The Continuing Adventures of a Pirate Queen

Copyright Nene Adams 1998-1999. No portion of this publication
may be reproduced or copied without the author's permission.
 


Chapter Nineteen: healing hearts Ahoy

Elizabeth was alone in the cabin with Graciela. The pirate captain muttered softly in Spanish; an imprecation or a blessing, the maid never knew. She felt bone weary, head so light it might float off her shoulders and be lost in the bright blue Caribbean sky. Elizabeth heaved in a breath and sighed, drawing the sound out and slumping her shoulders. Heedless of pins, she thrust a hand into her mass of red-gold hair and scrubbed her broken fingernails against her scalp, her skin crawling at the dirty, greasy feel. She'd have sold her soul for a real bath.

Looking down at Graciela, she made a mental catalog of the pirate woman's visible injuries. The scabbed weals on her breasts and belly were still raw looking and some of them had festered, especially one that curled up the inner part of her thigh and laid her open almost to the navel, the cut deepest in the leg and becoming more shallow towards the belly. The skin on the thigh was puffy and taut, hot to the touch; the proud red flesh that was every doctor's nightmare, every patient's worst fear - wound rot.

Graciela was feverish as well. Elizabeth pursed her lips and thought about what she could do. There were no herbs aboard the Sans Quartier, just the unknown contents of the ship's medicine chest. When she'd been a child, her old nurse had taught her a great deal about medicines and the treatment of injuries and illnesses. Auntie Ellen had once been apprenticed the village wisewoman, practicing everything from midwifery to minor surgery to sophisticated herbal cures. In Elizabeth's opinion, Auntie Ellen's home-grown medicines were more effective than the bleeding, purging and blistering usually prescribed by more conventionally educated doctors.

There was a heavy knock on the door and a voice cried out, "For the love of Jesus, let me in! T'is Bonny Reid and I've brung the chest, I has!"

Elizabeth opened the door, allowing the ship's cook to hobble into the cabin. He was a solidly built gentleman with a crutch under one arm and a wooden chest under the other. As he made his way into the room, she noticed that his left leg ended at the knee; his trouser leg on that side had been rolled up and secured with a pin. He put the chest down with a grunt on the captain's desk and turned to face her.

He was bald as an egg, the skin of his head and face the color and texture of boiled leather. Blue eyes peered at her from beneath bristling silver brows and his lips were were pursed like a baby's. "Aye, I be Old Bonny." He balanced himself on his crutch and rubbed his callused hands together. "Where be me patience, then?"

For a moment, Elizabeth was nonplused, then she realized what he'd meant and pointed at Graciela. "Your patient is there, Master Reid."

The old man stumped over to the narrow bed and peered down at Graciela, rasping the bristle on his chin with a tar stained thumb. "Hmmm..." He ran a hand over her thigh without embarrassment. "Calor, rubor, dolor," he murmured.

One of Elizabeth's brothers had been sickly as a child, prone to putrid fevers and night sweats. She was familiar enough with physician's cant to know what Reid was saying. "Heat, redness and pain. I agree; the wound is festered. What do you plan on doing about it?"

"Hmmm..." He poked Graciela with a finger; there was no response. "She'll have to be bleeded, aye. And a good strong dose o' calomel and ipecac, fer cleanin' out bowels and belly. We'll blister ta draw the foul imbalancin' bloomers, too."

"You are not bleeding this woman!" Elizabeth said forcefully. She already had Reid's measure; he was a fairly ignorant fellow who'd picked up a bit of knowledge when he'd been a surgeon's mate. No doubt he awed his fellow crewmen with his thimbleful of Latin but Elizabeth was made of less impressionable stuff. "Nor are you subjecting her to emetics, clysters or blisters. 'Bloomers' indeed! What else have you got in that chest of yours besides powdered beetles and Galen's humors?"

Reid was taken aback and glared at the tall maid from beneath his tangled brows. "Now see here, missy," he mumbled, keeping his balance despite the motion of the ship. "I'll not be havin' you come all over with the megrims and the capers whilst I'm seein' to me patience."

Elizabeth put her hands on her hips. "I'm not subject to the vapors, Master Reid, nor am I likely to succumb to a headache anytime soon, unless it's in response to your mutilation of the King's English. Now, let's get this straight, my good man." She pointed a finger at Graciela, then swung that finger directly beneath Reid's nose. His eyes crossed as he tried to follow it.

"Put any thoughts of opening up that woman's veins out of your head this instant. She's been tortured enough, as anyone with half a pennyworth's of sense can tell." Elizabeth felt her patience wearing dangerously thin.

Reid spat in indignation, the gobbet missing the captain's bed by a hairsbreadth. "I'll no have some lickerous wench tellin' me what to do..." His voice trailed off and his eyes crossed again. The tall maid had drawn her dagger so swiftly he'd never noticed the action.

Elizabeth kept the point of her knife steady under the old man's stubbly chin. "Another such eruption, you bloody lobcock, and I'll turn you into a capon!"

A laugh sounded behind them. Without turning around, Elizabeth knew it was Miguel. "Get this quacksalver out of her," she snapped.

Miguel had a basin of steaming water in his hands and a heap of linen strips over each shoulder. He laid his burdens on the desk next to the chest and said, "So, Bonny Reid, I see you've met Lizzybet the Lionhearted." His face was wreathed in a wide grin.

Despite the blade biting into the wattled flesh of his chin, Reid didn't lack for courage. "She's said the Cap'n's not to be bleeded, by Jesu!" he exploded. "Pipe me eye but this be a fair pass when lasses what's just out o' their pinneys be givin' orders to a saltwater tar! Cap'n'll never leave her sick berth 'lest I balances her 'oomers. Do summat, sir... t'ain't right, I tells ya! T'ain't right at all! Were I an able-bodied hand wit'out this old timber..."

Elizabeth didn't blink an eye. "Go back to your pots and pans and patty pies. I'll tend to the captain myself."

Miguel put a hand on Reid's shoulder. "You heard her, Bonny. The galley's your place and there's dinner for hungry sailors to get on. And none of that burgoo, mind. We laid on plenty of provisions so I'll see a triple-decked seapie and maybe a slice or two of gammon to go with the men's grog. Aye? Good man," he said, clapping Reid on the back as the old cook hobbled away, muttering and and doomsaying and shaking his head.

Elizabeth stared after him. "With such a surgeon on board, it's a wonder your injured survive at all."

"Oh, Bonny Reid's a good sort," Miguel replied. He had removed his eyepatch and the familiar ruby now flashed from his empty socket. "He means well."

Elizabeth sniffed but forbear to comment. Instead, she opened Graciela's wardrobe. On a shelf she found a tinderbox; striking a flint, she lit a lantern, hung on a nail from a beam in the ceiling. Handing her knife to Miguel, she said, "Hold this in the flame until it's cherry red."

The Spaniard obeyed without question; Elizabeth seemed to know what she was doing and he had a feeling that his captain was in good hands.

Throwing back the lid of the medicine chest, Elizabeth surveyed the contents with a lightening heart. It wasn't as bad as she'd feared; besides the usual gallipots and ampullas of catharides and ipecac, she found some bags of dried herbs, a few unguents and a glass bottle of strong coarse rum strapped to the side.

"Bleeding indeed!" Elizabeth huffed to Miguel's silent amusement. She knelt down beside the cot; dipping a strip of linen into the hot water, she began cleaning Graciela's wounds with a delicate but firm touch. A couple of the whipmarks were lightly inflamed in places; she worked the scabs off with her fingernails, cleaned out the discharge and, as soon as clean blood flowed again, poured in a generous measure of rum.

She did the same for Graciela's back, rolling the unconscious woman over gently, mindful of her broken ribs. The majority of the wounds were healing cleanly and needed little intervention. Elizabeth's lips were pulled tight in a frown; Graciela had been tortured, it was clear, and by someone who knew exactly what he was doing.

As near as she could tell, the pirate had no other broken bones but there was hardly a patch of her skin that didn't have a bruise or cut of some sort. The slash on her forehead was shallow and although it had been opened up several times, it didn't look inflamed and would heal cleanly. Elizabeth wiped dried crusts of blood off Graciela's face tenderly; she even worked a corner of the linen into a little knot and cleaned black clots of blood out of the pirate's nostrils. After a while she had to stop; the water was cool and filthy, tinged a muddy red. Graciela was still not very clean  - her skin was grainy with dirt, half moons of mud were encrusted beneath her nails - but until she could get her into a proper bath, she'd done the best she could for now.

Elizabeth sat back on her heels, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. There was a nagging ache in the small of her back and she was very conscious that she stank to high heaven. Miguel touched her neck. "The knife's heated," he said. "I doused it in a cup of rum like I saw my abuela do in the birthing chamber before she cut my cousin's cord."

Elizabeth nodded dully, too tired to respond.

The Spaniard continued, "I'll fetch some fresh water from the galley. Do you need anything else?"

Elizabeth shook her head. Miguel picked up the basin and left, shutting the door quietly behind him.

Alone with Graciela once more, Elizabeth realized that besides food and sleep, she had another urgent need - her bladder was screaming for relief. She reached under the bed and pulled out the chamberpot.

It wasn't until she removed her borrowed trousers that she realized just how strangling tight they'd been. She examined the bright red weals cut into the flesh of her thighs where the seams had rubbed her raw. She had no doubt she'd been chafed nearly bloody in other places as well. Squatting over the pot in a corner of the cabin, she released her bladder with a sigh. She'd been almost overflowing and despite the sting when urine irritated her raw places, it was still such a relief that she felt like crying.

Finished, she picked up the pot and flung open the windows at the back of the cabin; the leaded glass panels were set into the stern of the ship and overlooked the glittering ocean. She'd been about to hurl the contents into the sea when a thought came to her and she looked at the yellow liquid with a more appreciative eye. Auntie Ellen had sworn by urine as an effective antidote for festering; it was certainly salty enough to make a strong man whimper at the sting.

When Miguel returned, Elizabeth was dressed only in her long shirt; the tail came down to her knees and she figured she was covered enough for decency's sake. She was damned if she was going to put on those horrible trousers again.

If the Spaniard noticed the maid's lack of dress, he didn't comment. "Fresh hot water," he said with a smile. "Though I nearly had to wrestle Bonny to the deck to get it."

Elizabeth smiled wearily at his sally. "Thank you," she said. Together, they turned Graciela over on her back again. Her body was limp, the skin heated by fever.

The maid shoved greasy red-gold hair out of her eyes. "After this I'll need cool water to pour over her. Seawater will do but I want it drawn deep."

"Aye-aye," Miguel said. "What will you do now?"

For answer, Elizabeth put a pad of linen beneath Graciela's injured thigh. Taking up the knife, she sucked in a breath and made a deep incision into the infected tissue. Immediately, a stream of foul yellow pus spurted out; the matter was streaked with black and stank of rot. Although her gorge rose, Elizabeth caught the discharge on a handful of lint. She kept manipulating the wound; another gout of pus, this time streaked with red. Pressing the flesh and pouring rum directly into the cut to wash the stinking stuff away, she kept at her job as the material flowing from the wound changed color, from yellow to mingled white and red to the rich crimson of fresh, clean blood.

Miguel had silently handed her fresh lint as the one in her hand became fouled, tossing the filthy cloth into a bowl, his single black eye never leaving his captain or her surprisingly skillful surgeon.

Elizabeth closed her eyes and breathed a sigh. Half of her work was done; what remained wouldn't be nearly as bad.

More rum went into the wound, followed by urine poured directly inside. Miguel wrinkled his nose when he saw the chamberpot but didn't forbid it. After examining the edges and interior of the cut and discovering, to her vast relief, that the tissues weren't necrotic but a healthy pink, Elizabeth ended her ministrations by pulling the edges of the thigh wound together and wrapping the leg tight with linen wrappings, moistened with hot water and sprinkled with dried herbs between layers. Graciela shivered with fever chills but the maid was frankly glad that she hadn't awakened during the operation.

Now that the leg had been taken care of, Elizabeth turned her attention to Graciela's fever. She mixed a spoonful of leopard's bane into a cup of clean warm water; the dried bark was an effective febrifuge. She and Miguel managed to get most of it down Graciela's throat, although the pirate fought against the bitter taste and weakly tried to push the cup away.

Next, Elizabeth supervised moving Graciela out of the cabin and behind a canvas screen rigged up on the poop deck. Buckets of cold seawater were poured over her body while a chain of crewmen kept the buckets coming, one after the other, until Elizabeth declared that the captain's fever had abated somewhat and was longer as frighteningly high as before. Although Miguel reluctantly expressed his doubts over this procedure - like many sailors he believed seawater was bad for open wounds - Elizabeth reassured him that it would do their captain no harm. She spoke with such authority that even the most superstitious among the crew believed her.

Getting Graciela back below, another dose of leopard's bane was followed by a bowl of frumenty, sweetened with precious honey and dried fruits and enriched with fresh eggs from one of the ship's hens - a peace offering from Bonnie Reid. Elizabeth patiently spooned the custard into Graciela's mouth, wiping up spills and blinking as exhaustion made her vision doubled. But there was still work to be done - as soon as she finished feeding the pirate, Elizabeth called for a wooden tub, lined with clean linens, a pot of soft lye soap, warm water and more lengths of calico to serve as towels. By this time, the first mate and the crew had gotten used to obeying the redhead's orders when it came to the captain and they leaped to their tasks with a will.

This took a few hours as the galley was kept busy heating cauldrons of seawater and a new chain of sailors passed the pots from Reid's domain to the captain's cabin. Once all was made ready, Miguel helped get Graciela into the tub but it was Elizabeth who made sure her bandaged leg was propped up on the side, out of the water. It was the maid who washed her, who soaped a rag and worked it with gentle care on the woman's body to cleanse it, who used a smooth orangewood stick to clean her fingernails and toenails, who lathered her hair and washed it, then trimmed the ragged ends with a pair of iron shears. After this labor, Elizabeth supervised getting Graciela dried off, tucked into her cot, covered with a fresh cotton sheet and made as comfortable as possible. The fever seemed to be gone; Graciela's skin was cool and clean, she was sleeping peacefully and Elizabeth decided that she'd wait until morning to offer more leopard's bane tea.

She put both hands on the small of her back and twisted; the cracking of her spine was startlingly loud in the quiet cabin. Once he'd felt Graciela out of immediate danger, Miguel had gone back out on deck to supervise the crew. Now Elizabeth eyed the tub of filthy water sitting in the center of the room, the pools of spilled water on the floor, and felt like collapsing or crying, she didn't know which.

Her muscles were rubbery, her mouth was dry, eyes burning, skin itching, but Elizabeth knew she couldn't sleep just yet. She cleaned up the spills with the calico that had served as towels and was too tired to show surprise when several sailors entered the cabin and manhandled the tub away.

Breathing a heartfelt sigh, Elizabeth pulled on the too-tight trousers and made her slow, painful way up on to the foredeck. From the quarterdeck, Miguel hailed her and she waved limply in his direction.

The sun was sinking, the sky banded in broad streaks of orange, crimson and indigo. They'd picked up a freshening wind and the cool breeze felt marvelous against Elizabeth's sweaty skin. Other than that she felt frowzy, filthy and fuddled, her brain numb with exhaustion and swathed in cotton wool.

A hand touched her shoulder and she knew it was Miguel, although the first mate had not made a sound.

"She's sleeping," Elizabeth said softly.

"I know, bonita. You should sleep, too."
 

"I can't."

"Afraid you'll see the face of that maricon, eh? The one you killed?"

Startled, Elizabeth whirled around and confronted Miguel. The Spaniard's face was in shadow, unreadable; only the faint suggestive glimmering of his ruby eye could be seen. "How do you know?," she choked.

"Do you think all of us were born murderers? Men don't come to killing easily and when they do, it's mostly because they were given no other choice. The first time you take a life, well, that's the hardest and it stays with you. But it will get better, Lizzybetta."

"Will it?" The full import of what she had done suddenly struck her; she felt as if she couldn't breathe. Swallowing past the knot in her throat, Elizabeth sank down on a coil of rope and put her head into her hands. "Will it ever?"

Miguel squatted down beside her. A passing crewman looked at the pair curiously; the first mate snarled, "Que carajo quieres, eh, cabron?" The sailor threw him a wide-eyed look and scurried off to his duties.

In a softer tone, Miguel said to Elizabeth, "Lizzybetta... there are many hard choices in this life. You chose to save the Cap'n; to do that, men had to die. If you should come to such a place again, will you hesitate, remembering the first time? Or will you do what you must to survive?"

"I knew it might come to this," Elizabeth said, her voice muffled. "But hearing about it..."

"Is very different from actually pulling the trigger and seeing a man die. I know."

"Could I do it again?" Elizabeth raised her head; in the fading twilight, her face was white and strained. "I don't know. I just don't know."

She heaved herself off the coiled rope, rejecting Miguel's offered hand. Without another word she went back below, her back rigid with suppressed emotion.

Miguel said, "Sleep well, bonita."

No answer was returned, only the soft, slow, sad sighing of the wind. He knew she would not find no peace in sleep this night.

The swarthy first mate considered for a moment, squinting his good eye against the wind and rasping the stubble on his chin with two fingers. Then he began snapping orders left and right, and Bonnie Reid was roused from his bunk with many grisly oaths, and sailors scurried about the deck in the shadowy gloom as Miguel watched with an expression of satisfaction and anticipation.

A surprise was brewing for Lizzybetta... a reward to gladden any woman's heart, and although the crewmen groused and grumbled, Miguel smiled in the teeth of their thundering oaths and didn't care how they cursed so long as they obeyed.

Sir George Fitzwilliam stood on the docks in Port Royale, his mustache bristling furiously. The Royal Endeavor, a thirty-six gun frigate, was being loaded with boxes, bags, chests and cabinets, crates and kegs and bottles; a seemingly endless line of dark-skinned servants marched up the gangplank, disappeared through the hatch and marched back up again, for all the world like a bunch of ants teeming in busy chaos, gathering up the crumbs of a summer picnic.

"What a bloody mess this is!" Sir George muttered sourly. "Where does the governor think we're going? Fiddler's Green?"

The captain of the vessel, a dour looking individual named Henry Harte, shifted the plug of tobacco in his mouth and spat a thin stream of brown-tinged saliva into the harbor. "She'll do naught for speed, that ship, not loaded to the devil and t'wixt the decks. We'd do better to scuttle the supercargo and take on more powder and shot."

Sir George shook his head. "Unfortunately, that isn't possible. Lord Jeffrey travels in style, when he travels at all. Jesus God! What the devil is that?"

An enormous piece of furniture was making its unsteady way up the narrow gangplank, heaved along by six burly negroes. Sir George leaped to the end of the plank and shouted, "You can't bring that aboard! Bloody hell!"

The big, heavily carved and gilded bed thumped unceremoniously to the deck as Sir George blistered the air with oaths. The sailors aboard the Endeavor watched this performance out of the corners of their eyes and snickered softly.

Lord Jeffrey's post-chaise arrived at the docks, pulled by a pair of matched grays that were the pride of his stables. His frockcoat was dark blue velvet, heavily frogged and embroidered in silver. Fat, flashing diamonds in his cravat, buttons and in the oversized cuffs of his coat drew fiery sparks from the air. A fore-and-aft hat was perched on top of his freshly powdered wig, a thin stiff queue of hair curling up from his neck and tied with a crisp ribbon. Matching blue knee britches, beribboned hose and a pair of black leather shoes with enormous sapphire buckles completed the picture of a wealthy, powerful and fashionable man.

He handed Margaret out of the gig with elaborate courtesy. Her gown matched his outfit right down to the color of the velvet, with swags of silver brocade decorating the fully belled skirt. Diamond bobs swung from her ears and sapphire bracelets encircled each wrist. Her own hat, fashioned to resemble a gentleman's tricorn, sported a billowing ostrich feather fastened with a jeweled aigrette to one side. Her honey-blonde hair had been sculpted into a tall mass of curls, with wisps left deliberately loose to frame her perfect, pretty face.

Lord Jeffrey approached the gangplank, Margaret hanging onto his arm. "What is going on here?" he asked coolly.

Henry Harte spat into the harbor. "We're havin' a bit o' trouble wit' the cargo, Yer Excellency," he mumbled.

Sir George came to the railing. "Governor, sir! It's your bed... I'm afraid it won't fit through the hatchway."

Lord Jeffrey scratched his chin and his maroon eyes narrowed. "Then have some of your carpenters disassemble it, trot it down to my cabin, and reassemble it there. By Christ, man! Do I have to think of everything?"

"But sir...!"

"Excuse me, Sir George... were you saying something?"

"No sir." Sir George disappeared and soon, the air was being rent with grisly oaths as the guard captain began organizing a work team to take care of the governor's massive bedstead.

"Well, now, that wasn't too bad, was it?" Lord Jeffrey mused. "Tell me, Harte... has my Madeira and Tokay been brought aboard?"

"Aye, Yer Excellency," the captain said. His gray eyes, set in nests of wrinkles, gleamed with resentment. This ain't no pleasure cruise, he longed to say. What with all this bloody frippery yer totin' aboard, we'll all be takin' three turns 'round the longboat and a pull at the bleedin' scuttle afore we catches up to them Christ-forsook pirates of your'n. But he kept it to himself, being wise enough to know that "him what pays, says."

Lord Jeffrey nodded in satisfaction. The white lead make-up on his face was already beginning to show wear as the sun beat down on his head and made him sweat. He turned to Margaret and said, "Shall we, madame?"

Margaret allowed the governor to assist her up the gangplank. Once aboard the Endeavor, she went to the rail and looked over the ship's side, ignoring the admiring glances of the sailors on deck.

Just you wait, O'Malley, the Countess thought malignantly. We're coming after you and I swear I'll see the color of your guts before I'm through with you!

Having finally settled the question of the bed, Sir George crossed the deck to Margaret's side, his face beet-red and glistening with sweat. "Good afternoon, my lady," he said gallantly, making an elegant leg.

"Oh, is it?" Margaret asked. There was ice in her tone. "I hadn't noticed."

"Please, madame, I beg you to forgive me," Sir George pleaded. He was close enough to her to smell the orange-flower perfume that permeated her skin and clothes; the sweet fragrance made his head spin. "I swear we will capture O'Malley and her crew. I swear it!"

Margaret turned and looked at him with a calculating eye. Lord Jeffrey had insisted she come along on this voyage mainly out of malice - he hadn't wanted her to enjoy the comforts of his manor, servants and bank account while he was away - but she was sure there was a bright side to this bitter coin. Sir George, for instance. He was handsome, despite the unfortunate drawback of his bandy legs. Her gaze dropped lower, to where those spindly thighs met in the vee of his crotch. His fawn colored trousers were skin tight, the brass buttons on the sides drawing the fabric taut, without a wrinkle. The thick snake of his manhood was clearly outlined and Margaret licked her lips, wondering how the guard captain would be in bed.

Sir George cleared his throat and ran a finger around the collar of his shirt. "Madame? Say you forgive me, I beg you. I will do everything within my power to make this trip as enjoyable for you as I can."

There was a speculative gleam in Margaret's amethyst eyes as she raised them from his crotch and focused squarely on his face. There was such a bold and wanton look about this woman that Sir George caught his breath. "And will you keep me safe?" she asked huskily, laying a hand on his brawny arm. "I am a woman alone, sir; weak and helpless, utterly lost without the company of a real man."

Sir George gulped. He felt ten degrees hotter and wondered if his brain was boiling. "Your servant, madame," he answered in a high, strangled tone. "In all things." His manhood, having a mind of its own, swelled and twitched against his thigh.

Margaret threw back her head and laughed. Suddenly, being trapped on board a ship in the middle of the ocean with the venial governor and few worldly comforts didn't seem quite so bad, after all.

Captain Jack Splitfoot surveyed the damage to the Brimstone and twisted his hideously scarred face into a scowl. "When we catch that bitch, I'll string her up by the yardarm myself!  Putain!"

It was sometime later in the evening and Lord Jeffrey had joined the pirate captain at the repair dock, where the Brimstone was undergoing repairs. The explosion had ripped a several holes in the hull, damaged all the cannons, partially collapsed the main deck and killed twenty sailors. There was no way the carpenters could repair the ship in time, for Lord Jeffrey was determined to sail on the morning tide.

The two men were sitting on the front porch of a tavern called the Pigwhistle, drinking rum and eating plates of lobscouse. The governor's presence ensured their privacy, as well as the obsequious attention of the landlord.

"So, what will you do, Splitfoot?" Lord Jeffrey asked, using a piece of biscuit to scoop up the mingled beef, gravy and vegetables on his tin plate. He popped the morsel into his mouth and forced himself not to grimace. Lobscouse was a favorite dish among sailors but he was damned if he could see the attraction; salt beef had never been a favorite food of his.

Splitfoot, who knew full well that the governor would have rather gone back to the manor for dinner, grunted and shoveled food into his ruined mouth as quickly as possible, using a dirty thumb and forefinger as fork and spoon alike. Half of what he shoved inside fell out again, spotting his coat and shirt with gravy, crumbs and flecks of vegetable. Lord Jeffrey was hard pressed not to vomit at the spectacle.

Pushing his plate out of the way, Lord Jeffrey picked up his cup and swigged deeply, throat working as the raw rum burned a path to his belly. Wiping his lips daintily with a lace-trimmed handkerchief, he asked, "Would you like a berth on the Endeavor? I can see to that easily, you know."

Splitfoot grunted again, spewing crumbs across the table. When he spoke, it afforded the governor a view of partially masticated food swimming around in his mouth and dribbling down his chin. "Stow that! I'll not leave me crew in port, by Jesu! No, what I need is a ship."

Lord Jeffrey patted his lips with his handkerchief again. His maroon eyes gleamed. "And how much would you give for such a vessel, captain?"

Splitfoot peered at the man warily. "What the devil are you talking about?"

"I may be able to commandeer a suitable ship for your use, captain. But it would require a certain, hmmm, gratuity on your part."

"Spit it out, man!" Splitfoot shouted, "And keep yer flibberty double-talk mewed up behind yer face!" He banged the table so hard his plate and cup jumped.

Lord Jeffrey leaned back, striving to keep an expression of disgust off his face. "Very well. Tonight, just after the middle watch, the Portmaster expects a sixteen gun brig, the Fortune of War, to be ready to sail. She's been careened, caulked, breamed, supplied and is as seaworthy a vessel as you're likely to find. It so happens that, in my capacity of governor and keeper of His Majesty's laws in this part of the world, I can commandeer the Fortune - if I recompense the ship's master in good coin of the realm."

Splitfoot snorted. "Aye, that's ben't, mate!"

"No, I assure you it's perfectly true. Should you and what's left of your crew wish to accompany the Endeavor on this mission, then I suggest you, sir, that you take advantage of my most generous offer."

"Split snacks, shall we?" Splitfoot offered slyly. Lord Jeffrey fluttered his handkerchief and shook his head.

"My good man, why should I want to split the expense with you? I have my own ship, after all."

Splitfoot considered. "Sixteen gunner, aye? Provisioned and ready to sail, says you... well, then. How much?"

Lord Jeffrey dabbed pearls of sweat off his face. "Shall we say... four thousand?"

"Four bloody thousand?!" the pirate spluttered. "That's a damned bit o' robbery, that is! Why'nt you just tips me over and tups me well with that bit, you bloody cullion!"

Lord Jeffrey gazed at Splitfoot calmly. "Take it or leave it, captain," he replied, tucking his handkerchief into his sleeve and rising from the table. "Should you be required to berth your crew here in port while the Brimstone's being repaired, I've no doubt t'will cost you a pretty penny more."

"Bugger!" Splitfoot finished off his rum and threw the cup at the tavern wall with feeling. "Hmph. Well, I s'pose I'll have to take your offer, sir. T'is either that or flog my sharp-set cullys 'round the fleet and beg for a seagoing berth. Damn your eyes!"

"Very good, captain." Lord Jeffrey turned to go. "Have your men - and the cash - ready at first light. We're sailing with the tide."

Splitfoot grunted sullenly, waving a hand in dismissal.

Lord Jeffrey walked back to his post-chaise, quite pleased with himself. He'd purchased the Fortune of War two weeks before from its bankrupt owner, paying a mere two thousand reals for the vessel. An excellent bargain, he thought. In more ways than one.

He was so absorbed in self congratulations that didn't hear Splitfoot growl behind him, "Aye, master cock-o'-the-walk! Strut in yer fine feathers now, me lad. Fer as soon as that dog-bitch is crack-necked and bloated, t'is yourself I'll be coming to scuttle."

As Lord Jeffrey disappeared into the thickening gloom, Splitfoot called for another pannikin of rum and spent the rest of the evening in a foul, blackhearted mood... only lightening up when he recalled how very lonely the ocean was; how great the risk of accident; how difficult it was to summon assistance from afar... why, anything could happen!

Oh, he'd put a scotch to Lord Jeffrey, all right.

In due time, Splitfoot thought, sucking down more lukewarm rum. All in good time to pay the devil his due, me fairweather lad.

Leaving the cot to Graciela, Elizabeth made a sort of nest for herself on the floor with an extra blanket. Stripping off her filthy, sweat-soaked clothes and wrinkling her nose at the smell, she tossed them into a corner. Pulling the rest of the pins from her hair, she let down the mass of red-gold tangles and combed it out as best she could with her fingers. By the time she finished her scalp felt raw and itchy.

Although she knew Miguel was right - the moment of the guardsman's death was something she'd care not to repeat again soon - still, her conscience wasn't as troubled as it ought to be, and that was what disturbed her most. She couldn't work up any feelings at all. She just felt numb.

To have been wracked by the torments of guilt would have been a relief.

She tried to thrust the vision of the man's disintigrating face from her mind. When Graciela had been in danger, when the pirate captain had needed tending, Elizabeth had been able to forget the blood on her hands, too busy to worry about the past when the present was screaming for her attention. Now that the excitement of the rescue and its aftermath was over, killing that guard loomed foremost in her mind. She'd committed a mortal sin, doomed her soul and placed herself forever outside thelaw... and she couldn't seem to care.

Nor could she work up the energy to wonder why.

Instead, she just felt like dropping in her tracks and weeping, but the tears wouldn't come. For all she knew, they would never come again.

Graciela murmured from her bunk; Elizabeth crossed over to her and examined the woman in the golden, flickering light of the lantern, anxious for a distraction of any kind.

The swelling in her eye was receding although the flesh was still darkly bruised and puffy. Other bruises blossomed along her jaw and neck. Graciela had tossed off the sheet that covered her and lay completely naked, looking so utterly vulnerable that Elizabeth felt a catch in her throat.

The skin of her feet, forearms, face and neck were golden brown, kissed by the Caribbean sun, but the rest of her body was a creamy ivory that reminded Elizabeth of the sheen of pearls. Old silvery scars were laced across her broad shoulders, torso, thighs and calves, along with the pocked marks of bullets dug from her hide after battles long past. Graciela's body was a testament to the harshness of her life and each engagement she'd fought had left its indelible mark on her. Elizabeth figured there were at least as many scars within Graciela's heart as there were upon her skin.

She was still heart-breakingly beautiful, though. So strong... smooth muscle outlined by taut skin, wide shoulders tapering down to a small waist and hips, flat belly drawing the eye into the fluffy vee of dark curls that nestled between her muscular thighs. For the first time, Elizabeth studied Graciela with impunity, knowing herself safe, and saw no reason not to indulge her curiosity. She was fascinated, unable to tear her gaze away from the pirate's body, following every curve, every line, the delicate tracery of bluish veins beneath the woman's skin.

Saliva gathered in her mouth and Elizabeth swallowed.

She reached out a hand and cupped one of Graciela's firm breasts, feeling the rubbery texture of the nipple harden in her palm, the warmth and silky softness of the flesh, and felt a sudden impulse to draw that rosy point into her mouth and...



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