Again he glanced out across the water at Blackbeard's lightless ship, this time with hatred. That's how it must have been, he thought; he wanted to rope me in, and he researched me to find the quickest, easiest lever with which to pry me out of my place in the ordered world. If I hadn't been married to that castrating woman, he'd have had to find some other lever ... I wonder what that might have been ... my pride, perhaps, he could have maneuvered me into an illegal but unavoidable-with-honor duel ... or my honesty, put me in the position of having to beggar myself by repaying some dire debt undertaken by my wife.

But of course I made it easy for him. All he had to do was pay

Ramona's whores to give me back what my wife had taken from me, and then eventually to drug me and send a girl in who was a perfect duplicate, in looks and derisive manner, of my wife ...

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And then afterward, when my laboring heart had purged my bloodstream of the drug, and I was staring down at the dead girl's face, which no longer bore a resemblance to anyone, that evil giant strode into the room, a grin on him like a stratum of exposed granite in a mountainside, and he offered me the choice.

Some choice.

Chapter Ten

To Beth Hurwood's right lay the vast swamp that penetrated, they said, far inland - a region where land and water blurred into each other, seldom distinct, where snakes swam in the pools and fish crawled along the banks, where the very arrangement of channels and islands would, like a diabolically animate maze, change, rendering maps no more useful for navigating than sketches of clouds would be, where still air became stagnant like still water, and so miasmally thick that insects too large to do more than crawl anywhere else could fly here. Even as she glanced at that dark quarter of the landscape, far off in the marsh there appeared one of the randomly floating spheres of phosphorescence that the pirates called spirit balls; it lifted above the wispy surface of the fog and bounced slowly among the cypress branches and the dangling masses of Spanish moss, and then, just as slowly, fell back into the fog-river, and the glow became nebulous and then died out.

She looked in the other direction then toward the steel-gray sea, below which the sun had sunk half an hour before in so vast and molten a blaze that the high, wispy cirrus clouds still glowed pink; and being on higher ground and undazzled by the fires, she saw the sail a moment before the pirates did.

First a shout came faintly across the water from one of the three moored ships, and then one of the men down by the fires pointed and yelled, "A sail!"

The pirates all leaped up and sprinted for the boats, instinctively preferring to be on the water rather than on the land if there was to be trouble. Beth wavered uncertainly. If the sail - a single one, and disappointingly small - was a Royal Navy craft, she certainly didn't want to be aboard any ship that succeeded in fleeing them; but if she hid and stayed behind, would the Navy craft stop and send someone to check for stragglers ashore?

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Someone giggled very close by, and she jumped and smothered a scream.

Leo Friend stepped out from behind a cluster of swamp maple trees. "Going for a walk, my d-d-d - Elizabeth?" His eyes, she noticed, seemed to show too much white around the irises, and a smile came and went on his face as quickly and randomly as something that should have been secured in a wind.

"Uh, yes," she said, wondering desperately how to be rid of him. "What sail is that, do you suppose?"

"It doesn't matter," Friend said. His voice was shriller than usual tonight. "Royal Navy, rival pirates - it's too late for anyone to stop us." The smile poked his pudgy lips out and then disappeared again. "And t-t-tomorrow w-w-we'll - to-m-morrow we s-s-sail from h-h ... damn it ... here." He pulled a lace handkerchief from his sleeve and mopped his forehead. "In the meantime I'll walk with you."

"I'm going down toward the fires to see what's going on," she told him, knowing that since shooting Davies the fat physician had been reluctant, even with his various protective fetishes, to mingle with the pirates.

"Your buccaneer s-sweetheart's dead, Elizabeth," Friend snapped, his sparky cheer abruptly gone, "and I think it shows at least a lack of imagination to choose his suc-suc-suc-successor from out of the same stew."

Beth ignored him and began picking her way down the slope. To her alarm, she heard Friend following. How on earth, she wondered frantically, can I get away from him and keep the appointment with Bonnett?

A man out on the anchored Carmichael shouted something Beth couldn't hear, but the message was repeated by the men on the beach. "It's the bleedin' Jenny!" came a wondering shout. "The Jenny got free of that man-o'-war!"

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With no clear transition point the pirates' panicky rout became a riot of celebration. Bells began ringing on the Vociferous Carmichael and Bonnett's Revenge - though not on Blackbeard's ship) - and muskets were fired into the darkening sky, and the various ships' musicians hastily snatched up their instruments and began clamoring.

Glad now that it wasn't a Royal Navy vessel, Beth Hurwood quickened her pace, while Friend, seeing that the vessel was not one that offered her a chance of escape, sulkily slacked off his own pace.

Having a much shallower draft than the three ships, the Jenny was able to tack in very close to shore before dropping her anchor - the rattling of the chain lost in the general pandemonium - and a few of the men aboard her didn't wait for boats but took running dives off the bow, daringly trusting the speed and angle of their dives to carry them into water that wouldn't be over their chins in depth. A few could actually swim, and took this opportunity to show off their exotic skill by paddling around in circles, splashing and blowing like dolphins, before heading in to shore with theatrically nonchalant strokes.

One of them, though, just dove in and made his way to shore in a swift, unpretentious crawl, and he was the first to stand up in the shallows and wade in through the surge and ebb to the sand.

"Saints be praised!" cried one of the men waiting ashore. "The cook survived!"

"Whip us up one of your dinners, Shandy," called another, "before the captains start inland!"

A few more sailors had made their way ashore by this time, and the ships' boats were being dragged down the sand to the surf to facilitate the more formal disembarking, and Jack Shandy was able to avoid the worst of the welcoming press. He glanced around, clearly trying to keep from ruining his night vision by looking directly into the fires, and then his dark, bearded face split in a smile when he saw the slim figure of Beth Hurwood just now striding into the central clearing.

She hurried across the sand to him even as he broke into an unsteady run toward her, and when they met it seemed to her only natural to throw her arms around his neck.

"Everybody told me you were all killed - in that last broadside," she gasped.

"A lot of us were," he said. "Listen, I've been talking to Davies a lot during these last five days, and - "

"No, you listen. Stede Bonnett and I are going to steal a boat and escape tonight, and I'm sure there'll be room for you too. The Jenny's arrival will postpone it a little, I imagine, but it should at the same time provide a fine diversion. Now here's what you do - linger by the shore for a while until Bonnett can choose a boat, and then watch for me. I'll - "

"Shandy!" came a yell from the fireside crowd. "Jack! Where in hell are you?"

"Damn," said Shandy. "I'll be back." He strode away from her toward the crowd.

"Here he is!" shouted Davies. "May I present, gentlemen, my new quartermaster!" The applause that followed this announcement was sporadic, but Davies went on. "I know - you all think it's cookery and puppets he does best, and so did I, but it develops his real values are brassier; courage and deceit and a quick, steady hand with a pistol. You want to know how we got away from that man-o'-war?"

The pirates loudly indicated that they wanted to know. On the outskirts of the crowd, Beth Hurwood took several slow steps backward, her face expressionless. Shandy looked back at her over his shoulder, clearly wanting to return and say something to her, but a dozen hands, and even an encouraging boot or two, were propelling him toward Davies and the flattened clearing between the fires. The lean old pirate chief grinned at him; though Davies had cursed the absence of a bocor during the past five days, he had, himself, taken the dead bocor's kit and managed to "slap Mate Care-For awake" and to some extent keep that personage's attention on the sloop, and now the wounded men were recovering unfevered and Davies' shoulder seemed to be restored.

"After I was shot off the Carmichael," said Davies loudly, "a circumstance I'll take up with certain parties presently, I was picked out of the water by the Navy boys and taken aboard their ship. I found the Jenny crippled and captured, and all her surviving lads under armed guard - except for our boy Shandy, who'd told the captain, 'Oh dear me, sir, I'm not one of these dirty pirates, I was forced to join them, and I'll be delighted to testify at their trials." Several of the Jenny's crew had attained the shore and joined the crowd, and now they hollered their delighted agreement.

"That's just what he said, Phil!"

"Innocent as a bloody sheep, that captain thought Jacky was!"

"But," Davies went on, "he tipped me a wink when no one was looking, so I waited to see what he was up to. And what Jack did was convince the captain that I should be questioned privately, down in the great cabin, and no sooner had the three of us and a couple of officers got in there and shut the door than Jack snatched a pistol and shot the captain's head clean off his body!"

The applause this time was tumultuous, and Shandy was forcibly picked up and marched around the fires on the shoulders of a number of pirates. Beth took another backward step and then turned and ran toward the dark shoreline, as Davies, behind her, went on with relish to describe the way Shandy had engineered the utter destruction of the British man-of-war.

She found Bonnett standing just to the dry side of the high-water line, staring out at the darkening sea, his hands locked behind his back and the tilt of his three-cornered hat indicating that he was staring into the sky.

"Let's go, quickly," Beth panted. "I'm afraid I've confided our intentions to one who'll betray us, but perhaps if we leave instantly that won't matter. And the arrival of the Jenny can surely be used to our profit - you can pretend that the supplies you take from your ship are to replenish those of the ravaged Jenny, can't you? So for God's sake, let's go, every second - "

She halted then, for Bonnett had turned around to look at her, and his face bore an uncharacteristically sardonic smile. "Ah!" he said gently. "Escape, is it? Furtive flight? That explains his extreme tension and anxiety ... very conspicuous states of mind, if one has learned to smell such things." He shrugged, and gave her a smile not devoid of sympathy. "I'm sorry. Neither of the two pieces you propose removing from the board is dispensable right now."

Beth gasped, then whirled and ran back in despair toward the fires, her most basic assumptions about the world shaken for the first time; for she knew beyond hope of rationalization that, though the voice had been Bonnett's and had come out of his mouth, it had been someone else speaking to her through them.

Shandy swore under his breath, for he'd lost sight of Beth, and he'd hoped to be able to give her his account of Davies' rescue before she heard the flamboyant version the Jenny's crew had come to agree on.

He was about to demand that the pirates put him down when he caught a whiff of the by now not unfamiliar smell of overheated metal. He tensed, trying to remember some of the things Davies had taught him during the past five days. He exhaled totally and hummed one of the simpler parrying-tunes, and he shifted around on his unsteady perch, trying to face all corners of the compass.

He found that his nose burned most uncomfortably when he was facing the farthest fire, and after a moment's peering he noticed the stocky, red-haired figure of Venner standing there. Shandy braced himself, then raised his left hand, curling the fingers into the uncomfortable position Davies had shown him, but as soon as Venner realized Shandy had noticed him he looked away, and the smell was gone instantly.

Shandy whistlingly sucked air into his heaving lungs. Well now, he thought as the pirates wearied of their sport and let him hop down to the packed sand, that's worth knowing. I guess Venner doesn't agree that I'm the best man for the quartermaster job.

The cheering and howling had abated in the clumps of the crowd nearest to the shore, and after a few seconds the stillness spread to the rest of the crowd; an inattentive pirate or two shouted, and one drunken old man worked his way to the end of a long fit of laughter, and Mr. Bird reminded everyone one more time that he was not a dog, but after that the silence on shore was absolute.

And from the dark sea came the kalunk ... clunk ... kalunk ... clunk of oars knocking in oarlocks.

Shandy blinked around in uneasy puzzlement. "What's up?" he whispered to a man near him. "A boat's coming in - what's so terrible?"

The man's right hand darted to his forehead, but he hesitated and then just scratched his scalp. Shandy guessed his first impulse had been to make the sign of the cross. "It's Thatch," the man said quietly.

" ... Oh." Shandy stared out at the boat that was now halfway between the shore and the lightless bulk of the Queen Anne's Revenge. There were two figures in the boat, one of whom, the bigger one, seemed at this distance to be wearing a tiara of fireflies.

More profoundly than ever, Shandy wished that Captain Wilson had not tried to kill Davies. He recalled all the stories he'd heard about this man in the approaching boat, and it occurred to him that Thatch - Blackbeard - the dreaded hunsi kanzo - was the most successful of the buccaneers who had tried to adapt to this new, western world. Blackbeard seemed as much and as inseparably a part of this world as the Gulf Stream.

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