he should try to pick up at least one.

Killian slept, to his considerable surprise, well that night, and awoke before sunrise, rolling out to dress and ready himself for departure. He was unlikely to be any use to the Nautilus' general functioning, but he was understandably not keen to spend any extra time belowdecks, and emerged topside to watch the crew check the tide, unfurl the sails, and set course. The Chinese method of navigation was via astrolabe, rather than by compass and chart, and Killian watched interestedly, he of course being a connoisseur of all things nautical and navigational. The junk moved away from the quay, beautifully out of place among the drab grey rooftops of London, and down the Thames, with a smoothness like silk or polished glass. Mist rose in ethereal silver vapor from the surface of the river, creating the impression that they sailed within a fine crystal orb, forever seeking the edge but never quite reaching it, doubled back again, circled upon itself. The distant black specks of seabirds winged overhead as the stars began to fade, the smell of the air changing as they reached the estuary and prepared to enter the Channel. Killian supposed he could wave at France again as they went by.

The golden horizon was behind them as they pointed west, the rising sun slowly spilling over the high deck. Still conscious of staying out of the crew's way, Killian could nonetheless not help but investigate further. The Nautilus carried a full complement of cannon, the mouths of the guns carved like roaring dragons so that they would breathe flame when fired, and to judge from the speed they were already making, she could easily outstrip heavier, slower square-riggers. Killian wondered what exactly it was that Nemo did; surely it was not merely charity errands for stranded pirates? The ship bore signs of far travel and hard use, and he felt a brief, unexpected pang of nostalgia, of jealousy. Not that he would trade his family and his settled life and home for anything, but Nemo must have traveled the entire world, to far uncharted lands, to places that one could only dream, seen sights beyond imagination, had grand and thrilling adventures. Some part of the temptation remained in Killian too, the ever-constant lure of the sea and everywhere it could carry you. I chose, though. And I am choosing again.

"Do you like what you see, Captain Jones?"

Killian turned with a start, having been examining the star chart (at least so he thought it was) carved into the main mast, to see Nemo regarding him with an expression of gentle amusem*nt. "Oh no, you do not have to apologize," he said, as Killian straightened up hastily. "Your interest, as a seagoing man yourself, is natural. What do you think?"

"She's beautiful," Killian said honestly. "Made me miss my old girl – the Jolie Rouge. You haven't run across her, have you?" It was worth trying, if Nemo had made inadvertent acquaintances of several other old colleagues. "Formerly the Imperator, captained by Rackham and Bonny?"

"Not that I know of, no," Nemo said. "But some part of a captain's heart always belongs to his ship. This is not the first one I have sailed to bear the name of Nautilus, and I remember those as well, for different reasons. Would you like to walk with me?"

"I. . . yes." Killian was unexpectedly touched. He had of course been wishing he had someone to talk to, missing Sam, needing an equal, a sympathetic outsider who was not his family and was not beholden to that inner circle, but in whom he could confide, and he already felt that he might be able to do so with Nemo. He followed the captain up to the sterncastle, his hair whipping in the fresh breeze. After the dark, cramped, starving hell of his month aboard the Pan, it felt like a gift never again to be taken for granted. They came to a halt at the rail, surveying the goings-on below, and Killian asked, "So how many other Nautiluses have there been?"

"Two," Nemo said. "The first was the Indiaman that I served on, when I led the crew in an uprising, took over the ship, and set them all free, and we sailed as our own men thereafter. That, I think, is something familiar to you?"

"Aye." Killian laughed in rueful acknowledgement. "How did that happen? If you don't mind my asking?"

"Not at all." Nemo did not seem offended by his curiosity. "My father was the captain of a Barbary corsair, and my mother was one of the many daughters of the Mughal emperor. They were married as part of an attempt between the Ottoman and Mughal courts to form an alliance against their common enemy, the Persians – indeed, Nadir Shah sacked Delhi with tremendous ferocity just last year, and I fear it may be a blow from which my mother's people cannot recover, especially with Britain eyeing it like a hungry wolf. In any event, in retribution for my father's many successful raids – nobody took more slaves for the Ottomans than he – I was captured by the same British at the age of nine, and raised in service. That the son of such a prolific slave master should become shackled in bondage himself – it is perhaps only justice, though I certainly did not feel that way at the time. I was recognized to be intelligent and talented, and was placed on one of the East India Company's ships at sixteen. I was twenty-three when I overthrew her command and became captain instead. That was my first Nautilus. I sailed her for twelve years."

Nemo hesitated for a long moment. Then he said, "Soon after we took the ship,I fell in love with a young woman we rescued. She loved me as well, and we were married. We had a son. She wanted to leave the sea, to make a real home. I told her that we would, soon. But the East India Company did not forget that I had captured one of their ships so egregiously, dared to revolt, set a dangerous example. They viewed me as little better than an upstart pirate and a Barbary monster myself for those twelve years, and finally they caught up to me. There was a battle. We were outgunned. My Nautilus was destroyed and sunk. My wife and son drowned."

"I. . ." Killian recoiled from even trying to imagine it. "Christ, I'm sorry."

"I survived, obviously," Nemo said, "and became consumed with the desire for revenge. So if you follow, I wished revenge for their revenge for my revenge on their revenge on my father, at least. I captured my second Nautilus, a Spanish man-of-war, and gathered to me anyone who would help me in such an aim. If they promised me my objective, I listened, no matter how dangerous or forsaken such men might be, how empty their promises, or how little it would ultimately satiate me. This, I think, you will also recognize?"

"Aye," Killian said, much more slowly. He was unsettled for obvious reasons, given how he had spent the vast majority of his time since discovering Gold was alive, and the circ*mstances that had first precipitated his descent into Hook. He almost wanted to walk away before finishing this conversation, but he had a feeling that Nemo, however gently, was not going to let him. "And?"

Nemo shrugged. "It ended as it must. We attacked and destroyed a British ship near the coast of Norway, which we had mistaken for a Company vessel, hunting and pursuing many weeks to get it alone and without hope of aid. It was not. We realized that only when we had left no survivors. In my greed and blindness, we had drawn too near the dangerous water there, the place the locals call the Moskstraumen – the Maelstrom. It drew in the ship and pulled her under. For a second time, I survived the destruction of my Nautilus, but was left with nothing. Neither family nor revenge, neither pride in the past nor hope for the future."

He paused again, looking over the sea. "This is the third Nautilus," he said at last. "She sails as a free ship with free men, with those I have found in chains of one sort or another. We do not seek for anyone's revenge, or speak of our pasts, or bow to any country or crown – or hold them as our enemy. We fight only if attacked, and not before, nor for personal gain or worldly enrichment. This is the place where men come when they have put aside such old things."

Killian opened his mouth, then shut it. He reckoned that he and Nemo had to be nearly the same age, the other man perhaps three or four years older, and that perhaps their lives were bending on eerily similar trajectories, parallel and yet opposite. At last he said, "Which Nautilus did you rescue Flint with?"

"The first," Nemo said. "The Indiaman. The one I sailed as a younger man, the one I took from my captors with the strength of my own hands, with my wife and then my son at my side, when I still envisioned a home away from the sea. I took him to Philadelphia because I pitied him, this man so broken by the world as to barely recall his own name, so harrowed by revenge and grief and guilt that only a shell of him remained, and all had to be learned anew. I thought, then, the worst fate in the world would be to end up like him, and vowed that I never would, that of course I could prevent it by my efforts and worthiness. I was, of course, quite naïve."

Killian was quiet. It was clear to him that Nemo was a name chosen anew for this man as Hook had been for him, as Flint had been for James, but to quite the opposite purpose. He wanted to say something, but did not know what, especially when Nemo turned to him and said calmly, "So. Why is it that you and your sister-in-law are traveling to Barbados?"

"We. . ." Killian hesitated. He did not want to lie, especially after Nemo had just been so honest with him, but nor did he feel quite up to the truth. "I thought there might be an. . . old friend of mine there. I. . . it's been complicated."

"Of course," Nemo said courteously. "Life is scarcely anything less. The prospect of seeing an old friend, however, would normally make a man much more joyful."

Killian squirmed again. "Not a friend, exactly."

Nemo's expression said that he had suspected this, but he did not rub salt in the wound. He once more turned to regard the sea, until he said, "I imagine Captain Hook must have several such men, that he has darkly dreamed of seeing again. Would this be Robert Gold, then?"

"How did – " Killian stared at him, wondering if Nemo had also concealed a talent for reading minds, before it struck. "Ned England told you about our battle against him in Nassau, and his particular grudge against me. Didn't he."

"He did," Nemo said. "And I have heard other rumors, but never mind that. It must truly be an outstanding grudge, that it weighs so heavily against all else. Your sister-in-law. . . would that be your wife's sister, or your brother's wife? I suspect the latter."

"You suspect correctly." Killian stared down at his hand and hook on the railing. With that, since he could no longer help it, he told Nemo about Liam, and his resistance to seeing him again, and how long he had stayed away, and what Regina had said to him, and his own dawning, uncomfortable realization that she was right. That while constantly acknowledging and dwelling on his own flaws and failures, he had nonetheless become comforted by the idea that he was still better than Liam at grappling with them, that he was somehow more honest, more self-aware, braver. Had his own family now, and was determined, beyond all reason, to prove it.

Nemo did not interrupt as Killian spoke, listening politely until he was certain that he had finished. Then he said, "That is a sad story. I am sorry for both of you, that it has been this way."

"Aye." Killian found that his voice came hard, scraping in his throat. "Do you. . . do you think he's right? Or that I am?"

"I suspect it is altogether more complicated, as you yourself pointed out earlier." Nemo inclined his head. "But let me tell you – if you will indulge me once more – a story. Only a brief one, and this time not about myself. It is a story about when the Spanish conquistadores first arrived in the New World, several hundred years ago, and found a beautiful, glittering, advanced civilization. The Aztecs and the Incas had pyramids, had cities, had calendars and science and clean running water, had maps of the stars, had art and literature, had myths and legends, had – as all men do – their own bloodthirstiness and war. And what did the conquistadores see? What did they dream of? Gold. There must be mountains of it, they thought. There must be gold. They looked at the Aztec temples and saw the mosques of the Mussulman, the ever-present enemy of Christendom reborn, and so they called the men they met Turks. They judged them worthy to live, or not, depending on how much they thought they were like the Turks. Gold and savages. That is what they saw. Not what was there, but gold and savages. And so they destroyed everything, and set up the cross instead, and blessed themselves for a job well done. That is what happens, that is the damage that is done, which can never be taken back, when all a man sees is Gold."

Killian could not help but admire the elegance of this turn of phrase, even as he also could not miss the underlying warning. "So what? You think Regina's right? We should just go back to searching for Liam, and not – "

"You and your brother have had a long struggle," Nemo said. "I understand that. But I must ask what you are so frightened he can possibly take from you. You have parents-in-law, wife, sons, a daughter, grandchildren, friends, a long and rich life. Your brother and his wife have not. Not by your fault, but not by your innocence, either. You do not owe him anything, of course, nor does he to you. Yet I would have thought you might have found it in your heart to open the door you have so long held shut, just a crack, and see what light shone through."

"I thought – " Killian started, then stopped. He was grateful for the spray that blew on his face as he looked away. Finally he said, "I'm. . . I'm sorry."

"It is not your apology which I need," Nemo said. "Nor do you need my forgiveness. I note, however, that my crew, who have often lost their entire families, been torn from the land of their birth, who have served years or decades as slaves under white men, would think you exceptionally fortunate to have the dilemma of deciding whether or not to return to the bosom of the man who loved you first, and raised you as best he could. I do not recall the name my mother gave me. There must have been one, and sometimes if I strain, I can just remember the shape of her smile. But I do not remember what she called me. Nor I will not call myself by the name the British gave me, for that was never me, but an artifice of my overseers. I chose Nemo long ago, and it has served me well enough. But I would give anything in the world, journey anywhere, sacrifice anything, to hear my mother speak to me, and have her whisper my name once more, my true name. Yet you spurn your brother, when he lives still and wishes nothing more than to see you, and have done so for years, with no cost to you and much to him. As before, I understand why you stayed away. But it is my most honest verdict that it is an act of immeasurable and, one hopes for your sake not unforgivable, selfishness."

"I. . . always have been." Killian took a slow breath. "Selfish. In one way or another, and then I loved Emma, and married her, and had my children, and they were my world instead. I had no need for my own self anymore, not when I could give them everything, and see them happy. Perhaps I feared that if I looked again – and now I have – that I would discover that old selfish soul still lurking beneath. With Liam, with facing it, I. . . I did. I was."

"We are all terribly tender and torn-apart creatures," Nemo said. "It is to your great credit that you know so, as many selfish people never once do. I will not counsel you what to do one way or another. If you still wish to go to Barbados and confront Gold one last time, I will take you there. I only ask that you think, and think well, on what you mean to do, and if it is remotely worth what it will cost you."

Killian nodded, at a loss for words, and Nemo clapped a hand on his shoulder. Then, leaving him there with his thoughts, the captain turned and walked away.

They sailed steadily for the next several days. The Nautilus continued to make surpassing speed, and Nemo told Killian about the Chinese admiral Zheng He, the fifteenth-century explorer, soldier, and sailor who had been to Arabia, Africa, Java, and the Indian Ocean, with a vast fleet of over three hundred junks and thirty thousand men. He had made seven fabled voyages, rather like the fictional hero Sinbad of A Thousand and One Nights, the stories of which Nemo also knew well. He spoke at least eight languages, and seemed to be genuinely loved by his men; if he had plucked them from dire situations, perhaps that explained it, but Nemo said that he had never forced anyone to join or to stay. "If you found that you wished to serve with us for a time," he said, the fifth evening out, having invited Killian and Regina into his cabin for supper, "we would of course welcome you."

"I'm fifty-three and I've got one hand," Killian said wryly. "I've enjoyed this journey far more than my last one, but I'm not sure what use I'd be to you. Besides, either way, I have to get home to my family. I can't just run off for a lark without telling my wife."

"Of course," Nemo agreed. "In any event, the offer stands. What of your sons? Are they sailors too?"

"No. It's my daughter, Geneva, who's the captain in the family, and a damned good one." Killian grinned with pride. "My elder son – stepson, but no matter – Henry, is a teacher and printer, has a wife and two children. My younger son, Sam, he's. . . well, he's still making his way."

At that, he glanced sidelong at Regina, suddenly aware that it might be delicate to talk about his children in front of her, but she was perched almost on the edge of her seat, as if hungry to hear as much about them as she possibly could. Killian himself missed the lot of them so agonizingly that he would have happily held forth for hours, told both Regina and Nemo far more than they ever wanted to know, but at that moment, they were unexpectedly interrupted by a knock on the cabin door. Nemo called, "Come in."

It opened, and the first mate entered with a look of some anxiety. He crossed the floor, bent down, and spoke to Nemo in low-voiced Arabic, to which the captain listened with a slight frown. Then he stood up. "Excuse me," he said to Killian and Regina. "Mr. Rahman is of the impression that we are being pursued."

Both Killian and Regina stood up as well, as anyone on their tail was unlikely to be good news, and hastily followed Nemo out onto the deck. The late-evening gloaming had almost, but not quite, deepened to true black, and several crewmen were gathered on the stern, pointing at the sea behind them, as Nemo and his guests hurried up the stairs to look. One of the sailors handed his captain the spyglass, and Nemo peered at the darkening sea, as Killian strained his own eyes, not quite as keen as they had been. There was a low-lying fog bank about a thousand yards astern, in which could possibly – but not certainly – be discerned the outline and movements of what looked like another ship. If so, they were clearly trying to approach in secrecy, and for that matter, doing a good job of it. The lanterns were doused, and it was taking care not to sail ahead of the fog – a maneuver which required a skilled captain to pull off, well aware of the confluence of current, wind, and the ship's capabilities. Killian had a brief memory of a battle during the war of the Spanish succession, almost forty years ago now, when he and Liam had surprised and defeated a French fifty-gunner by concealing the Imperator with a similar move. For a moment, he had an utterly absurd idea, then stopped. Bloody hell, of course not.

Nemo shut the spyglass. "Load the cannons," he ordered. "It could be nothing, and we will not engage if they do not, but I prefer to be prepared, just in case."

He turned to repeat the order in Tamil, as the first mate gave it in Arabic, and another man in Chinese. The crew dispersed like a well-oiled machine, more sail was loosed, and the Nautilus moved so quickly over the choppy water that it felt as if they had wings, but the other ship – she was starting to become clearer, it was not their imagination – was still gaining. Now she was eight hundred yards astern, now only five hundred, and then the long nines boomed and flashed, the shot whistling and splashing into the water barely shy of the Nautilus' keel.

"We are not flying British or Spanish colors," Nemo said. Considering that his ship had just been fired on, he still sounded remarkably calm. "Neither nation should have cause to attack us, thinking us an agent of the other. Mr. Rahman, what is their ensign?"

"British, I think." The first mate opened the spyglass to look again. He added something else in Arabic that made Nemo frown again and turn to order the crew for more speed, and perhaps a warning shot of their own. Even in wartime, there were codes of conduct that governed firing on another ship unprovoked, especially with no enemy flag to justify a first attack, and these ill-behaved newcomers were flouting them, which was good as flying a red streamer to signify no quarter. The Nautilus' stern guns thundered and flashed in response, throwing an eerie orange glow against the sky long enough for them to get half a glimpse of the oncoming ship. It looked like a brigantine, slender and two-masted, built for speed. For another wild instant, Killian thought that Emma's old ship, the Blackbird, had been resurrected from the watery grave where Henry Jennings had sent it long ago, but of course that was not the case. But if he could just figure out what was putting his hackles on such edge about this, apart from the obvious fact of being fired on, and to do so in time to –

The other ship was still closing on the Nautilus' starboard aft quarter, running hard with the wind, almost a match in speed. In another few minutes they would be level enough to try a broadside, and Nemo barked at his crew to man their own guns in the case of such an eventuality. But Killian, following an instinct he had no time to explain, took the spyglass from Mr. Rahman, balanced it in his hook, and fiddled the lens with his hand. Pointed it at the deck of the other ship, at its captain, the man by the helm, the –

In that moment, the shock completely stopped his heart.

In the next, the world exploded.

Chapter 15: XV

Chapter Text

Geneva's first instinct was to fight. She twisted like an eel, stamped on his booted foot, and bit at the hand over her mouth, which caused him to pull it back with a curse, then swing his fist into her cheek hard enough to make her see stars. "I wouldn't do that, lass. Besides, weren't we getting along? Scream," he added, as she drew breath in preparation for a good yell, "and I'll blow this pretty boat of yours sky-high. See that there, that barrel? It's full of black powder, and if it sparks, well. Enough to tear off the bow, we'd sink in minutes. Believe me, I can shoot it faster than anyone could possibly scramble down here to help you. Understand?"

So furious that she could feel it thrumming in her body, like a harp string wound to the point of snapping, Geneva nodded.

"Good." Israel Hands let go of her slowly, gun still held at the ready, as he swung around to face her, keeping her back against the wall. He looked even more grizzled and insane than before, a handsome black eye blooming where Thomas must have punched him and a half-healed gash across his temple. "Now. You , me, and Mrs. Rogers here, we can have a conversation."

"You," Geneva said furiously to Eleanor. "How could you do this? With him?"

"It's my fault? You hired him!" Eleanor's angry flush was visible even in the low, dank light of the hold. "If you considered him a suitable cohort, why shouldn't I?"

Geneva opened her mouth, realized that she had no good comeback for that, and shut it. She still wanted to scream, but she did not dare risk calling Hands' bluff with the barrel, as he was exactly crazy enough for it not to be a bluff at all. Powder stocks on warships were kept deep below decks in the dark and cool, run up to the guns by boys known as "powder monkeys" during battle, and everyone lived in fear of an unguarded flame reaching them – if the enemy's bombardment hit you in the magazine, you would be a spectacularly glorious fireball in the span of, as Hands had said, minutes or less. Black powder was also the most explosive and dangerous variety, far more volatile than the everyday saltpeter, and the spark from a gunshot would be more than enough to detonate it. Hands must have hauled it aboard whenever he and Eleanor stowed away – bloody hell, Geneva was going to kill those bat-blind lummoxes in Bristol, who had had to be argued with every step of the way and then could not even be bothered to post night watchmen properly on the quays. For a moment, she was completely and utterly in sympathy with Jim's desire to sod the lot of them.

"Now then," Hands said, keeping his gun trained on the powder cask, warning Geneva against any attempt to tackle him, which even she knew was a bad idea – she was a young woman in long skirts, and he was a tough, violent, heavily armed ex-berserker with no qualms about blowing the lot of them to kingdom come. "What we want is simple. You don't tell anyone we're down here. Bring food twice a day. Oh, and – " he gestured at Eleanor – "the lady wants a blanket. When we reach the Caribbean, you'll divert our course to Bridgetown, so she can see her bloody son again. Then you will take the rest of us to Skeleton Island, with the bearings Mr. Silver will provide. We'll keep him alive that long. Once we've gotten there, you'll lure him down here, and I'll settle him."

"Are you – " Geneva choked. Are you out of your mind? was definitely far beside the point. "What, you think we'll get to Skeleton Island, you'll scoop handfuls of treasure into your pockets, and skip off into the sunset a free and happy man – after you've gruesomely murdered Silver, of course? Good bloody luck!"

"That treasure belongs to me." Hands' basilisk stare did not waver. "Half of it was given to Blackbeard, and I'm the last survivor of Blackbeard's crew. Her f*cking husband – " he jerked his head at Eleanor again – "killed Blackbeard, captured the Revenge, and destroyed the Walrus, a fact I am generously choosing, for the moment, to overlook. Whatever there is on that island, it's mine, and I won't have John Silver f*cking it up. I know that man, what he is, what he does. I would have killed him long before if we'd crossed paths, but now, as I said, we need him long enough to get us there. You're lucky I'm not asking – yet – for the head of that uncle of yours, the one who assaulted me in the street. But fail me in any way, and I kill him. He sleeps belowdecks, doesn't he? I could sneak out of here of a night and slit his throat before you ever stirred a whit. Oh, and that Negro c*nt of Silver's. I can find her too."

Geneva stared at him, rendered actually speechless with fury. Finally she said, "f*ck you. I'm not doing any of it."

"Aren't you?" Hands wrenched up the lid of the barrel, reached in, and let a handful of glittering black powder trickle through his gnarled fingers, smelling faintly and acridly of sulfur. "Thought I was lying about this, then?"

Geneva threw a desperate look at Eleanor, as if willing to promise that if they would personally deliver Matthew into her loving clutches if she would just smother Hands in his sleep, but the other woman steadfastly avoided her eyes. Geneva herself was beginning to develop a profound and profoundly unexpected sympathy with the junior Rogers, and understand why he had found a career in the Navy to be infinitely preferable to the continued company of his mother. "Bridgetown?" she said, trying to stall for time. "In Barbados? Is that where your son is?"

"It's where he was sent, yes," Eleanor said shortly. "And where the lord he works for has his residence, so even if he's not there, we can find out where he's gone. I'm not eager to spend the entire voyage in this filthy pit, but if it's what I need to do to see Matthew again, I will."

"And has it ever occurred to you that Matthew may not want to see you? If this is the way you domineer everyone, no wonder. I get the sense you've always liked having things that belong to you, and widowed, penniless, scorned by your stepchildren, and reviled by everyone who remembers your betrayal of Nassau – I heard that you personally ensured Charles Vane's execution went through, and he was once your lover – no wonder you've seized onto your son as the last thing that was yours. So what, you can destroy him too? Poor lad."

"You don't know anything about me or my son, girl," Eleanor snapped. "So don't – "

"Girl?" Geneva laughed. "What, is that an insult? And coming from a woman who long struggled to prove herself in a man's world, boasted about the powerful ones she had overthrown and seduced and destroyed? What happened to you, Eleanor Guthrie? Not Mrs. Rogers, not the governor's wife and widow, not the one remembered as a bitch and a harpy and a traitor, but Eleanor. The girl yourself. How old were you when your father brought you to Nassau? Ten?"

"Thirteen," Eleanor said, half proudly, half as if she had not meant to at all. "But that is immaterial. Get me to Bridgetown, I'll see that he doesn't hurt your uncle, or Madi. I don't want Mr. Scott's daughter harmed. I don't."

"So you think you can control another dangerous man?" Geneva said incredulously. "First Vane, then Rogers, now Hands? Are you bedding with him too? No, don't answer that, I want to sleep again sometime in my life. I know you change allegiances like lacy handkerchiefs, but folk thought you actually loved Rogers, so much as you could. Then again, they thought you loved Vane too, didn't they?"

Eleanor's eyes blazed. She clearly wanted to demand how Geneva knew so much – but then again, Geneva had grown up surrounded by tales of her family's past, and this was just interesting history to her, not directly relevant. At least not until now. Loathsome as she found Eleanor, Geneva did not want to leave any woman alone with Israel Hands, as God knew if he would then decide to exact payment of one sort or another. Aye, Eleanor should have thought of this before throwing her fortunes in with him, but she was still uncomfortably correct that Geneva had been the one originally planning to bring him on board. Of the two stowaways, Eleanor was the one who might not blow up the ship, and the one Geneva might be willing to help if no other alternatives arose, but if Madi discovered that she was aboard. . . and then they found Hands. . .

"So?" Hands said, when neither of the women offered anything else. "Clear? Food. Twice a day. Vary the routine so that nobody sees you going down and coming up at the same time. Tell them there's a leak down here you're keeping an eye on – there will be a f*cking big one if you're not careful , remember – or whatever else. Anyone comes down snooping, I kill them. It's more than one. . ." He pantomimed firing his pistol into the powder. "I have another barrel stowed aboard to boot. Don't try me, girl."

Geneva's hands were shaking, so she clenched them. She could not tell Thomas, Silver, Madi, or Jim about this without at least one of them storming down to investigate, and she most unfortunately had no doubt about Hands' willingness to carry out his threat. How could she have misjudged this man so badly, been so arrogant and angry and determined to get one over on Silver – just like sailing into the storm and losing Mr. Arrow, this situation was a result of her mistakes. She had to fix it herself, could not put any of her friends or family at further risk – not even Silver. If nothing else, she needed time to find a way to separate Israel Hands from things that went boom. Somehow.

"Fine," she said, through gritted teeth. "Deal."

Once she had spat in her palm and shaken hands with Hands (having a brief urge to tear it off) the stowaways retreated behind their fortress of sacks and barrels, and Geneva left the hold in a total daze, so inattentively that she banged her head on the low beam it was usually second nature to duck. She climbed back to the deck, into a cool, starry night that she would otherwise have enjoyed, but barely noticed. She blundered into the cabin in a state of total distraction, stubbed her toe and swore hotly, and Madi looked up with a frown. "Are you all right?"

"Fine," Geneva said again, hopping on the spot and clutching her foot. "Fine. I'm fine. Everything's fine."

Madi regarded her with a slightly arched eyebrow, but decided against pressing for details. Geneva sat down at her desk and pulled out the captain's log, intending to start a new entry for this voyage, but her hand kept trembling enough to leave unsightly blotches of ink on the page, and she could not collect her thoughts sufficiently to transform them into words. What did she write anyway, that they were at risk of instant fiery death from a madman if she set a toe wrong for the rest of the journey, and that it might still result in loved ones being murdered in their beds just because? Perhaps later, she could take a gun and go back, catch Hands unawares, convince Eleanor not to raise the alarm. The shot would likely wake the ship, and she'd have to kill him with the first one, as even wounded, Hands could still trigger the explosion –

Geneva sat staring into space, a sick, sour weight in her stomach, until Madi finally settled down to sleep. Then she got up, quietly opened the sea chest, and took out one of the long-barreled dueling pistols inside. She was a fair shot, but in the rolling pitch-darkness of the hold, it would be extremely chancy. The only way to ensure complete accuracy was to do it at point-blank range, she'd have to somehow get close enough without rousing Hands – if he was asleep at all, and not just sitting up waiting for her to try something – and if the ball ricocheted, there was the risk of it hitting the powder. As well, Geneva had never killed a man before. Not even really been in a situation where she thought she might have to. A few scrapes with aggressive drunkards and Spanish customs agents and the like, and a few violent solutions, but not cold-blooded, staring-into-their-eyes murder. But if the alternative was letting this threat remain hanging over them, she had to. She knew her father and her grandfather had killed people, many of them. She'd ask later, or perhaps she would simply not mention it at all.

Geneva opened the chased-silver ammunition case, rammed down the wadding and the ball and the twist of powder, considered, then loaded the second pistol as well. She stuck them into the waistband of her skirt, pulled on a cloak to cover them, and stealthily let herself out of the cabin. She ducked into the galley to get some of the leavings from supper, as perhaps this would be enough of a cover to let her get close without instantly piquing Hands' suspicions, and put them on a tray. Then she tucked it under her arm, emerged, started for the ladder, and –

"G – Captain?"

Geneva about had a heart attack, dropping the food everywhere and nearly yanking out one of the pistols, as she spun around to see Jim watching her in total confusion. "How long have you been standing there?" she hissed. "Why the hell aren't you in bed?"

"I was talking with. . . with Mr. Silver." The slight hesitance in Jim's tone told her that he knew this was a subject of which she might disapprove. "He went below a bit ago, but I was just enjoying the stars. It's been a long time since I was out of Bristol, out on the water, and. . ." He looked curiously at the fallen tray. "Did you not eat earlier? I was wondering where you were."

"Wasn't. . . hungry." The lie sounded feeble even as she uttered it, and she wasn't entirely sure that Jim believed it – he had proven to be unsettlingly perceptive, this awkward, quiet, quietly angry young man, who nonetheless was nothing but the soul of gallantry and respect to her. "Well, the stars are nice, aren't they? But it's late. How about you sleep?"

"Aye, well, perhaps." Jim paused, then started for the ladder. "Actually, I thought I heard some odd noises in the forward bulkhead earlier. I might take a look, if it's all right, before I – "

"No. Oh, no, no, I've got that entirely under control." Geneva practically ran to block his way. This put them in suddenly close proximity, enough that she had to tip her chin back to look into his face, which was confused but not suspicious. "I looked earlier, actually, there's just a leak that didn't quite seal up all the way. Probably just cargo shifting. Nothing to worry about."

"If you say so." Jim's brows furrowed. "Are you sure you're all right? You look very strange."

"I just – " Geneva took a step, leading with her hip. "The other night, when you – you saw me, I don't suppose it disgusted you, did it?"

"Er," said Jim, with the expression of a man just asked if a hundred thousand pounds a year was enough, or only fit for unstylish paupers. "Er, no, no it did not, no, my lady, not at all. No. But you – I would certainly never – "

"No, of course not." Geneva smiled enticingly, putting both hands on his chest. "Even finding the two of us alone like this, you wouldn't – "

She was trying to get him to scamper off in embarrassment as fast as he had with the inadvertent bath voyeurism, but instead this seemed to turn his feet into stumps of wood. He blinked dumbly, hand rising of its own accord as if to caress her face, then dropped it instantly. "Geneva – ?"

"You're right. I don't know what came over me." Geneva stepped back, offering an apologetic smile. Keeping a tight grip on his arm, she practically dragged him to the other ladder, the one leading to the crew's quarters, and ushered him down it. They had just started toward the hammocks when there was a faint but distinct crash from the direction of the bow. Jim's head turned, and he took a step toward it. Without thinking, Geneva grabbed him by the shirt, pulled him close, and kissed him.

Jim's mouth opened in shock, allowing her to deepen the kiss, as she tugged his arm and angled him more satisfyingly against her. His lips were warm and generous, and not at all sure what they should be doing, but he picked up the knack quickly, their heads turning, hands sliding. It was only when said hands began to venture toward her waist that Geneva remembered herself. It would be extremely difficult to explain why she was larking about with two loaded pistols in her bodice, and the entire point of this had been distraction. She caught his wrists, pulling back, and Jim, mistaking it for offended propriety, flushed ferociously. "My lady, I didn't – "

"Just call me Geneva, all right?" Their foreheads and noses were brushing, still sharing air, her hand toying in the loosened chestnut strands on the back of his neck. No point striving for the formality of "Captain" after that, at least between the two of them, and "my lady" made Geneva to look around in case the Queen was approaching. "You really should go to bed."

"Aye. Bed." Jim shook his head like a stunned ox, then stepped back and tried to make some sort of polite bow, which was so adorable that Geneva had to bite her lip. At least the immediately preceding events had done their work admirably in making Jim forget about any odd noises whatsoever, as well as possibly his own name, and Geneva felt a twinge of guilt as she watched him reel off down the gantry. It would have been easier to dally with Jim like this if he wasn't so damned earnest, was the usual sort of charming, devil-may-care rascal who knew how the rules of a passing fancy worked. She didn't want to break the poor lad's heart, but if she hadn't stopped him from investigating. . . well, it was just a kiss, not a betrothal or marriage, and if Jim could not work that out, it was not her bloody fault. . .

Momentary pleasure evaporated, feeling the return of the sick sourness in her stomach, Geneva turned and started the other way. She'd put Jim off the scent, but she had missed her chance, as that crash surely meant that one or the other was awake. Unless it hadn't been Hands and Eleanor at all, and just someone falling out of their hammock, but. . . oh Jesus, what if someone else had gone down into the hold while she was occupied? She'd be a fool to think that a gun was the only way in which Hands could kill someone, as he could surely break your neck or strangle you with a minimum of noise, especially if he caught you unprepared. Jim said that he and Silver had been talking – if Silver had also made note of strange noises –

Geneva made her way through the crew's hammocks as fast as she could, pressed to the hull so as to avoid disturbing them; at least any noise she made was covered by the racket of their snoring. Emerging with the ripe odor of unwashed man in her nose, she peered into the lieutenants' quarters that Silver and Thomas shared: two bunks, a desk, a trunk, and a lantern, in a compartment no bigger than twelve feet by six feet. Both bunks were occupied – Thomas slept on the top, Geneva noted, so Silver did not have to struggle to climb up and down. It made her heart twist, as that was just the sort of man her uncle was. Even if he did not like Silver much, even if he had misgivings about the promotion to first mate (despite himself removing the alternative now hiding in their hold) he would still extend this basic human courtesy. There was certainly no privacy to speak of, so perhaps it simply was not possible to hold a grudge, or at least not much of one, against someone so relentlessly, unceasingly present. You had to exist together nonetheless.

Letting out a slow breath of relief, Geneva started to move on, but Silver stirred, squinting up at her. "Eh?" he said groggily. "Something amiss, Captain?"

"No, nothing." Geneva slid the slat shut quickly, embarrassed to be caught snooping, and listened intently for any sound of them getting up to follow her. But for once, Silver must have decided not to interfere, and there was nothing. She half-wished he had. Anything to put off the prospect that loomed before her as inescapably as a colossus.

Geneva reached the entrance to the hold in a few more moments, leaned against the wall, and tried to bring herself to do it. She would not get a better chance. Hands wouldn't be able to see her or the powder cask very well, darkness worked both ways as a disadvantage. She took out her pistol, pulled the hammer back and inspected the mechanism, could be confident (so much as was ever possible) that it would not misfire. She listened hard. No more thumps or crashes, at least for the moment. Perhaps they, or at least one of them, had gone to sleep. Even a demon like Hands could not stay awake every instant of the next four or five weeks.

Go. Go on. Do it. Just step onto the ladder, descend into the abyss, and battle a monster.

Geneva tried as hard as she possibly could, but she could not move. She had come over in cold sweat, stomach twisting like a clenched fist, could not cast herself over the brink and into the void. Was – for a woman whose bravery and brash nature was one of the things she liked about herself, whom Thomas had rebuked for recklessness – too afraid. It was just the Rose's hold, she had been there a thousand times, but it was different tonight. Come on. COME ON!

It was no good. She couldn't. The terror was still coursing through her too acutely, turning every nerve to ice, and she pulled up her feet, which seemed to have grown roots to the boards, and stumbled away. Climbed up to the deck, reaming herself savagely for her cowardice, and gulped lungfuls of cold night air until it hurt. The men on the graveyard shift were sitting around a brazier by the capstan; the sea was calm and the wind was steady, and the sheets didn't need much tending, just one of them at the helm. They glanced over in some concern at her abrupt, harrowed-looking appearance. "Cap'n?"

"I'm fine." Geneva strode over as commandingly as she could, which wasn't very. Her legs felt like jelly, and all she could see was the flame of the brazier, think about the cask of black powder in the hold and the other, wherever on the ship it might be. "Just – put that out, would you? Put it out!"

They exchanged baffled looks, but did as ordered. Bereft of the warmth, they got up and began to wander around to occupy themselves until the bell would sound at dawn, and they could go below. Geneva, while she went into her cabin, watched tensely through the window. What if one of them decided to go down into the hold for some unknown reason, what if –

She must have fallen asleep sitting up, because the next thing she knew, her cheek was mashed against the window, sunlight was spilling across the floor, and she had an absolutely horrendous cramp in her back that made her groan when she tried to straighten up. The Rose was clearly still intact, afloat, and underway, so evidently nobody had discovered Hands lurking in the darkness – for a brief and desperately hopeful moment, Geneva thought it had just been an extended bad dream. But the muzzles of the pistols still digging into her sides, as well as the grooves of her stays, made clear that it wasn't. It was also clear that she was going to go mad herself after another few days of this, let alone the rest of the voyage. But what the f*ck do I do about it?

Head pounding, Geneva did her best not to look as unhinged as she felt, unloaded the pistols and stuck them back into the trunk, and emerged into the breezy midmorning. She felt like a grub crawling out from under a fungus, so of course it was then that Silver appeared out of thin air. "Captain? I was hoping we could have a word, in my capacity as first mate. I promise this goes no further. But what's wrong? Please. Please let me help you."

Geneva looked up at him: the weathered blue eyes, the thick streaks of grey in the rough dark ponytail and beard, the expression of apparently sincere concern. Even Thomas had said that he thought Silver was preferable to Hands, but so was nearly every man in the world, as well as every woman, so that was hardly a ringing endorsem*nt. And Hands had said he wanted to murder this one personally. Not that Geneva could blame anyone for disliking Silver, even to the point of using weapons to prove it, but. . . as wrong-headedly as Silver was going about this, much as he kept compounding his mistakes, she did get the sense that he was genuine about wanting to protect them all from Billy Bones, and that he still had deep feelings for Flint. Not that that made any difference. Thomas' remark that there was no more perilous prospect than to be cared for by John Silver, Madi's belief that his attempts to make things right after the death of their son had only worsened their estrangement. . . Geneva almost wanted to scream with frustration. You couldn't safely care for him, or think that he had the remotest notion what ordinary human relationships looked like, or that his presence was an overall positive factor, but nor could you disdain him, or completely dislike him, or dismiss him as nothing. She didn't want Hands to kill him, at least. She could not put him in danger, even if it meant withholding the truth from him, as he himself had done to others so often. If that was the only sort of caring he understood, then perhaps he could sense that she was trying to keep him alive. Perhaps.

They kept looking at each other, silently imploring, raw and vulnerable. If Hands needed Silver's knowledge to make it to Skeleton Island, he could not kill him outright just yet, could he? But he could certainly torment him in any number of other ways, especially as Silver had one leg and could hardly make a quick escape, and if anyone else came down to see what was going on, well then, there went the Rose. What with her current awkwardness around Thomas, Geneva wanted to throw herself on Silver's admittedly considerable expertise and have someone older and wiser than her sort it out. It was fatherly and it was not. Not desire, not even friendship, exactly, and yet something that knew if she did tell him, it would hurt him, and she could not do that. Hurt him, and them, the ship, and everyone else. Perhaps later – but not now. Not now.

"Nothing," Geneva said. "Nothing's wrong, Mr. Silver. You may go."

Sam awoke slowly, from an extremely unexpectedly yet embarrassedly enjoyable dream that he was not quite ready to be parted from just yet – only to realize, as sense returned, that it was not entirely a dream. There was a warm, strong, solid presence against his back, an arm draped over his hip, and a mouth brushing the nape of his neck, which elicited a small shiver where it touched. For a moment, he was completely baffled as to how he could have woken up in such a pleasing situation – he had kissed girls before, or rather tried to kiss them, it usually ending in disaster, but to say the least, his romantic experience and suave charm were limited. Sam was on the verge of congratulating himself at being much better at this than he thought, when memory returned in a singularly unpleasant burst. Oh Jesus. Barbados. Gold. Nathaniel. Matthew. Jack.

It was the latter of these (fortunately, as any of the other options would have been too horrifying for words) who was nestled so cozily against Sam's back, breath stirring his hair, slow and regular and clearly untroubled by any such concerns. The light in the room was like the inside of an oyster, silver-pink and pearlescent, almost beautiful if you could overlook the being-held-captive-and-likely-death part – which at the moment, Sam was almost inclined to do. He was extremely comfortable, the morning air was lovely and cool, and he. . . well. . . he didn't mind having Jack where he was. He was far more agreeable asleep than awake, that was for sure, and a part of Sam had to admit that he had been hoping for something like this to happen when he invited Jack to share the bed with him. That fluttering heat was still in his stomach, and his mouth was dry. Vexing as it was to have everyone making assumptions about them, Sam could not deny that he rather wanted to prove a few of them correct. Not that this made any sense, or was at all wise, or very likely. He just. . . oh, fine. He had a terrible crush on Jack Bellamy of all bloody people, and hopefully it would go away soon, before it caused them any more inconvenience. By which Sam meant, before it caused him any more inconvenience.

Counting in his head, Sam realized that while he could not be entirely sure, having lost track of time during their stupid adventures across the Caribbean, he thought that today might just be his birthday. If so, he was twenty years old, and should not start this decade off by being as much an idiot as in the last one. It was not Jack being a boy that he objected to, though he was surprised as he had thought that he only fancied girls, but him being so. . . Jack. Still, surely the kiss in the Griffin's hold hadn't been the only way to get them out of trouble, and he had saved Sam from flogging twice, not to mention the ocean and Da Souza's chucking, then spent two days in the brig rather than let him reveal his true identity to Matthew. . . of course the bugger would never say so, because why be sensible and straightforward about feelings when you could be emotionally constipated instead, but he couldn't be completely indifferent. . .

Experimentally, shyly, Sam wriggled his hips back against Jack, feeling that pleasurable hot-cold rush from head to toe, pulse quickening in his throat. Jack's arm was still resting on Sam's hip, it wouldn't be too hard to pull himself closer. Of course, Jack would probably then wake up and be extremely confused, but he could also wake up, be stricken to the heart by Sam's ravishing beauty in the dawn's early light, and proceed posthaste to more kissing. It was his birthday. Gold was sure to give him a turd for a present, so –

Just then, as Sam was trying to decide if he had the nerve to make any more daring move, or if this would result in him getting throttled, Jack stirred. He reached down and caught Sam's wrist, sounding confused. "Charlotte, what are you – "

There was a brief, wonderful moment in which Samuel James Jones remained optimistic about a happy birthday or his immediate future in general, and then it crashed and burned in flames. He pulled sharply away from Jack. "Excuse me?"

Jack squinted up at him, half awake but completely baffled. His bleary dark eyes slowly resolved on Sam's furious face, at which he assumed an expression of wariness, then dawning consternation and anger. "The f*ck?"

"The f*ck yourself?!" Sam grabbed a pillow and hit Jack smartly over the head with it. "Sleep with Charlotte, do you?"

Jack flung up an arm to block against further feathery assaults. "The bloody hell does that have to do with anything? What are you doing? What time is it?"

"What does that have to do with anything? I only asked you a dozen times who she was!" Sam tried to hit him again, but Jack succeeded in snatching the pillow away. "If she was your – why didn't you just say so?"

"I did say so!"

"What kind of lunatic refers to his marriage as 'coming to an arrangement'?" Sam wasn't sure on whose behalf he was more furious, his own or Charlotte's. "That's who she is, isn't she? Your wife? How could you do this to her?"

"Do what to her?" Jack exploded, sitting bolt upright, eyes snapping. "What exactly have I done to her? I don't recall I have done anything to her, or anything I'd have to answer for later! Are you out of your bloody mind? This place rubbing off on you?"

Sam opened his mouth, then shut it. "The kiss," he said, less than certainly. "You – "

"The kiss was to get us out of trouble!" Jack looked utterly incredulous. "If I'd known it would result in – whatever you seem to have concluded from it – I'd have taken care to spell that out more clearly! Don't tell me you've been, what, pining this whole time?"

"I have not!" Sam shouted. "Don't flatter yourself, you stupid, dense, selfish hat for an especially spectacular arse! But why would it have been so hard to just tell me?"

"It's not your business." Jack's eyes were now ablaze. "f*ck off."

"Not my business? So just a polite Charlotte's my wife, actually was completely out of the question, was it? I don't believe you!"

"Charlotte is my wife, yes. There. Satisfied?"

"You're a – " Sam struggled to think of an insult bad enough. "You're a complete two-timing git is what you are. No surprise, since you are a spy – really good at lying to people, aren't you?"

"You knew I was a spy from the start, I don't see why that's such a revelation – "

"Yeah," Sam spat. "Yeah, actually, it was. You know, I thought we were starting to be – well, something. Not friends, but not enemies either. Looking out for each other. I saved your life last night, does that just – "

"I didn't ask you to do that." Jack threw aside the covers and got up, striding furiously to his clothes. "Besides, I seem to recall that I've saved yours more than once, so I'll consider that a partial down payment for what you owe me."

Sam stared at him, blood thundering in his ears, possessed of the unholy desire to get out of bed, seize Jack by the neck, and bang his head against the wall until his brain fell out. Though that would be a fruitless endeavor, as he did not appear to have one. "So what you said about not letting the Navy wantonly beat me, about your father, was that just a giant steaming – "

"Don't you dare talk about my father!" Jack whirled on him, drawing the air in around him like the breath before thunder and lightning and all hell breaking loose, and Sam shrank against the headboard, genuinely terrified. He had seen enough of Jack's rage to be quite sure that he wanted to see no more, especially at close range. "Don't act as if you know anything about me! Shut up for once in your godforsaken life! Shut up!"

With that, Jack stomped to the door, almost wrenched it off its hinges, and bowled through it like a tempest, leaving Sam shaking on the bed. He felt stunned, cold as ice, unable to believe that he had been contemplating trying for something intimate just a few short minutes earlier, aglow in the hope for one small nice thing for his birthday before the sh*tstorm started. More than that, he felt massively, unbearably, unbelievably, heart-wrenchingly stupid. Of course he'd read it entirely, mortifyingly wrong, gotten carried away, seen something where nothing existed. Of course Jack Bellamy hated him. Any pretense of anything else was a distraction from the one truth at the core of his entire life, and Sam decided that if he got through this alive, he was going to become a monk. Preferably one of those who venerated the Buddha, who lived in remote, cloud-shrouded, cliffside monasteries in China. Hopefully that was far away enough.

At last, slowly, Sam got to his feet. If there was anything worse than getting your heart broken on your birthday, it was the prospect of then going to have a nice breakfast with your family's mortal enemy, who would probably be wetting himself with glee at this development. But he was too hungry to stay shut up here forever. Maybe he could steal something from the kitchen and be left alone to nurse his wounds in peace. That, however, seemed unlikely, and all Sam could think of for a bright side was that now nobody could do unpleasant things to him in a bid to make Jack talk. Though if they want to punch him a few times anyway, I can't say I'd mind.

He dragged on his clothes, pulled a face in the looking glass, and slogged downstairs – thus to be met in the front foyer by Nathaniel, who blinked several times at his all-too-evident state of advanced disgruntlement. "Oy. What happened? First Jack comes storming through here like a hurricane, and now you – "

"Never mind," Sam said morosely. "You were right about him. He's a raging case of co*ck rot."

To Nathaniel's everlasting credit, he and Sam were good enough friends that he forwent the vastly tempting impulse to press for details of the last several weeks, and instead began to roundly blaspheme Jack on Sam's behalf. He stopped long enough to note that there was something to eat in the drawing room, as evidently Gold did not want his prisoners starving just yet, and they sat down at the table, poured tea, peeled eggs, and spread cream and jam liberally on their crumpets. Sam's mood improved somewhat as they ate, as Nathaniel finished slandering Jack and moved on to telling him about Havana. He hadn't been there long, as Gold's agent had whisked him off upon putting the pieces together, but a good fortnight or so, and it did not seem as if he had suffered unduly. Güemes had treated him as an honored (if strictly observed) guest, and Nathaniel had even gotten to go to a ball, where he made the acquaintance of several fetching Spanish señoritas who had been admiring his red hair. "Always knew being a ginger had to be good for something," he remarked, stuffing a whole blackcurrant scone into his mouth and spraying crumbs. "Not a half bad adventure for us after all, eh?"

Sam smiled rather weakly. He was glad that Nathaniel had recovered a sense of derring-do about the whole thing, but the fact remained that this adventure was far from over, and somehow he did not think that Gold was going to be handing out dance invitations. It was true that the Spanish had no more leverage to force him to find Skeleton Island, as he had escaped (ha) from Da Souza and Güemes no longer had Nathaniel as a hostage, but if anything, they would be even angrier at being duped and played for fools. Sam was dead on sight if they caught him, and so, for that matter, was his family. He had bluffed and big-talked his way into this entire madcap adventure to protect them, and all it had gotten any of them was here. Even if they did manage to escape, he would be looking over his shoulder for the Spaniards for God knew how long, to the point that it almost seemed more sensible just to go back to Cuba and admit straight up that he had failed. That way, if they were going to kill him, at least they would get it over with.

"Sam?" Nathaniel said. "Hey, Sam?"

Sam jumped. "What? Sorry, I'm listening."

Nathaniel glanced around shiftily, as if someone might be eavesdropping from behind a bookcase, then leaned forward and lowered his voice. "So last night, what Gold said about your family – do you think they'll come?"

"I don't know." Sam looked down at his own scone and suddenly discovered that he had no more appetite. "I hope they don't, I'm sure he has some terrible surprise planned if they do. They might, if they heard in time, but – I don't know."

"But if they do. . ." Nathaniel seemed to think that this would be the silver bullet for their present difficulties. "Your family are pirates! They can fight anyone! They beat Gold the last time, I'm sure they can do it again. Your granddad's Captain Flint, your dad's Captain Hook, they could probably raise an entire army if the word went out that Lord Robert Gold had returned. I mean, I know it's a trap too, but if they do come – "

"They'll die!" Sam hadn't expected Jack to care much, but he thought this might matter more to Nathaniel. "One of them, several of them, more – I can't be responsible for that! Yes, we might get out of here, but I would be risking my entire family against a power-mad prick who hates their guts, and I – no. We have to find another way. I said I'd get us home, remember? I will, I'll figure it out. But we can't just sit on our arses and wait for the cavalry to come. Otherwise, we're already boned."

Nathaniel blinked. "But how else are we supposed to – "

"I'm going to try something." Sam gulped the last of his cold tea. "Just give me a chance."

He was afraid that Matthew would have already set out again to chase down Da Souza, or that Gold had dispatched him on skullduggerous business elsewhere on the island, but after a brief search, he discovered the captain sitting on the veranda that overlooked Bridgetown harbor, perusing a newspaper and sipping a cup of tea. He glanced up as Sam stepped outside, and started to get to his feet, then realized who it was and stopped. "Mr. Jones," he said, coolly polite. "This is considerably unexpected. You are Mr. Jones, aren't you? Not your. . . friend?"

"Yeah," Sam said. "And he's not my friend."

"I had the impression otherwise."

"So did I. Guess we're both wrong, then." Sam moved to sit across from Matthew, affecting a casual indifference. He was scared of the bloke, but at least he did not have any more brawny underlings and riding crops at hand, and they weren't going to get anywhere if he didn't try. "Anyway, can we talk?"

"Talk?" Matthew set aside the newspaper and stared at Sam, as if to be sure he knew what was going on here. "Did you not have enough of my company on the Griffin, then?"

"Plenty," Sam said. "But that's why I'm here. The only way me and Nathaniel are likely to get out of this is if you help us. So what would it take to make it happen?"

From the expression on Matthew's face, he either thought that Sam had already had too much to drink at nine o'clock in the morning, or this was some sort of elaborate trick on Gold's part to test his loyalty. "I beg your – Mr. Jones, are you entirely clear on how the notion of captivity even works?"

"Of course I am, you plank." Sam reminded himself that impatience or impertinence was not going to help, and belatedly modified his tone. "I mean, Captain Rogers, I don't hold a grudge for the beating on the ship, honest. You were doing what you thought you had to. But Gold – well, I know you work for him, and I'm sure he's been very careful to give you choice assignments, treat you like a son, cultivate your affection, recognize your efforts. All that. But the man's barking mad, and more than that, he's evil. You're smart. You must know that. Maybe you don't mind if he kills me and Nathaniel and my family and anyone else, and takes over the world or whatever he's planning, but maybe you do. You know he wasn't working for England before, right? Him and his Star Chamber – that wasn't because he was intending to be best mates with Westminster when he was done. If you're hunting traitors, how about you start with him?"

Matthew lifted his teacup, stared at it as if he had suddenly forgotten what he was doing, and put it back down. "Are you actually asking me to risk my neck, my ship, my men, my command, my reputation, and my livelihood to help a traitor's son – regardless of any insistence on Gold's supposed transgression, your father's is not up for debate – and his sidekick go free? Not even counting your violent not-friend, Mr. Bellamy?"

"Well, if you put it like that," Sam said feebly. "Frankly, you can have Jack, and you don't need to worry about belting me to make him talk. Turns out he really does hate me."

Matthew raised one eyebrow. "Now that," he said, "I find quite unbelievable. Though there are strategies to acquire his intelligence that do not involve bodily harm to you, it is true. To name merely one, your willing cooperation at the present moment. What, for example, could you tell me about Mr. Bellamy's previous missions or movements? His contacts in New Spain, any friends or family, the like?"

Sam opened his mouth, then shut it. As far as he could tell, Charlotte was already saddled with quite enough travail by having Jack for a husband, and he was certainly not about to be responsible for selling her out. "Why do you think I'd know?"

"I daresay you have heard the Latin phrase quid pro quo? If you are interested in enlisting my help to spirit yourself and Mr. Hunt to safety, you doubtless have some way to make it worth my while. A favor of the magnitude you are asking would demand equally extraordinary payment. If you could break a Spanish spy ring for me, well then, perhaps we could see our way to an arrangement. Besides, you have just assured me that neither you nor Mr. Bellamy hold any actual regard for one another. If so, surely it's no trouble to offer some proof?"

"So. . . you would disobey Gold?" Sam pressed, perhaps rather too daringly. "If we could find the right offer, you'd take us?"

"I am a captain of the Royal Navy," Matthew Rogers said proudly. "Lord Robert has been kind enough to patronize me generously, but he cannot legally compel my obedience within the bounds of his current administrative post. However, as my willingness to do so is personal rather than political, I do not wish to betray his regard, and unlawfully removing a prisoner of your importance would reflect very poorly on me with the Admiralty. Besides, Lord Robert wishes to settle matters with you and your family especially."

"As I said, because he's mental!" Sam wasn't sure if he was getting anywhere or not, but he was suspecting the latter. This had been a slim wager to start with, but somehow he'd convinced himself there was more of a shot. "And he's not loyal to England! So are you a traitor too? Might as well join the club!"

Matthew rose half to his feet, his teacup falling and smashing with a tinkle of china. This was alarming, but as Sam had already thought he'd be hit once that morning, less than it otherwise would have been. "I am not," the captain said, eyes like ice, "a traitor, and I would advise you not to repeat that opinion again if you wish to have any hope of a compact. So – "

"Aye? Well, I'm not a traitor either. I'm an English soldier, I wasn't lying. The most I've ever broken the law is the time I stole an apple from the neighbor's orchard. My parents did some bad stuff in their day, sure, but they haven't years. And my friend, Nathaniel, he doesn't have a scheming bone in his body, as you probably realized at our little audience last night. I know Gold's put it in your head that we're terrible people who want to do terrible things, but we're not. We're kids. Kill us if you want, but don't call it valor or heroism."

Despite himself, Matthew did not quite have a rebuttal for that. He started to say something, then stopped. Finally he said, "Why did you lie about who you were, if you had nothing to – "

"Why do you think? The instant you copped that one of us was Captain Hook's son, you beat us up and rushed us here for Gold to do his nonsense! Do you think I just stroll up to Royal Navy captains, 'oh and hello there, mate, my dad's a famous ex-pirate you all really hate?' I know you think I'm completely stupid, but I'm not that stupid! Oh, and I'm pretty sure I know who your dad is. So if we're talking about the sins of our parents – "

"Oh?" Matthew said, hands curling into fists on his knees, spots of color burning in his otherwise dead-white cheeks. "Do you?"

"Yeah. Woodes Rogers, isn't it? You're his son. And your mum's name is Eleanor Guthrie. So if I'm a traitor because of my dad, you're one because of her. Go on, hit me, but then tell me that I'm wrong. Go on!"

For a moment, Sam thought Matthew actually would, but after an extremely fraught silence, he blew out a breath and wrestled himself under control. "It's frankly miraculous that nobody has murdered you yet."

"So I've heard," Sam said. "Never knew it was a murderable offense to speak the truth, but people keep surprising me. Anyway, I can see I'm wasting my time. I'll take the paper if you're done with it. Good day, Captain."

With that, he whisked the paper directly out of Matthew's hands, tucked it under his arm, and probably did a fairly good impression of Jack stomping off in a huff. This was shaping up to be the worst birthday ever, and that included when he turned ten and nearly drowned in a tidepool, then spent the next fortnight sick as a dog with the grippe – at this rate, he either would not survive thirty, or wish he hadn't. Twenty most likely still had some monumentally sh*t-flavored cherry to place on top, so he should be braced for that before the day was out, but he finally sat down in a corner of the walled garden and hoped the world could lay off for a damn second. He had nothing better to do, so he opened the paper and began to skim listlessly through it. Since Matthew bloody Rogers was just as much a dead end as feared, that put them back at –

Sam wasn't sure why the small notice caught his eye, as it was outwardly indistinguishable from the others seeking information on family members who had emigrated, indentured, or otherwise been separated. But as he stared at it – The Wife & Parents-in-Law of Mr Barth. JONES, of the Province of Georgia, urgently appeal for word of his Whereabouts, Correspondence to Mr B FRANKLIN the printer, Philadelphia, REWARD – he felt an icy knot twist around his heart. That was Dad, it had to be. And Mum, Grandpa, and Granny were "urgently" looking for him? Using "Bartholomew," his middle name, rather than the unusual "Killian" – they were trying to avoid causing too much of a stir or drawing too much notice, but why?

It was possible, Sam supposed, that there was another Bartholomew Jones of Georgia, and he wasn't sure why they wanted word sent to Philadelphia instead of Savannah or even Boston, as he thought his half-brother Henry still lived there. But there was the other large fact that Mr. B Franklin the printer was, of course, Nathaniel's uncle. Added together, it veered a little too far out of the realm of allowable coincidence for comfort. Sam checked the date on the paper; it was a little over a fortnight ago, must have left the mainland and come down here on Gold's weekly packet boat from the Colonies, or however else he got his news. What the hell did they do to Dad? Did Gold's cretins get to him already? But then why go to the bother of holding me?

Sam sat for a moment, then carefully tore out the notice – either way, he did not want Rogers or Gold seeing it, if they hadn't already – and folded it into his pocket. Then he ran both hands through his hair, repressing the urge to scream – of course he'd find out that Dad was missing and possibly dead today, why not? That threw a very serious kink into any idea of waiting for his family to get here and save them, not that he had wanted that anyway, but it reinforced that nobody was coming to help, they had to do this alone. Then he got up, intending to locate Nathaniel and ask if he could think of anything that could have sent Mum and the others off to eccentric Uncle Benjamin. Not that either of them could do anything about it from here, but –

Sam had made it back into the house, and gone upstairs, when he heard the clattering of iron-rimmed wheels outside. He peered out the window just in time to see a carriage tearing up the drive at great speed, the horses being switched by one considerably alarmed-looking footman while the other tried to balance on the backboard and aim a pistol in the direction of some vanished miscreant. The carriage rattled to a halt under the portico, someone was ushered out in a state of considerable dishevelment, and the front door banged open and shut. A moment later, someone bellowed from below, "JONES!"

Sam cringed. He had no idea what he was about to be blamed for, did not foresee it going well in any event, and wondered if he could pretend to have already escaped or something of the like, but that would get him in even more trouble, and it was probably better to know. He remained silently fuming for a moment longer, then turned about and marched downstairs as icily as possible, only to be surprised by Nathaniel hurrying out of the back corridor. "What are you doing? Sounds like Gold's bloody pissed, you shouldn't – "

Nathaniel gave him a very funny look, as if asking if Sam really thought he was going to let him walk in there alone. They squared their shoulders, then proceeded into the room, where Robert Gold, waistcoat and jacket torn, hair hanging in his eyes, and blood running down his face from a cut on his forehead, stopped pacing and whirled on them. "I don't recall asking for you, Mr. Hunt?"

"You deal with Sam, you deal with me." Nathaniel folded his arms. "Then again, I don't expect you to know what it's like to have an actual friend that you're not paying."

Gold looked briefly stunned, and Sam fought the impulse to hold up his hand for Nathaniel to slap. Then the ex-governor's face twisted in a nasty smile. "Well. Perhaps either of you feel like answering for your other friend's actions?"

"Oh?" Sam eyed Gold's flustered and battered state, and despite his very considerable irritation with Jack, could not help but admire what was apparently his handiwork. "No, I don't feel like it at all, actually."

Gold's footman cleared his throat. "As Lord Robert was returning to the house just now, someone jumped from the shrubbery onto the roof of the moving carriage, nearly gained access to Lord Robert's person, and was only chased off by force. He was wearing a black cloth over his head and face, but Lord Robert believes, quite logically, that it was your friend, Mr. Bellamy. Did he disclose any plans of trying to murder His Excellency to you?"

"No," Sam said. "Plenty of other rubbish, but I don't recall he mentioned Gold at all."

"What rubbish?"

Despite himself, Sam laughed. "Believe me, you don't want to know. And yes, I'm sure Jack is the one who tried to kill you, I'm not even going to waste time pretending I'm not. But I don't know anything. We had a fight this morning, he stormed out. No idea."

"Yeah," Nathaniel said, nodding vigorously. "That's what happened."

"Trouble in paradise?" Happily, Gold could not be nearly as smug as he otherwise would have been, given that he was the one upon whom Jack had vented his frustration. "So surely you won't mind if I send out my household guard with orders to capture him dead or alive?"

Sam's stomach lurched. He managed, however, to ignore it. "Since when do you care what I mind? What do you expect me to do, sob and beg you not to? I obviously can't stop you. Besides, Jack hates me anyway, it's not like – "

"Oh." Gold was still getting his breath back, but an ugly light had appeared in his eyes, avid and hungry. "I think we'll see about that."

To every side, the world was fire, burning and dancing and devouring, reflecting on the dark ocean, spitting into the sky. Killian's ears were ringing like a church bell, he was not entirely sure which way was up, and only slowly pieced together that he was barely hanging onto the hull of the Nautilus, just a few feet from the water, where he had been blown off the deck by a shot directly overhead. He nearly lost his precarious grip as the junk's dragon cannons once more returned fire on her adversary, but even the pressing fact that he needed to get back on board right now could not cut through the shrieking terror in his head. How – how was this possible – the man was dead, had been dead for almost twenty-five years. Liam had killed him – surely that too could not be a lie, it could not. How could Henry Jennings be here, still hunting them, pursuing like a vengeful demon from the deepest hell, and –

Killian tried to claw his way up the side of the ship, striking his hook at the black-varnished boards with a spray of splinters, but the finish was too sleek for it to bite deeply. "JENNINGS!" he bawled, though he was sure they couldn't hear hm over the uproar, and only Regina would have any idea what he meant. "IT'S JENNINGS!"

He threw a wild glace over his shoulder at the other ship, but the dread figure at the helm had vanished. For a moment, Killian seriously entertained the idea that Jennings could change shape into a bat or a cloud of smoke or some other sorcerous guise, and that was how he had cheated death the first time, might be how he was about to swoop down on them now. Killian made a desperate grab for the shroud just above him as the Nautilus splashed heavily down into a wave, covered his head as another blast went off at close range, and saw that the figurehead of the attacking ship was a faerie queen carved in some dark stone, with a spiked crown and pointed wings, a cruel smirk on her otherwise beautiful face. Just as he was debating if she was more likely called Faerie Queen, Black Fairy, or Titania, the long nines lit up like the blast of a fallen star, sky and sea and gravity altogether ceased to function in their accustomed manner, and the next moment, he was engulfed in the abyss.

Killian struggled violently, boot tangled in a heavy net that had fallen into the water after him, and was dragging him down like a cannonball. He writhed and kicked, trying to saw it loose with his hook, but only succeeded in getting himself further trussed and twisted. He was horribly aware of his air running out, lungs burning, choking cold blackness stealing into his mouth and nose, and the surface was only a dim, fading ghost of firelight too many fathoms above to reach. This was not how he had planned or wanted to die, but no man was allowed to choose the hour or the manner – Emma, bloody hell, love, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm –

And then, a swift-moving black shape appeared just above him, stroking down with fast and frantic purpose. It reached Killian, tore at the tangles of hemp, jerked his foot free, and clamped an arm like an iron hoop around his chest, hauling him toward the surface. The urge to breathe was almost overwhelming, but Killian held it, sparks popping in his eyes, until their heads crested with a splash and a sting of cold, delicious, wonderful, miraculous air. The Nautilus and the Titania (as he decided it was most likely called) were still exchanging fire above them, but it seemed oddly muffled and far away, or perhaps his ear drums had been sufficiently blown out by the barrage and then the plunge that he was furthermore deaf. He thought his rescuer was saying something, in fact, but as it felt as if thick, soaking cotton wool had been stuffed into his head, it just sounded like the distant lap of waves or sigh of wind. They were behind him, holding him up, so he couldn't see their face, not that his eyes were working any better. "Jennings," he managed, forcing his misbehaving tongue around the word. "Jennings is here!"

He thought the arm around his chest tightened almost unbearably, but then they started to kick clumsily toward the Nautilus. Someone had spotted them from the deck, a rope came flying over the side, and they caught hold of it, hauled clear of the water and bumped up over the railing, where they did a somersault in front of several intrigued members of Nemo's crew and then lay flat, wheezing and coughing.

Only then, finally, as hearing returned in at least one ear, did Killian look over at his savor – and then felt punched again, for a very different reason. It had been over twenty years, and that seemed both merely a blink and an unfathomable span, the picture just the same as it always had been, but altered, greyed, worn, mortal. All the words he had prepared and bottled up for such an occasion simply fled on the spot, leaving nothing but shock.

Neither of them said anything for the world's longest moment. Then there was a sound that was as much a scream as Regina Jones née Mills could ever make, and she hurtled past the men, to her knees, and threw herself into her husband's arms.

Liam held her without saying a word, chin resting on her hair, as Regina pulled back to stare at him in disbelief, clutched his face in her hands, and kissed him thoroughly, once and then again. "How – " she began croakily. "How are you – "

"We spotted you. Lady Fiona ordered us to – " Liam seemed completely unable to even begin an explanation. "She wanted to remove a rival, someone else in the same place at the same time – we didn't, I didn't know it was – then K. . ." He seemed even more unable to say his brother's name. "He was blown into the water, I saw it by the gun flash, I knew it was my only chance. I ran like bloody hell, managed to dive overboard while everyone was distracted, and. . ."

Liam trailed off, as he and Killian continued to stare at each other. The Nautilus was gaining speed, the Titania falling behind, the night almost peaceful again except for the lingering whiff of smoke and this literally midnight-hour restoration of his brother to him, his brother, who had summoned the wherewithal, as ever, to escape his own captors when he saw Killian in danger, jumped into the dark ocean in the middle of a pitched gun battle on the instinctive need to rescue him. Killian wished he could think of something to say. His other ear popped painfully, restoring a rush of too-loud noise. Finally he managed, "What about Jennings?"

Liam went tense from head to heel. "What?"

"Jennings. I saw him on the deck of your ship, by the helm, he – "

Liam kept staring at him, horrified but completely lost, until it struck Killian what must have happened. It was Liam, however, who quietly, tonelessly put it into words. "You thought I was Jennings."

"I – must have. In the confusion. The darkness and the fire and. . ." Killian trailed off, unable to keep looking at his brother's face, feeling all of fourteen years old again. "Your hair is lighter now, well, it's silver, so. . . I suppose I thought it was blonde, and well. . . I'm bloody relieved it's not, believe me. I know he's dead. But I. . . forgot, somehow."

"I'm not surprised," Regina said harshly, her hands tightening on Liam's shoulders. "To judge from everything you've been running off at the mouth about, you've forgotten any difference between them."

Liam grimaced terribly, running both hands through his wet curls. "Killian, I owe you an explanation."

"You owe him an explanation?" At last, Regina's fury, restrained while Liam was in danger, seemed to break free now that he was safely restored to her side. "You owe him an explanation? No, Liam. No. He owes you one! Should start talking right now and carry through until morning, if he had any scrap of shame or gratitude! But we'll save it, because I don't know what that horrible Murray bitch has been doing to you, and I want to take a look. Nemo, is there a larger cabin we can use?"

"Of course." Nemo looked slightly ruffled and sooty from the recent engagement, but otherwise undamaged, and Killian started; he hadn't heard the captain come up. Nemo observed their unexpected extra passenger with a very odd expression, then turned to Killian. "This would in fact be your brother, then? The one you were speaking of earlier?"

"I. . .yes. That's. . . that's Liam." Killian waved his hand weakly. "He, ah, he said that Lady Fiona ordered them to attack us. That was her ship, evidently. She spotted someone potentially in her way and wanted them blown to bits. So is she – " He turned back to Liam. "Is she going to Skeleton Island, then? Is anyone else with her?"

"As I. . ." Liam hesitated. "As I understood it, yes, she was going to Skeleton Island. She has Billy Bones with her. We met in Bristol after she kidnapped me from Paris – anyway. She was going to Barbados first. I didn't know why."

"Barbados?" Killian felt unsure whether to be pleased that he had guessed correctly, or sicker than ever. "I know why. Her brother's there."

"Broth – " Liam's face went still. "Bloody hell. I asked Bones who started this, and he said I'd appreciate it. Jesus. It's him, isn't it? Robert Gold's her brother. He's alive."

"Aye." Killian glanced up at him, feeling almost as if the years had melted away, and it was just him and Liam about to confront Gold in Antigua. "We can follow her, we can stop both of them. Are you with me?"

"To the end." Liam's voice wavered, ever so slightly. "That's always been so. It always will be."

They kept staring at each other – then finally reached out, half expecting the other to vanish beneath their fingers, and clutched on, clawing into each other's arms for the first time in over twenty years. They all but banged heads, grasping fistfuls of the other's still-dripping clothes, shaking without a word, holding on. Liam kissed the side of Killian's head, and Killian pressed his face into Liam's neck, neither of them moving or stirring or speaking or breathing, for some interminably long time that nonetheless felt far too short. Then, very slowly, they let go, hands still catching, neither of them particularly steady, eyes too bright. Liam coughed and painfully stood up. "I could do with some dry clothes and about a bloody week of sleep."

"I'll take care of you," Regina said, starting to move forward. "Come on."

"I – no." Killian cleared his throat. "I know you want to check him over, but – Regina, I think I should. Be the one to take care of him, a bit."

Regina looked extremely surprised, started to say something, then stopped. "All right," she said. "For a bit."

Killian and Liam made their way into Killian's cabin, and shut the door. They let out a gasping, half-sobbing laugh, turned toward each other, and then said in unison, "Christ, you look old."

"No denying that." Liam sat down heavily on the bed. "Though it suits you better than me. Jesus. I can't believe it's you."

"I can't either." Killian lifted his hand, ran it down Liam's unshaven cheek. "I've been. . . I've been stupid, Li. As usual. I should have seen you long ago, I should have come back. I'm sorry."

"It's all right," Liam said roughly, knuckling at his eyes. "It's all right, you're here now. We can make it to Barbados, we can stop Bones and Lady Fiona and Gold and anyone else. Then we can talk about the – the rest."

"No, Regina's right. We should talk now. Some of it, at least. We've spent a long time not talking, we don't know how much time we'll have. What happened in Bristol? How did you – ?"

Liam looked as if he did not particularly want to broach the subject just now. "It's complicated."

"I'm an adult, remember? Grown man. I can handle the truth. You don't need to shield me from it. If you're going to go back to doing that – "

"I. . ." Liam drew a slow breath. "I. . . don't need to ask if you remember Hawkins?"

Killian winced. "Of course I do."

"Well, I met his wid – his wife, and his son, Jim. He reminded me of – of you, almost."

"You should say his widow, Li. She is his widow, I widowed her. I was just thinking about it. It was for Sam, I had to save Sam. But there's no avoiding that truth. It was my crime, I'll have to answer for it one day, but – Liam?"

Liam closed his eyes. Finally he said, "Jim and I were blamed for burning down the Benbow. We didn't, but – "

"The Benbow Inn? That old place?" Killian almost smiled in fond memory, before registering the rest. "What? It burned?"

"Aye. I think Lady Fiona did it, then tricked Sarah to lie for her somehow. She's bloody dangerous, we have to be careful. But Jim and I were imprisoned, she came to gloat, and – I don't know for sure how much she knew, but she threatened to tell him, and I. . ."

"You what?" Killian said sharply. "You what?"

Liam opened his eyes and looked at him hollowly. "I told Jim that I killed his father."

"You. . . what?"

"Lady Fiona was going to tell him it was you, I couldn't – "

"You couldn't? You just said you couldn't be sure how much she knew, she could have been about to say bloody anything! I wasn't even there, but you thought I'd crumble in absentia? Still couldn't shoulder the cost of my actions? As ever, had to heroically dive in and pull me out? Christ, Liam! Why the f*ck, why the f*ck, do you have to keep doing this?"

"Killian, I have to protect you, I – "

"No. No, you don't. You haven't had to protect me for years and years, and you're the only one you're hurting by it. You're certainly not helping me, or yourself! I love you, of course I love you, but I can't go back to this. Neither can you. Thank you for telling me, rather than leaving me to find out some other way, but I bloody wish you hadn't done that. Now when Jim Hawkins invariably finds out the truth, as he deserves to, it can blow up even more badly! Why?"

"I just. . ." Liam reached for him again, but Killian pulled away. "I wanted. . ."

"Aye?" Killian's voice cracked. "Well, I don't. I don't want it, Liam. And if that's what you'll always do, no matter what, then I don't want you. Not until you can learn how to stop."

Liam recoiled back as if he had been slapped. Are you with me? Killian had asked, and To the end, Liam had answered, and yet, that already seemed to echo as a broken promise, an empty lie. Both of them knew that asking Liam to stop protecting Killian felt tantamount to asking him to stop loving him, to stand aside from everything they had ever fought for – and yet, much as it broke his own heart to do it, Killian could not take back what he had said. Needed Liam to find a new way of loving him, of trusting that their bond was still deep enough, and could not put off that reckoning. It was better than living in yet another lie, no matter how lulling.

They remained frozen, neither saying another word. Killian felt as if he should soften his ultimatum somehow, but he did not want to make it anything less than perfectly clear that this could not go on. He knew that if he asked this of his brother, he had to ask it of himself, that he could not demand immediate reform from Liam and then return to plans of revenge against Gold – that the two of them both had to change, however difficult. Perhaps he should explain that too, that he was not trying to be a hypocrite, that the task was shared. But the words remained lost.

There was one more moment in which, perhaps, if they had known each other better, or even at all, for the last twenty-five years, they would have been able to speak. But they had not, and so Liam nodded once, and got to his feet. Crossed the cabin, let himself out, and shut the door.

Chapter 16: XVI

Chapter Text

From the mouth of the harbor, Nassau looked both as if no time had passed at all since their long-ago departure, and a land too strange for any hope of recognizance. Emma had at least last seen it when she and Killian were leaving after the battle, but Flint and Miranda had not seen it since Flint's duel against Blackbeard for command of the fleet and Miranda's departure to the Maroons' island. It had been their home for ten years, but its memories were far from unqualifiedly pleasant, and both of them were white-knuckling the railing as the ship started the approach. The closer they got to New Providence, the more abstracted they had become, until Emma thought she could set off a firework in front of them and not get more than a twitch. Still, it was bordering on surreal for her as well: pirate ships replaced by merchant galleys rocking sedately at anchor, the place looking altogether more smartly groomed and respectable than she had ever seen it, and – causing Flint to growl out loud – the Union Jack flapping proudly over the city. "Look at that," he said furiously. "Woodes f*cking Rogers still won in the end, didn't he? Someone should tear that rag down and remind them what we – "

"James,no."Miranda sounded almost on the verge of tears, enough to make Flint and Emma look concernedly at her. "I can't say I appreciate the sight much more than you, but promise me,promise me,you will remember who we are here to find, and to fight. This is dangerous enough. Don't toss tinder on the blaze."

Flint made a noise in his throat that clearly said as far as he was concerned, any fanning which might accidentally occur was not, of course, his fault. It had been a thankfully quick and uncomplicated voyage from Philadelphia, but now they had to reckon with the dread prospect of actually facing their past, and nothing more to put it off. The first order of business was to get ashore, find Charlie, and locate suitable lodging for Violet and the children, who were already somewhat unimpressed at the prospect of being uprooted once more from Philadelphia, where they had only just arrived, and shuffled off to Nassau for what seemed likely to be the winter at least. But as it was better than remaining behind alone and being exposed to any potential future assassins, they had agreed, and Richard was already of the conviction that it would be a fabulous adventure to see the pirates' old hideout for himself. Utterly oblivious to the adults' discomfort, he swung on Emma's hand. "We're almost there then, Grandma?"

"Yes, kid. Almost." Emma smiled down at him; he looked very much as Henry had at eight. Or at least as she assumed he had, as she hadn't seen him between the ages of five and eleven, had been here pirating, sending the money to him and Charlie in Virginia. God, this was strange. She didn't have quite as visceral a reaction as Flint to seeing the Union Jack, but it rubbed her the wrong way nevertheless, in a way she had not expected. Nassauwasdifferent now, and if they had changed it, how they had changed it, and what they were about to face as a result, remained an unsettling, elusive mystery.

They reached the quays soon after, and the hands threw out ropes to tie up. David was of course the owner of the vastly profitable interests on the island that Charlie managed for him, and swiftly persuaded the otherwise extremely zealous port master that the berthing tariffs could be skipped. Flint watched with an expression somewhere between admiration and outrage, as time was it was him who would play by his own rules here, be the captain greeted in respect and wariness. As the port master strode off to tax some other unfortunate, wig brimming with self-righteousness, Flint put a hand to the pistol in his jacket and muttered, "I could still shoot him from here."

One look from Miranda was enough to disabuse him of that notion, and once everyone had collected their things, they traipsed down the gangplank, Flint offering a polite hand to his wife, his daughter, his granddaughter-in-law, and Charlotte in turn. While he remained cautious of her presence, it was clear that she had impressed him, and she and Miranda had had a few quiet conversations on the trip down that had settled, more or less, Flint's suspicion of her sincerity. Emma was in fact quite curious what exactly Charlotte had said to Miranda to convince them, but at least it was preferable to Flint glaring and breathing down her neck at every turn. Once Henry, bringing up the rear of the party of ten – seven adults and three children – had reached the street with the rest, he said, "I'll go find Uncle Charlie, it will be good to see him again. Violet, Richard, Lucy, and Cecilia can come with me, I'll get them settled, and the rest of you can ask a few questions. And I do mean questions, Grandpa."

Flint grunted noncommittally, and turned to Miranda. "You should go with them."

"I'm not the one with a crack in my skull," Miranda pointed out. "If we're stepping aside on grounds of infirmity, surely that includes you?"

"What?" Flint was startled. "No, I can't. But – "

Miranda gave him another look, this one the quiet, shrewd brown gaze that meant while she appreciated his concern for her safety, she knew that he was trying to send her away so he would have more scope to approach this reunion however he wanted, and she was not going to turn a blind eye, whether to protecting him from Nassau or protecting Nassau from him. Her deep-grained anger at him for nearly getting himself killed like an idiot remained apparent, especially as Flint seemed set to follow it up by restarting the entire war. There was an awkward pause as they silently challenged each other, two formidably strong-willed and stubborn people who had been married for a very long time, and finally Miranda, with a significant look at Emma an