She had never thought she would look back fondly on her two and a half years in the convent in Scotland, but now she mourned the day her father took her out of the place. The pale sisters in their robes and hoods had virtually never spoken, the rooms were stark old stone, the only food ever served was an oily gray porridge with lumps of dispirited vegetable stuff in it, and there was not a book in the place, not even a Bible - in fact, she'd never learned what Order the sisters belonged to, nor even what sort of faith; there had been no pictures, statues or crucifixes, and they might have been Moslems for all she knew - but at least they had left her alone, and she was free to stroll through the garden and feed the birds, or stand on the catwalk at the top of the wall and watch the road across the fields of heather, hoping to see strangers. Once in a while she would see someone, a farmer driving a cart, or a hunter with dogs, but though she waved to them they always hurried away - almost as if they were afraid of the place. Nevertheless she'd felt closer to those distant, hurrying figures than to the more profoundly remote sisters. Everyone in her life, after all, was a stranger to her.


Her mother had died when Beth was thirteen, and that was when her father became a stranger. He quit his position at Oxford, put his daughter in the care of relatives, and then left - engaged in "independent study," he had once said. And she was fifteen when he met Leo Friend.


The swish of boots approaching through the sand made her look down, and she was relieved to see that it was at least not Friend. Blinking against the afterimage of the sun, she didn't recognize the figure until he climbed the steps and ducked in under the low thatched roof; then she almost smiled, for it wasjust old Stede Bonnett. He had arrived only yesterday in his ship the Revenge, but though he was a pirate captain, and was said to be a partner of Blackbeard's, he seemed to have been well brought up, and had none of the mocking, sardonic cheer of a man like Philip Davies, nor the cold, driven savagery of her father. Beth wondered what could have led him into piracy.


"I'm sorry," he muttered, actually doffing his hat to her. "I didn't - realize - "


"It's all right, Mr. Bonnett." She waved at the log that served as a bench. "Do sit down."


"Thank you," he said, lowering himself onto it. A long-necked bird flapped up out of the marshes and gave a squawk that made Bonnett jump. He peered after the bird suspiciously.


"You ... don't seem happy, Mr. Bonnett," Beth ventured.


He looked at her then, and seemed for the first time really to see her. He licked his lips and smiled hesitantly, but a moment later his worried scowl had returned and his gaze had moved away from her. "Happy? Hah - I defy anyone, after that spectacle at Charles Town - before Thatch demanded the ransom, they thought we meant to take the town - I turned a glass on the place - women and children running weeping through the streets - Jesus - and for what? A chest of black medicinal tobacco, and so that he could go look at the Ocracoke Inlet. And I find myself saying things, doing things ... even my dreams aren't my own anymore ... " The breeze shifted slightly, blowing Beth's long hair across her face, and belatedly she smelled the brandy on Bonnett's breath. An idea struck her, but out of fear of disappointment she forced down her sudden surge of hope.


She bit her lower lip. She'd have to be careful ...


"Where do you come from?" she asked.


For a long time he was silent, and she wondered if he hadn't heard her, or didn't intend to answer. I've got to get away from here, she thought; I have to believe that in some normal place, far from Friend and my father, my sanity won't seem such a fragile, flawed, imperiled thing.


"Barbados," he said quietly. "I ... owned ... a sugarcane plantation."


"Ah. You didn't prosper at it?"


"I was doing fine," he said hoarsely. "I'm a retired Army major, I had slaves and stables, the plantation was thriving ... I was a gentleman."


Beth resisted the impulse to ask him why he had turned to piracy, if all that was true. Instead she just asked him, "Would you like to go back?"


Again he looked at her. "Yes. But I can't. I'd be hanged."


"Take the King's Pardon."


"I - " He stuck a finger in his mouth and gnawed at the nail. "Thatch would never let me."


Beth's heart was pounding. "We could sneak away tonight, you and I. They're all distracted by this thing they've got to do up the river." Looking up the shore to her right, she wondered why they called that expanse of marsh a river.


Bonnett smiled nervously and licked his lips again, and once more she smelled the brandy. "You and I," he began, reaching out a pudgy hand.


"Right," she said, stepping back away from him. "Escape. Tonight. When the hunsi kanzo is busy up the river."


The reference to Blackbeard sobered Bonnett, and he scowled and resumed chewing his fingernail.


Not wanting to let him see the desperate hope in her eyes, Beth Hurwood looked away from him, back toward the marsh, perhaps, she thought, they call it a river because it's so nearly one. All the local moisture does tend to move westward, though as slowly in most places as brandy working its way through a fruitcake, and the shallow evening fogs certainly follow the course of it and would soon drench an exposed person almost as thoroughly as if he'd been swimming.


She closed her eyes. Calling this swamp a river seemed typical of the way this dreadful New World worked - everything was still raw and unformed out here on the world's western edge, and bore only the most remote resemblances to the settled and solidified eastern hemisphere. And though now she heard Bonnett shift on the log, and quickly turned to face him, it fleetingly occurred to her that the undeveloped nature of these lands might have a lot to do with why her father had come, and why he had taken her with him.


Bonnett was leaning forward, and in the early twilight she could see the frown of tenuous determination on his pudgy old face. "I'll do it," he said almost in a whisper. "I think I must. I think going up the river tonight would be the end of me ... though no doubt my body would still walk and speak and carry out Thatch's orders."


"Are there enough men aboard your ship right now to sail it?" she asked, standing up so quickly that the hut rocked on its wooden stilts.


Bonnett squinted up at her. "The Revenge? We can't take her. Do you imagine no one would see or hear us raise anchor and set the sails and move out? No, we'll provision a boat and put in it whatever we can find to improvise a mast and sail, and row away down the coast with muffled oars, and then just take our chances on the open sea. God's far more merciful than Thatch." He gasped suddenly and grabbed her wrist. "Christ! Wait a minute! Is this a trap? Did Thatch send you here - to test me? I forgot your father's his partner ... "


"No," said Beth tensely. "It's not a trap. I've got to get away from here. Now let's go get that boat."


Bonnett released her wrist, though he didn't look entirely convinced. "But ... you've been with them for nearly a month, as I hear it. Why have you waited until now to escape? I'm sure it would have been far easier at New Providence."


She sighed. "It never would have been easy. But - " Another bird flapped past overhead, making both of them jump. Beth laughed weakly. "Well, for one thing, until we arrived here I didn't think my father actively meant me any harm, but now ... well, he doesn't mean me any harm, but ... the day before yesterday, when we were disembarking, I cut myself, and my father was frantic with worry that it might mortify and give me a fever. He told Leo Friend that the protective Caribbean magics," she spoke the words with distaste, "are sluggish here, and they'd have to watch me closely for any sign of illness. But his concern was ... impersonal - it wasn't the concern of a father for a threatened daughter, but more like, I don't know, a captain's concern for the seaworthiness of a vessel his life depends on."


Bonnett hadn't really been listening - he patted the curls of his wig in place and licked his moustache, then stood up and walked over to where she stood - the hut swayed dangerously - and leaned beside her. Grotesquely, his face was puckered into a trembling but insinuating smile. " 'For one thing,' you said." His voice was huskier now. "Is there another?"


Beth wasn't looking at him, and she smiled sadly. "Yes; foolish, but I think so. I didn't figure it out until Tuesday, when the Navy killed him - he was aboard that boat, the Jenny, and Friend says none of them could have survived that broadside - but I don't think I really wanted to get away, without ... well, you never met him. A man who was also a passenger on the Carmichael."


Bonnett pursed his lips and stepped away, letting his paunch relax again. "I needn't take you, you know," he snapped.


Beth blinked in surprise and turned to look at him. "What? Of course you need to. If you don't, what's to stop me from raising the alarm before you're well away?" Abruptly she remembered that this was, despite the good manners, a pirate, and she added hastily, "At any rate, your case will certainly look better to the authorities if you've not only repented but rescued a captive of Blackbeard's as well."


"Something in that, I suppose," Bonnett muttered grudgingly. 'Very well, now, listen. We'll go, right now, by separate routes, to the shore, where one of the Revenge's boats is dragged up on the sand - you'll see me by it - and you'll get in quick and crouch low, out of sight. There's old canvas in there, hide under it. The tide's nigh again, so it shouldn't be difficult for me to wrestle the boat into the water. Then I'll row us out to the Revenge, load as much stuff into the boat as I can without raising the suspicions of that treacherous crew, and then just row away south along the coastline. Can you navigate by the stars?"


"No," said Beth. "Why, can't you?"


"Oh, surely," said Bonnett hastily. "I was just, uh, thinking of when I might be asleep. Anyway, if we just bear south we'll be in the trade lanes before too long. And then," he went on, stepping to the ladder, "if I can get far enough away from him before he learns that I've fled, maybe he won't be able to call me back."


This didn't reassure Beth, but she followed him down the ladder to the sand and walked off, away from him. She hoped to skirt around the three fires and make her way to the shore without being seen by the ever-vigilant Leo Friend.


Slowly and thoughtfully, with lines of genuine sorrow almost ennobling his pouchy face, Stede Bonnett plodded straight down the sandy slope toward the fires, his boots making sounds like slow crickets as the leather soles rasped against the saw grass.


Talking about escape with Hurwood's daughter - and then letting himself be aroused by her, even, foolishly, thinking she might respond in kind! - had brought back with far too painful a degree of clarity the life he'd been deprived of three months before. But of course even if he succeeded in escaping Blackbeard and taking the pardon, he could hardly return to Barbados and his wife. There was some consolation in that.


Perhaps in some other country, with another name, he could start over again - he was only fifty-eight, after all; with reasonable care he was a good decade short of needing to take up religion. There would still be many young women for him to focus his attention on.


For a moment a smile puckered his face, and his hands caressed an imaginary form, and he felt the old confidence, the old sureness of himself - the wife he married four years ago had taken it away from him, had made a cowed little man of what had once been a stern officer, and it wasn't until he met the girls at Ramona's that it was restored - but then, of course, he remembered how he had left the last of those girls, and he was dropped right back into the horror he'd been living in for three months. His wrinkled old hands fell back limply to his sides.


Out on the redly glittering face of the sea, looking in end-on silhouette like the upright black skeleton of some leviathan, Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge stood motionless at anchor. Bonnett instantly looked away from it, not sure Blackbeard couldn't track his thoughts back along the line of his gaze.


This escape has to work, Bonnett thought as he plodded down the ever-marshier slope. Thank God the king has offered total amnesty! None of this was my fault, but no jury would ever believe that. What jurist could understand the way a hunsi kanzo can use your blood to unhinge your mind from your body? I didn't outfit the Revenge ... I'm not even sure it was me that killed that last girl at Ramona's, though I'll admit it was my hand that swung the chair leg - over and over and over again, so that, though I can't remember it, my shoulder ached for days. And even if it was me, I was drugged ... and who do you suppose picked that precise girl for me, with just those features, and who told her to use those words and that tone?


A terrible thought struck him, and he stopped walking, slid a yard or so and almost fell over. Why assume, as he had been doing, that Blackbeard had first noticed him at Ramona's, and had only then decided that a moneyed, landed military man would be a useful partner? What if - and despite all the trouble he was in Bonnett's face now burned with humiliation - what if Blackbeard had wanted him before, and had set the whole supposedly spontaneous thing up? What if that first girl had only been pretending to have sprained her ankle, and in fact been chosen just because she was the skinniest, so that he would be able to lift her and take her inside to her bed? She, and the other girls too, had refused to take any payment from him in his subsequent visits, insisting that his unprecedented virility was ample reward and had in fact become an indispensable remedy for all classes of malaise, vapors and depression; but what if Blackbeard had been paying them? And paying dearly, no doubt, for in addition to their plain services he was buying a considerable amount of ... acting.

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