“It’s the latest fashion, sar,” the tailor said.
Captain Monteroy Absinthe looked down at the lace cuffs of his shirt that were so long they covered his palms. They itched. “How can there be fashion in the world when most of it is drowned?” he asked, irritated.
The tailor, sighing, marked with a sliver of chalk an adjustment to be made to the hem of Absinthe’s breeches. “The last bits of decorum keep us civilized, sar, if I may say so. Even for pyrates. Besides, one must make a favorable impression.”
“I’m going to rob Lady Montforte, not marry her.”
“Aye, sar,” said the tailor, who sighed again—a neat trick, given the pins he held in his mouth—and smoothed the white hose on Absinthe’s leg, which also itched.
The tailor was dressed in simple wool breeches and a shirt that hung on him like a wet sail. What could he know about fashion? Absinthe thought. And though the tailor’s shop was against the hull of the ship and therefore had a choice porthole to let in light as they sailed over clouds in Cordelio, it was small and cramped and an inconvenient twenty decks below the maindeck. It all put Absinthe out of sorts—and no one should have to wear cuffs such as these.
He raised his hands and lowered them, the cuffs falling back and pitching forward. “How can I hold a sword properly with these things in the way?”
“I believe that’s the idea, sar,” the tailor said as he knelt to work on the other leg. “A gentleman is not a threat if something hampers his swordplay.”
“Well, make the stitches weak so that I can tear them off when the time comes.”
“Sar doesn’t intend on being a gentleman?”
Sometimes it was all a bit much being the captain of one of the last two greatships in the world. He and all other pyrates, though not unified, could sail unchallenged through almost any level of cloud in Greensea, unless pursued by ships from Isla or fighting among themselves. Blowing things to bits among the landed and plundering what was left, however, was not always the best way to provide for one’s people; sometimes what one needed got blown to bits as well.
His ship, the Crimson Moon, was inhabited by thousands of civilians accumulated through years of disappearing land as the waters of Ocean rose; it was not only a ship of battle but a city, and he had a population to feed and shelter. And then there was the ship itself, with sails that needed mending, rope that needed replacing, and hull that needed patching. As the Wyrm of the World, Leviathan, devoured the land, and entire cities sank beneath the waves, there was more to provide for and less to steal from. Sometimes one had to sail close-hauled to a finer goal than just rampaging through villages waving swords about. Sometimes one had to go for the big score.
“Dressing like a harlequin is hardly going to make an impression,” Absinthe said, “except one of buffoonery.”
“You are not dressed like a harlequin, sar,” the tailor said. “You are dressed as a landed royal. There are some among them who would kill for an invitation to the ball.”
Well, it didn’t come to that, Absinthe thought, but it did take a little more than bribery to secure mine. Lady Montforte’s ball celebrating the anniversary of her husband’s death was hailed as the event of the year in the Tumbledown Archipelago. More importantly, the lady possessed a treasury of jewels that dated back to the city-state burghers, said to contain diamonds, emeralds, and rubies as big as albatross eggs. The real prize, however, was the gem known as the Searock, or Seawrack, if it truly existed—green, glowing, and cursed, it was said, with power over Ocean.
He bent forward to note the tailor’s progress, getting an impression of creamy frills, but stopped suddenly, aware that he was about to upset his enormous hat. “I should hardly worry about making an impression on Lady Montforte. Apparently she is quite a shrew, and ugly besides.” A needle pricked him in the leg. “Ow!”
“My pardons, sar,” the tailor said. “My hands aren’t as sure as they used to be.”
“I’m sure you don’t want this white monstrosity covered in red. Be careful!”
Oh, who am I fooling anyway? Absinthe thought. They would spot him for what he was, despite any disguise. His hands, after a lifetime of handling rope and swinging a sword, were tough and callused, and his skin had been bronzed by sun and burnished by wind. He had lived his entire life on the Moon, sailing level upon level of cloud and hardly ever touching land. His father had been captain before him and his father before that, through centuries of hereditary captaincy. One could no more hide the wind and sky from his features than turn a cow into a swan by applying rouge to its cheeks.
The tailor stood, looking him over with one eyebrow raised. “There, sar. That does it. I’ll make the final adjustments and have it delivered updeck in the morning.” He made to guide him to a pier glass, but Absinthe closed his eyes.
“I don’t want to look.”
“Please, sar, just this once.”
Absinthe leaned over to peek into the mirror. “Oh.”
The person who stood before him in the glass was a landed royal of the highest order. His white shoes a handbreadth high glowed with buckles of ivory. His breeches scintillated with diamond-like sparkles against a field of milk. A creamy sash hung about his middle and his shirt erupted in cloudy plumes. Even the hat was not so bad, trimmed as it was in moonfish scales.
The tailor helped him into a greatcoat the color of fog. With one knee bent and a hand on hip, Absinthe turned to look at himself, pleased. He certainly cut a royal figure, much different, he supposed, than how people usually saw him in his common sailor’s breeches and simple shirt.
I am the Alabaster Duke, he thought.
“Just one more piece, sar, so I can see the entirety,” said the tailor, taking up a length of white silk.
Absinthe stopped his hand. “What’s that?”
He knew what it was: a neckerchief or such to cover the scar across his throat. For most of his life he had worn a scarf like a noose around his neck to hide it, his hidden mark given to him by his father, who sought sacrifice to Leviathan.
The tailor wanted to conceal the scar; it was an ugly sign to be covered up, stinking of curse. Absinthe felt a fool. It was his secret shame he hoped would shame him no longer. There were times when he forgot about it. He could not see it himself except in a mirror, of course, and he had been accustomed to the tightness of it at his throat since a child; but others saw it, every day, and that was something he should never forget.
“My pardons, sar,” said the tailor, taken aback. “No offense was intended. It is merely part of the disguise. Your... mark, sar—it will give away your identity to Lady Montforte and her retinue more than anything else.”
“Oh. Aye. I see,” Absinthe said, recovering himself. “Of course.” He reluctantly raised his chin to allow the tailor to tie the silk at his neck. “Yes, hide it,” he said. “Hide it completely.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Despite being truncated by the rising waters of Ocean, Montforte was still an imposing mountain, though it rose lone from the sea and, instead of commanding a vast expanse of land, merely frowned over a set of islands that freckled the waters to the north. The rock was known for its network of caves that peeked from steep cliffs. Many of these were now hidden and drowned, but the ones at the current level of the waters had turned to grottoes, washed by the tides and glittering with blue, phosphorescent crabs.
On this night the moon Tundaroon, high and bright, threw green fireflies across the surface of Ocean, while little red Andaluse brooded low in the sky. Their blue brother Sussurus bided his time on the other side of the world, perhaps awaiting the storm hinted at by the piled clouds in Cumulo and the swirling thunderers touched with red approaching from the west up in Caprico. For now, though, the sky was clear and calm, and the mansion that topped the mountain glowed warmly with firelight as if a welcoming beacon like those found in cloudhouses in the Calms of Dellabrynda.
Captain Monteroy Absinthe walked from the upper dock of Montforte to the mansion, having slipped in among a party being ferried over from neighboring Speckleton Cove. Once inside the building, he waited nervously among other guests at the entrance to the ballroom. He had dabbed his rapier with tar to make it look more like a dress sword, but now he worried that it had spotted his breeches. Had he forgotten to polish the buckles on his shoes? Were the frills on his shirt stiff and flaring? He was about to reset his hat once more when it became his turn to be announced.
The servant raised an eyebrow as he looked at the name on his card. He rapped his staff against the marble floor. “His Graciousness,” he called out and then coughed into his hand—was he laughing?—”Allister Pinchpence. The Alabaster Duke.”
Absinthe swept into the room. The ballroom was enormous, with columns of amber marble running along all sides, supporting a high gallery. Drooping, russet bunting decorated the gallery walls between torch sconces that took the form of skulls with glowing eyes. A chandelier glittered with crystal droplets that magnified its hundred candles.
Guests danced in the swimming light. The ladies, dressed in titanic hoop skirts, glided across the floor, while the men strutted in martial bearing and snapped open fans in time with the orchestra’s pompous tune. Open windows let in the sea breeze that gusted now and then with the approaching storm to shiver decorations of rust-colored crepe. Tables of food were stationed between the columns. A punch bowl, big enough for five people to bathe in, held a bubbling concoction of yellow.
Absinthe felt embarrassed. He had assumed he would be making a grand entrance, with people complimenting him on his attire, assuring him of the effectiveness of his disguise; but there was a part of him that wanted to fit in with this sort, these landed gentry, beyond the ruse of his persona. Instead he stood there while all the others ignored him, and though the orchestra was loud, he felt a great silence in the room. He knew the cause: the morbid ground beneath his feet. Used as he was to the heaving of a living deck, whenever he walked on land the unyielding ground always seemed silent, dead, lonely.
Presently, though, as his pyrate eye scanned the room, he discerned the treasure trove of jewelry worn by the guests alone, and his hungry spirit quickened in his heart. Even the bows of the fiddle—violin?—players looked to be made of silver. When he spotted his quartermaster Doubloon holding up a tray among the food tables, disguised as a server, he fought a smile.
Absinthe plucked a cream puff from the tray. “Thank you, my good man. Your apron is crooked.”
Doubloon fussed with the fabric. “Captain, this disguise is hardly—”
“That’s ‘Duke’ to you, servant,” Absinthe said loudly, and then he whispered, “Is everything in place?”
“Yes, Cap— Duke. Do we attack now?”
“Patience. I have to meet Lady Montforte before I can threaten her life.” He popped the cream puff into his mouth and looked around, chewing. “Now which of these shriveled old cows is she?”
Doubloon indicated with his head the other end of the ballroom.
Absinthe glided along the edge of the dance floor, toward a woman with a prunish face and gray hair whipped into a coifed confection: the Lady Montforte. She was holding court, seated within a circle of sycophants and eyeing the proceedings vacantly.
He loosened his rapier in his scabbard and gauged the odds. There were few in the room who looked like guards, and those around her would be no match for him. He would introduce himself to her and state loudly the signal to his men, which was the statement “What a beautiful dress you are wearing, my lady,” and they would rush out of their hiding places. The only problem was the loudness of the orchestra. What if some of the men did not hear him?
As he approached, the lady raised a monocle to her eye and gazed at him with a disapproving air. All was in place. There was no turning back now.
He stopped a few steps away from where she sat—he could leap behind her and have his sword at her throat in an instant—and bowed. As he did so, he eased his left hand to his scabbard, angling the hilt downward to come in line with his right hand now slowly arcing toward it.
“My Lady Montforte,” Absinthe said. “I am—”
“The Alabaster Duke!” cried a woman to his left. She swept toward him in a dress that was as wide as she was tall, its enormous hoops narrowing to a slim waist. She was young, lithe, and uncommonly pretty, smiling at him with a wide, quick mouth and large eyes the color of honeyed amber. “I am Lady Montforte. We’ve been waiting for you for ages.”
He was taken aback, all sails braced round into the wind. She was beautiful. This was the Lady Montforte? How could his agents have been so wrong? He vowed never to use his own rumormongers as spies again.
She leaned toward him, placing her hand on his left arm. “The Marquis of Old Bail has been talking to me about his butterlily plantations again. You’ll rescue me from such boredom, won’t you?”
The lady’s hand on his arm sent a thrill of warmth through him. Her shoulder-length copper-colored hair was straight and loose, and she looked up at him with her head tilted sweetly. Though the paleness of her skin indicated someone not raised laboring out of doors, there was nevertheless something about the set of her features—signs of malnourishment when young—that indicated a strength underneath, as though she had married into her station instead of being born to it.
He found it difficult to speak. “I am—”
“The Duke. Of course. How are your coconuts?”
“Madam? Oh, my coconuts. Very fine. A fine crop.” All he knew about the persona his rumormongers had established for him was that his wealth was based on coconut plantations on land recovered from the sea.
He adjusted his towering hat, careful to keep his balance. He still had a job to do. She was leading him into a crowd of people, and her proximity made it difficult to get at his sword. He needed to stall to gain the weather gauge again. “Congratulations on the anniversary of your husband’s death.”
“Thank you. The caterers are a little rough-looking, but the food is grand. Do you like the decorations? The skulls are based on my husband’s face.”
“The dead autumn roses on the columns are particularly choice,” he said, matching her droll tone.
“You’ve had balls for the dead yourself, no?”
Damn those rumormongers, he thought. “Why... yes.”
“I heard you were a widower,” she said, giving his arm a squeeze. “It must get awfully lonely on those plantations.”
“Coconut trees are bad company, I fear.”
“So are plum orchards, I’ve found, these past five lonely years. By the way, I understand you are an expert on defense against pyrates. How do you keep them from grabbing your coconuts?”
I’ll blast those rumormongers to Harrowdeep, he thought. “Oh, yes. What scum. The trick is to shoot them, my lady. Aim a pistol at their hearts and squeeze.”
“How brutal! I was told wit was your weapon.”
“Shooting pyrates isn’t brutal. It’s a necessity.”
“And you do all this shooting yourself?”
“I have servants for that.”
“Really? I suppose that makes you a sword man,” she said, looking at him inquisitively. “Jerking it out, thrusting, that sort of thing.”
But first I’ll have them keelhauled, he thought, twice. “There’s a fine art to sword work.”
“You’ve had a lot of practice, then.”
“I’ve had my share of engagements.”
“What’s your opinion about my defenses?”
“My mountain. Is it protected against pyrates?”
“I haven’t seen enough of it to know.”
“Few have.” She smiled. “That is, you’d have to find your own way round. There’re no maps. My husband always said, no maps. If you make a map, someone is sure to steal it, and then everyone starts running around looking for it, sticking each other with swords. It’s all a bit squint, really.” She stood away from him, pouting. “You have no opinion at all, Duke?”
By the Thirteen, she’s a flirty one, he thought. There was no telling what extravagant things his rumormongers had said about him. What if she was looking for a new husband? He was not used to navigating such shoals; it was rather like tacking through crosscurrents up in Tempestes.
Absinthe used his cuff to wipe at his brow as he tore his gaze away from her décolletage and settled it instead on her beautiful eyes. “The mountain is very defensible, but I’m not sure about the mansion. Those windows are too large.”
“But I love the sea breezes. I have a cannon on the roof. And the mountain is all caves, so bombarding the place would do no good. And pyrates like swinging from ropes, don’t they? They can’t very well swing into those windows. A rope attached to what? A moon?” She laughed.
“I’m sure you have no reason to worry about pyrates. Your jewels must be well-guarded and hidden.”
“Of course,” she said. “A pyrate would have to spend ages groping about to get at my jewels. Though it’s funny. My husband had these books, old ones he didn’t want me to see. You know how he hid them? On shelves in the library. No one would suspect they would be there.”
Absinthe surveyed the room for a more advantageous position as she spoke. Now was the time to give the signal, but the lady had taken his arm again and the orchestra was laying in with a rousing rendition of “The Lament of Drowned Wenterly.”
“Oh, you’re new here,” she said. “I’ll introduce you. Remember, you’re my guardian against butterlilies, if it comes to that.” She stopped in front of a man who wore a gray wig four handspans high. “Duke Pinchpence, this is Baron Sabato of Deadman’s Dock.”
The man snapped open a silver fan and gazed at Absinthe through eyeholes cut into it. “Ah, the Alabaster Duke. Expert on the pyrate problem. Those ruffians raid my fields every Tundaroon Full. Ghastly practice.”
Absinthe instantly disliked the man. “Lay out some picked crops in a dummy field,” he said. “The pyrates will be drawn to them and will leave the rest alone.” And setting out such easy bounty will save us the trouble of harvesting your fields ourselves, he thought.
“What an excellent idea,” Lady Montforte said, turning to the baron. “And you still grow those lovely sugarblooms, don’t you?”
The lid on a large marble urn next to Absinthe began to rise. Below it was Wenn, the cook’s mate, wearing the lid like a hat and clutching a knife in his teeth. “Mow, Cap’m?” he asked.
“No, not now,” Absinthe whispered. “Wait for the signal. And why didn’t you tell me she was beautiful?”
Wenn looked confused. “Booty where, Cap’m?”
“Well, I think it’s wonderful,” Lady Montforte was saying, turning back to Absinthe as he hastily leaned on the urn lid to shut it. “Shall we proceed?”
She took his right arm this time, leading him to a group of guests lingering near one of the columns. The farther he got from the center of the ballroom, the less chance that his men would hear his signal. He was casting about for a way to draw her into the open when she presented him to a tall woman who wore a red cloak draped casually over one shoulder.
“Duke Pinchpence, the Electress Serpentine, of the Bridgewater Reaches.”
“Ah, the pyrate expert,” said the electress, bobbing her cocked hat. “Those scoundrels regularly plunder my talia orchards at night. When Sussurus is full, the fruits positively glow from the blue.”
“Keep watch fires lit at all times,” Absinthe said casually. “The pyrates, knowing they will be seen by the light, will stay away.” And we can use those fires to find you more easily, he thought.
“I told you he would be marvelous,” Lady Montforte said to the electress. “Is the talia coming in full, otherwise?”
The tall, green leaves of a sword plant next to Absinthe were pushed aside by a silver one to reveal the face of Havelyn, a forecastle man who took watch on the tallest tower. “Now, Cap’n?”
“No, not now!” Absinthe said. “Wait for the signal. And why didn’t you tell me she was so fetching?”
Havelyn looked out over the dance floor. “Fetch what, sar?”
“Though I don’t care for talia fruit myself,” Lady Montforte was saying. Absinthe quickly closed the sword plant leaves as if arranging them more decorously. “Oh, you must meet the earl. Come!”
Now he was in a press of people. If he drew his rapier, he would have no room to maneuver. If he could put his back to one of the tables—
The lady steered him toward a short man whose black-gloved hands were nearly covered in lace cuffs. “Duke Pinchpence, Earl Reticella,” she said, “of Portmanteau Isle.”
“Nice cuffs,” Absinthe said. “They’re the latest fashion.”
“Oh, my dear Alabaster,” Reticella said, “I understand that you have fended off pyrates at every turn. My estate’s cannon could drive them off, but the villains drop down from straight above when Andaluse is behind them. Our metal can only be angled so high.”
“Dig a hole below the barrel, straddled by the wheels,” Absinthe said. “That way, the cannon can be aimed straight up.” And when the force of the blast breaks the axle and drives the cannon straight into the ground, we can plant your funeral flowers in the barrel, he thought.
“Fantastic!” said the earl, turning to Lady Montforte. “Now don’t tell me you made those plumlollies yourself.”
Absinthe backed toward a gigantic cake of eleven tiers, aiming for an open spot among the crowd. A panel slid aside in the lowest tier and a hand snaked out to scoop a glob of icing from the layer above. Merrick, a topman, lay on his side within the cake’s hollow interior. “Now, Cap’n?”
“No, not now!” Absinthe hissed. “And why didn’t you tell me she was so charming?”
Merrick deposited the icing in his mouth. “Harm who, sar?”
Absinthe slammed the panel shut.
“And then you can visit more often,” Lady Montforte was saying to Reticella. She made to take Absinthe’s arm again, but he stood away and gently clasped her right hand in his left, leaving his sword hand free.
He was running out of time. He had to separate her from the crowd. It would not be long before one of the Crimson Moon’s boats would launch so that he and his crew could make their escape.
The tune had stopped as the orchestra flipped through their sheet music. At last his men would be able to hear his signal. A thought came to him.
“My lady, may I have the honor of the next dance?”
She looked at him quizzically and then shrugged. “Of course.”
He led her to the center of the floor. Here he would have room to maneuver while his men secured the guests. One of the house guards casually guided his partner to stand close by, but otherwise they were alone. One person coughed, and then another, as all waited for the music. Absinthe and the lady were directly under the chandelier, its light bright in his eyes and setting her face aglow. They had to stand far apart because of the hoops of her dress, but it would be easy to spin her, grab her around the shoulders, and draw his sword to demand the jewels.
His men were ready. Now was the time to give the signal.
He hesitated. The words would not come.
“I’m very disappointed,” Lady Montforte said, frowning.
“If you’re going to dance with a lady, shouldn’t you compliment her on her dress? My very best seamster worked on it for ages. Or has fighting pyrates hampered your manners?”
“Um,” he said. The perfect opportunity had sailed athwart his bows. All he had to say was “What a beautiful dress you are wearing, my lady,” and the room would burst with his men attacking, overcoming the crowd, and the jewels would be his. Something was holding back the words. She was so beautiful.... “It’s a rather... it’s a....”
The room was deathly still. He could sense the other guests leaning toward him, listening, waiting for his response. His men were waiting for the signal. Doubloon glared at him, still holding his tray of cream puffs. “What I mean to say is....”
Her brows knitted. “Yes?”
“That is to say....”
Ah, hell, he thought. Think of the jewels. Think of the treasure. He cast back his head and spoke loudly. “What a beautiful—”
The orchestra struck a note, beginning its new piece, but Absinthe had not noticed a bass drum among the players, so he could not at first fathom what caused the next note: a throaty, rumbling boom. Then smoke roiled past him, plaster scattered across the floor, and all the guests screamed.
A section of wall burst apart from another explosion, widening a window. The lady was torn from his grasp by the nearby guard. The orchestra dropped their instruments in a caterwaul of disjointed notes. Guests rushed away from the wall as a third explosive crack threw smoke and the smell of powder into the room.
Absinthe was borne away in the press of guests, who fetched up against the food tables, but he leaped over one to stand behind a pillar. Through the breach in the wall swarmed men waving pistols and cutlasses, jumping from a boat floating outside the window. They ordered all in the ballroom to stand and hold.
Absinthe caught Doubloon’s eye, cautioning him to remain where he was. Pyrates, he thought. Some other dumb bastard had the same idea I had. He had a horrible thought that the lady had been cut down or hurt in the rush of guests. He peered from one side of the column and then the other, but he could not see her. People continued to rush away from the wall, and then he saw her. She was being grasped protectively by the guard. Absinthe shook his head. Who’s dumb now? he thought. Was I concerned for her for her or because she led to the jewels?
The attackers stationed themselves on either side of the gap, covering the guests. One last man entered, and as he did so a flash of lightning cracked outside and thunder rumbled through the room. The storm had arrived, and sheets of rain sluiced through the sky.
This last pyrate sauntered over the marble floor. He wore a greatcoat of red leather, the upturned cuffs stitched with blackwork in the shapes of snails. His beard, painted green, was oily and thin, and he walked with head tilted back, gazing through spectacles perched on his nose.
“Now, now,” he said in a high voice, “let’s have no more unpleasantness.” He drew a pistol and shot the guard protecting Lady Montforte through the head. Blood sprayed across her dress and she screamed as the guard’s body collapsed to the floor. “Except for that last bit,” the pyrate said.
Lady Montforte stood shivering, shocked. The pyrate held out the pistol for one of his men to reload. He casually drew a sword as he approached the lady and laid its tip on her collarbone. “Now, Lady Montforte, you will take me to your jewels.”
“Who—who are you?” asked Lady Montforte.
“I am your death, if you do not deliver,” the pyrate said, “but you may call me Captain LaRoche, of the Fishwife.”
Absinthe did not recognize him nor know the ship. The man’s greatcoat appeared to be a size too big for him. He was probably some young, landbound thug trolling the coast, unable to sail the sky, though obviously he had some boat that did. Of all the times for some petty thief to stomp on my plans, he thought.
The pyrate’s men herded the guests toward one side of the room, opposite the entrance. Absinthe slid away, from column to column, ducking behind tables to stay hidden, approaching a place opposite Doubloon.
He halted. One of LaRoche’s men, scouting away from the others, was approaching the next column over, looking for stragglers but ignoring servants like Doubloon. Absinthe rushed toward the column and put his back to the marble.
One boot step, two—the pyrate’s face appeared in profile as he moved past the column.
Absinthe slipped behind him, thrust his forearm under the man’s jaw, and dug a knee into his back. Nothing but a gurgle escaped the man’s throat. After a time he stopped clawing the air and went limp. Absinthe lowered him to the ground.
“But will my people be safe?” Lady Montforte was asking LaRoche in a fear-streaked voice.
“It’s much harder to rifle through corpses,” LaRoche tittered, “so we’ll keep them alive for now. As for you, I am merely removing riches ill-gotten by the death of your husband. I am here to clear your conscience.”
Absinthe saw her lift her chin in a brave show of strength. “I suppose I have no choice.”
“The choice is between living and dying. The usual one.”
A red rage stirred in Absinthe’s chest. Now some filthy cutpurse stood in his way to the jewels. And he saw no reason to injure Lady Montforte, whereas there was no telling what this desperate thief was willing to do.
Lady Montforte and LaRoche, accompanied by two of his men, approached the entrance to the ballroom. Absinthe and his men were slightly outnumbered. He would have surprise on his side if he gave the signal and unleashed his crew, but the attackers were still alert. As time passed they would gradually let down their guards. The storm raged outside. A delay would allow the boat from the Crimson Moon more time to arrive.
He could let LaRoche do to Lady Montforte what he wanted and then dispatch him to secure the jewels... if he was willing to see her harmed. Regardless, as she led LaRoche to the treasure she would lead Absinthe there as well, if he followed.
He stepped out of his shoes, tore away the hose from his feet, and laid aside his hat. He peeked around the column as the lady and LaRoche moved past. She glanced his way. Did she know he was there? Was there a plea for help in her eyes?
He shuffled over to the last column. One of LaRoche’s men was stationed at the door. Absinthe moved to the other side of the column where he was visible to Doubloon and signaled.
Doubloon stared at him.
Absinthe pointed to a pitcher on Doubloon’s table, and then made a fist and opened it.
The quartermaster rolled his eyes; then, still holding his tray of cream puffs, he lifted the pitcher, moved it over the floor, and dropped it. It shattered. “Oh, no,” he said. “I dropped a pitcher.”
The pyrate by the door moved toward him. “Hey, watch it thar,” he said. “You get over with the others.”
Absinthe slipped through the entrance and into the shadows beyond.
Grand staircases led to levels of the mansion above while smaller ones led below. The stones of the nearest one going down flickered with the light of torches. Silhouettes danced. Absinthe hurried down the steps, drawing his rapier.
Voices echoed up to him, but he could not catch what they said. Down he went, coming to a carpeted hallway with doors of ebony at either hand. LaRoche and the lady entered one at the far end.
Absinthe slipped down the hall and stood with his back to one side of the door, his rapier held up before him. Voices came from within.
“You’re a scoundrel and a rogue,” the lady said in a quavering voice. “I say again, how dare you! How dare you kill one of my guards. Did you think I would not give you the jewels otherwise? You thieves are all the same.”
“Just let us take the jewels, dear madam, and there will be no more blood shed.”
“What guarantee do I have of your honesty?”
Absinthe peeked into the room. A lavish canopied bed occupied most of it. On a chest of drawers was a large wooden box and behind it a mirror. Next to this stood LaRoche and Lady Montforte. Near the door stood one of LaRoche’s men, while the other waited behind the lady.
“I have no honesty,” LaRoche said. “Open the box, damn you! Who are you to judge me? Look at you in your bloody dress.” Laughter gurgled in his throat. “Take it off and show me your jewels!” He grabbed the top of the lady’s dress and ripped it open.
Absinthe sprang into the room, delivering a thrust of his rapier into the belly of the nearer man, who went down. He saw Lady Montforte dart toward the wooden box and LaRoche’s hand dive to his belt, just when the other guard leaped to the attack with a cutlass. Absinthe blocked the roundhouse slashes, and when the man was caught in a backswing, he lunged; but the pyrate backstepped and blocked, turning aside his point.
Absinthe felt his hilt slip. It should not have been so easy to parry his blade. His palm itched. The cuffs! The one on his sword hand was covering his palm, foiling his grip.
He backpedaled and jumped onto the bed. He sliced through the gossamer stuff of the canopy, cutting it loose, and cast it into the pyrate’s face. As the pyrate fought through the gauzy web, Absinthe jumped to the floor on the other side of the bed, grabbing at one cuff and then the other to rip them off.
The cuffs would not come off. The tailor had not loosened the stitches!
The pyrate’s blade made short work of the fabric and he came roaring off the bed. Absinthe blocked his reckless slices, and then backstepped once, twice, moving closer to the door to prevent the pyrate from slipping past his point.
After another sloppy swing from the man, Absinthe saw his chance. He gripped his rapier by hilt and blade in half-sword fashion to thrust out—only to find his arms pinned to his sides from behind. His rapier clattered to the floor. The pyrate promptly held his cutlass to Absinthe’s throat and smiled, gold tooth winking.
Absinthe felt hot breath laughing against the back of his neck. The first pyrate held his arms, his barrel belly apparently none the worse from Absinthe’s initial attack.
“Now, now, what have we here?” LaRoche said, tilting back his head to look through his spectacles as he aimed his pistol at Absinthe’s heart. “A hero to defend your honor, madam?”
Absinthe looked to Lady Montforte. The top of her dress was torn away. Underneath she wore a bustier of red leather, worked in front with the image of a rose.
“See what you’ve done?” she said to LaRoche. “I said no killing. It only makes people reckless.”
LaRoche moved toward Absinthe, his spectacles becoming opaque with the reflection of a hallway torch. “I am not sure this is a reckless man,” he mused.
“Killing wasn’t part of the deal,” Lady Montforte said. “Someone has to answer for it.”
“Oh, I believe someone will,” said LaRoche, studying Absinthe intently. He placed a finger underneath the blade of his minion’s cutlass to raise it higher. Absinthe was forced to lift his chin.
LaRoche’s gaze fell to his neck. “Now, now, someone will pay indeed.” He peered more closely. “I believe a portion of your accoutrements has become loose, sar.” He grabbed Absinthe’s neckcloth and tore it away. “Or should I say, Captain Monteroy Absinthe.”
“Captain?” exclaimed the lady. She pushed down the remainder of her dress, stepping out of the hoops. She wore thigh-high russet boots, black leggings and a silver-worked belt from which hung a pistol and a dagger.
“Pyrate captain,” sneered LaRoche.
Absinthe felt paralyzed. To have a blade in close proximity to his throat made a panicky tingle start at the base of his spine and work upward. He was exposed in more ways than one. And the lady... how could she be dressed that way?
Lady Montforte put hands on hips and glared at him. “Pyrate? You were after my jewels?”
“Well, I—” Absinthe began, but LaRoche turned to her.
“Unless he is a plant of yours,” he said. “Perhaps you bargained with him for a larger share?”
“Don’t be a fool! If I wanted you dead I’d have planted guards in this room to cut you down. I needed the ones in the ballroom for appearances.”
By the Thirteen, I’m the one who’s a fool, Absinthe thought. He had not stumbled upon a defiant hostage resisting her captor but an argument between partners. “You’re in league with him?”
“Shut up,” she said. “If you were a real duke you’d know how ridiculous it is to stay landed while your farms drown and your buildings flood. Going pyrate is the smartest thing I’ve ever done... besides kill my husband.”
“Yes, yes, she’s the Autumn Rose now, you see,” said LaRoche, chuckling. He turned to the lady. “But why don’t you prove your loyalty by showing me the jewels just the same?” He leveled his pistol at her.
Her pistol was instantly aimed at him. “Are you going to let him ruin our deal? This means he has men hidden in the ballroom, or outside.”
“All the more reason to get the jewels and make our escape.”
Sighing, Lady Montforte opened the box. A glittering cascade of light filled the room. Inside the box were diamonds and rubies and emeralds, shimmering from an inner fire.
“Now, now—how do I know these are the real ones?”
Lady Montforte lowered her pistol, exasperated. “He really has put doubt in your head, hasn’t he? Go ahead. Test them.”
Keeping his pistol leveled at her, LaRoche reached into the box and picked up a large brooch that held a square-cut diamond. He made a pass with it across the mirror. He waited. A crack sounded. The mirror burst into a thousand shards.
“Bad luck, that,” Lady Montforte said.
“It could hardly make mine worse,” LaRoche said, “but perhaps things are turning around.” He slammed the box shut. “Killing the captain of the Crimson Moon is quite a prize.” He aimed his pistol at Absinthe. “Move aside, Winkle. And you better duck, Fisheye.”
Absinthe struggled against Fisheye’s hold as Lady Montforte looked from Absinthe to LaRoche and back again. “I said no killing!” she snapped.
“Don’t tell me what to do!” cried LaRoche. “This is a partnership, not a marriage.”
“Do you want his men to hunt you down to the ends of the world for revenge?”
“It would be rather inconvenient to take him with us!”
Absinthe’s feet slid as he wrestled with Fisheye. “And here I thought you were a lonely royal,” he said to the lady, “in need of... rescuing.”
“And I thought you were a foppish duke who’d mind his own business like the others.” She turned to LaRoche. “I have the water cells.”
LaRoche regarded Absinthe through his spectacles. “Now, now, that would keep captain’s blood off my hands. And a gradual death is such sport. If I don’t miss my guess, our Captain Absinthe is not too fond of water.” He laughed. “Very well, madam. To your merry little dungeons, then.”
Absinthe twisted in the pyrate’s grip. “I suppose this means there’ll be no cake,” he quipped.
The lady rounded on him. “What a meddlesome bore and filthy liar you are.”
Absinthe straightened up as best he could. “I object to ‘filthy.’“
LaRoche scooped up the box of jewels with one hand while keeping his pistol aimed at Absinthe. Lady Montforte bent to pick up her dress.
“Leave the dress!” LaRoche commanded.
“It’s made of the finest silk from Halambar and worth a fortune... partner.” She gathered the fabric and led them into the hall. Fisheye shoved Absinthe forward, and Winkle brought up the rear.
A fool indeed, Absinthe thought. Why had he leapt so recklessly into that room? What had he hoped to accomplish? She was in on it, after all; the pyrate attack had been arranged, and for what? She had no idea what she was getting into by turning pyrate. His regard for her was rapidly turning to contempt... if he lived long enough to feel it.
He was running out of options. He had an entire room full of his men upstairs, but if he called out now they would not hear him. Dungeons... in water? They reached the stairs and descended, Fisheye prodding him in the back with his cutlass.
The steps gradually narrowed, the stones of the walls becoming more roughly hewn. The torch sconces grew fewer, dimmer. It was colder down below and the walls were furred with algal green.
They came to the last torch and Lady Montforte took it up. A few steps more and the stairway ended in water, opening into a hallway that stretched away to one side. Splashing, Lady Montforte proceeded to light a torch on the wall.
Absinthe took one more step down, spun on his foot and grabbed Fisheye’s arm, slamming it against the wall. As the cutlass clattered to the ground, Absinthe caught Fisheye’s foot with his own and threw him into the water.
Before Absinthe could snatch up the weapon, he felt LaRoche’s pistol at the back of his neck and Winkle’s blade at his spine.
“Seems our good captain is afraid of water,” tittered LaRoche.
Sputtering, Fisheye stood. He splashed toward Absinthe and punched him in the stomach. Absinthe doubled over, winded.
They entered the hall, where stood a series of small cells barred with iron. The water came up to Absinthe’s shins, cold. A black wavelet tumbled slowly out of the darkness to splash his knees. Winkle took a set of keys from the wall and opened one of the cells.
“And that leads to one of your grottoes?” asked LaRoche of the lady, indicating the hall.
“Yes,” she said.
“How long will it take for these cells to flood with the tide?”
“Tut, tut. I’m so sad we can’t stay to watch. Very well, Fisheye. Get on with it.”
Fisheye shoved Absinthe into the cell.
“And her as well,” LaRoche said.
“What?” Lady Montforte took a step back, but Winkle was on her, snatching the dress out of her hands and yanking the pistol and dagger from her belt.
Absinthe made for the opening of the cell, but Winkle shoved Lady Montforte toward him and they both went down into the water.
LaRoche lifted the dress, which floated on the water as a dome, and tossed it into the cell. “You may be able to barter with that in Harrowdeep,” he tittered. “Perhaps Leviathan will spare your soul just a minute more.”
The cell door clanged shut, locked.
“Why?” Lady Montforte screamed at him.
LaRoche tilted back his head to gaze through his spectacles, the lenses shining green from the light on the walls. “Oh, my dear lady, someone’s been filling your head with romantic pyrate tales. Pyrates never team up.” He hefted the box of jewels. “I’m solo, sweetheart.”
He laughed, as did Winkle and Fisheye, and all three splashed through the water to the stairwell, taking the torch from the wall with them. Their shadows danced upward and then disappeared.
The lady’s torch sputtered in her hand, casting her dejected face in amber and gold. Absinthe went to the bars and shook them, testing their strength. A wave came through the hall again, curling against the far wall and rolling into the cell. Was the water higher than it was a minute ago?
Angry, he shrugged off his waterlogged greatcoat. Now able to grasp his cuffs firmly, he tore them off. The water was getting deeper. A thrum of panic inched up his spine.
He threw the cuffs away. “Don’t you know never to trust a pyrate?”
Lady Montforte held the dress above the water. “He lost trust in me. It was your meddling that made him think I was double-crossing him. And what are you talking about? You’re a pyrate.”
“Well, I didn’t make a deal with you.”
“No, you just snuck into my ball in disguise, lying about who you were. I surely know better than to trust you.”
“I think we’re a little beyond that now.”
Her eyes flashed. “You were going to hold me hostage and rob me of my jewels. Or were you just going to kill me? Along with all my guests?”
Absinthe grabbed the lock and shook it. “Don’t you have some secret way of opening these cells? They’re your dungeons.”
“I never intended to inhabit them,” she said. “And it’s not a dungeon. These were storerooms for the docks.”
“If you’re going to play pyrate, you should call it a dungeon.”
“I’m not playing pyrate. I’m turning pyrate.”
Absinthe ran his hands over the bars, looking for weak spots. “You have a mansion, money, status. You have land. Why would you want to turn pyrate?”
She brushed a strand of hair away from her eyes. “How long would I have those things? How long before the waters drown it all? And before that happens, those buffoons you saw dancing in my hall will finally realize their gold and jewels are worthless, that a loaf of bread is worth more than a ruby. How long before they’re all clawing at each other, when their orchards and fields are finally submerged? Better to take to the skies now, when they still think my jewels are worth something. Better to be free than drown in lies.”
“That sounds very romantic.” Absinthe took off his sash and flung it around the lock. He gathered the ends tight around his hands and pulled. “But being a pyrate is more than just swinging from ropes and doing whatever you want.”
“Really? What else is there?”
He stopped pulling and thought a moment. “Well, that’s most of it, actually.” He tugged again on the sash. “But you have responsibilities. To your civilians, your crew.”
“I have no civilians.”
“And no crew, do you? Did you really think LaRoche was going to take you with him? He was going to betray you whether I showed up or not. He was going to take advantage because....” He stopped.
The sash was no use. He flung it into the water.
“Because I’m a woman,” she said.
“Yes—no! Because you are a rich landed royal who’s been pampered all her life.” He ran his hands over the bars shared with the next cell over.
“Do you have women among your crew?”
“Of course I do.”
He let fall his hands, exasperated. “Because if someone’s good at killing I don’t care what sex they are. Red Betty can throw a dagger into a man’s neck at sixty paces.”
She sighed. “Take my hand.”
“Take my hand and feel how soft and pampered it is.”
“I thought we were trying to get out of here.” Frustrated, he kicked the door. Another wave curled into the room, the water black and viscous. It splashed over his knees, higher than before. It was cold. He shivered. He would die in cold; he would die in water.
She held out one hand while clutching the dress and torch with the other. He sighed and grabbed it. Her palm was as rough as leather. Turning it over, he saw calluses that could only indicate sword work. He had been too distracted in the ballroom to have noticed before.
“Should I tell you of how my husband hurt me?” she said quietly. “Should I tell you of how I endured it? Of how I secretly trained with sword and dagger until the day I made him stop? The hardest thing to learn in life is how to say ‘No more.’“
She yanked her hand away. “Or should I tell you about my uncle, who trained me to shoot with pistols, because he wanted me to be able to defend myself against pyrates? He told me all about them. But while he instructed me in ways to fight them, he had no idea how much I fell in love with those stories he told, of how I dreamed to sail the skies.” She glared into his eyes. “You were going to rob me. You were going to hold a sword at my neck and threaten to kill me. Or you were going to kill me and my guests outright. It didn’t matter, as long as you got what you wanted.”
He looked at her steadily and spoke low. “I was going to rob you. I probably wouldn’t have killed you, if I could have avoided it. Yes, I would have threatened your life and those of your guests. I would have terrorized you as best I could. I would have robbed you and left you and not given a damn what happened to you afterwards.”
She moved back a step, her face softening. “Thank you for your honesty, Captain. But you had your chance to attack. When we were about to dance. You could have grabbed me then, threatened me. Yet you hesitated. Why?”
He looked into her eyes. They glinted from the torchlight. He could not tell her the real reason. She really is beautiful, he thought. And his guess that she had not been born into this life was certainly right. There was a vulnerability in her quick smiles, tempered by some inward toughness made from a fiery past. “My men would not have heard me above the music.”
She considered this. “But—”
A wave struck the cell. It pushed through the bars and he shuffled to keep his footing. “Do you have a way of getting out of here?”
She looked at him for a moment, as if reading his face. Then she shrugged. “Of course I do.” She stuck the torch between the bars, reached under the dress, and drew out a pistol. “We’ll shoot the lock apart.”
“Why you little minx.” He shook his head, dumbfounded. “Why didn’t you—?” He shook his head again. “I always said every woman carries a weapon under her dress.”
She slapped him.
“In Cocoa Boa, I was going to say.” He rubbed the side of his face. “I once met a fair young lady there who carried a bumberbuss hooked to her hoops.”
“Oh.” Reaching under the dress again, she drew out a bumberbuss. “Like this?”
He sighed. “Aye.”
She hung the bumberbuss in the bars, handed him the pistol, and reached again into the dress.
He spun her around, clamped his arm across her chest, and held the pistol to her temple. “Now tell me this isn’t another ruse.”
“How do I know this isn’t part of the act, that LaRoche isn’t waiting to kill me as we go up those stairs? It’s all very well to accuse people of being liars when you’ve faked an entire pyrate attack.”
“Captain, look down,” she said. “You wouldn’t want me to steal your jewels, would you?”
He looked down. She held a dagger in her hand, tilted up and inching along his thigh.
“It appears we have a stalemate,” he said.
“No, Captain. I have what you want, and you’ll cooperate with me.”
“How is that?”
“Do you really think I’d give LaRoche my jewels? The real ones?”
“But the mirror—”
“That brooch was real, carefully placed on top of all the others. The rest were fake. I knew he’d reach for the biggest one in the box. Men.”
“What do you propose?”
“I don’t propose anything. You will remove that pistol from my head and you will help me to secure the real jewels. We will form an alliance.”
“The real jewels?” He relaxed his grip and lowered the pistol.
She tucked the dagger into her belt and grabbed the pistol out of his hand. She drew out another pistol from under the dress and slid both into holsters in the back of her bustier. Taking up the bumberbuss, she checked the powder, aimed at the lock, and fired. The lock bent, smoking. She kicked at the bars and the door swung free.
Absinthe swung the door shut before she could leave. “Wait a minute. What alliance?”
“The one between you and me. Oh, I’ve heard of you. Captain Monteroy Absinthe, who dreams of uniting the pyrates, of bringing together sea and sky.”
“That’s over now.”
“Because you need the crown of the First and Last Pyrate King? Some barnacled old piece of black coral to put on your head? That’s convenient. You don’t have to take responsibility as long as you’re busy chasing legends. The other captains won’t obey you? They won’t follow you? Oh, that’s right. Never trust a pyrate. Can’t you trust yourself?” As she looked at him, her gaze fell to his neck. Her eyes lingered there until she looked away, abashed.
“I’m the only one I can trust,” he said quietly. “And I’ve given up chasing legends.”
“So now it’s just survival.”
“Of course. What else is there?”
She shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Home?”
“Never had one.”
He spread his arms. “Pyrate.”
“Oh, right. Love?”
“Is there still love in the world?”
She took up the dress and moved toward the door. “Yes, Captain. It’s there always.”
“Maybe that’s a legend you chase.”
He thought his words would hurt her, but when she turned to look at him she was smiling, her eyes merry. “Yes, it is!”
He let go of the bars. She shouldered open the door, splashed to the stairs, dumped dress and bumberbuss to the ground, and drew out a piece of amber lace from her bustier. It was a mask. She placed it over her eyes and tied it in the back.
“Remember to call me the Autumn Rose,” she said. She gathered up the dress and tossed her hair to look at him. “Are you coming?”
He sighed, splashing after her. “Drop the dress.”
She laughed. “It’s made of the finest silk from Halambar and worth a fortune... partner.”
♦ ♦ ♦