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Etta was up and on her feet before her mind registered moving, and headed toward the source of the light from above. The smoke reached out to smother her, locking tight around her neck. Glass lanterns crashed around her, exploding like pale fireworks. She kept going toward the light until her knees struck something—stairs. Etta grabbed her skirt, hauled the thick layers of it up around her waist, and started to pull herself up, not caring that she was crying, just looking for fresh air and a path out of this nightmare.

Instead, she climbed into the mouth of another one.


Nicholas swung around, slamming his fist into the next face that tried to block his path. The thing was in pieces—hot, smoldering fragments scattered around the deck. And, unfortunately, in various parts of the bodies that had fallen when the grenade struck.

It had been impossible, in the thick of things, to form a true assessment of how badly the Challenger’s gunners had savaged their prize. Now that he was past the initial wave of violence that followed the boarding, Nicholas had had the chance to conduct a quick survey for himself on the state of the Challenger, and now, this captured ship. He tallied up each defect in the ship’s outward perfection. All three masts were standing—holding for now, if only just, despite the thrashing they’d taken; the mizzenmast, toward the rear of ship, seemed to be shivering and swaying like a drunkard with each faint breeze. The sails had been torn and punched through, but his prize crew could make quick enough work of replacing them. Once, of course, this ship’s crew surrendered.

Nicholas moved with the ship, catching the next spray of salt water full across the face. Most importantly, he noted that the ship wasn’t taking on water insofar as he could tell. The gunners hadn’t struck her below the waterline—which meant they had managed to disable the ship without wrecking her.

Nicholas refused to give in to the flighty, half-drunk feeling that victory was within arms’ reach. Before the day was out, he’d start sailing his first ship back to port as prize master.

He would finally be able to cut himself loose from his past.

Still—the damn idiots should have struck their colors first thing. Would have saved every party involved from a bloodstained affair, not to mention an ungodly headache for the carpenters. How unfortunate that sailing was one of the few occupations where a man could be praised for failing, so long as he did it bravely.

This ship—my ship, he thought stubbornly, because it would be, once the ship’s officers admitted to themselves the inevitable fact of their defeat—was a lovely piece of work, all damage from the Challenger and boarding party aside. A three-masted vessel, the foremast square-rigged, the mainmast carrying a large fore-and-aft mainsail, with a square main-topsail and topgallant sail above it. The moment they’d spotted the sails in the distance and her British colors, the Challenger had fallen on it like a shark. A fast, sleek schooner streaking after its fat prey. With speed on their side, it had hardly mattered that they were outgunned sixteen to twelve. The merchant vessel was a plum prize for the crew of the Challenger after weeks of fruitless hunting around the waters of the West Indies, but it was also the target he had been hired to track, and capture.

He was loath to admit the real reason they had stalked the waters, searching for it. Ironwood wanted the two women, the passengers, who sailed upon it.

The sudden shift of air at his back, the splatter of hot, salty sweat against his skin—Nicholas dove hard to the right, slamming his shoulder into the wood as a tomahawk sliced down behind his head.

The cannon smoke had choked the air from the moment the ships had exchanged broadsides, and the dismal breeze of the day refused to carry it off and clear the field. It was all fruitless fighting now; the result was obviously in his boarding party’s favor. Nicholas tried to find purchase against the ever-growing tide of bodies and blood staining the deck.

The sailor with the tomahawk stalked forward through the chaos of clanging steel and the earsplitting explosions of flintlock pistols firing.

The wood under him bounced as Afton, one of the Challenger’s mates, fell inches from Nicholas, his chest shredded by balls of lead, his face a death mask of outraged disbelief.

Anger roared through Nicholas, heating him at his core as he felt for a weapon. His own flintlock had been fired, and there’d be no reloading it in time. Throwing it would only stun the man, and would be a waste of a damn good pistol at that. Nicholas plucked a knife from a tangle of rigging someone had cut away. A deer-horn handle, ornately carved. His outlook on the situation brightened considerably.

The short, stout sailor with the tomahawk charged toward him screaming, eyes glassy, face gleaming with sweat and soot. Nicholas knew that look, when the burn of bloodlust had set in and you gave yourself over to the pounding rhythm of a good, hard fight.

His right shoulder burned as he lifted his unloaded pistol from his side, pretending to take aim. The gray light caught the muzzle, making it glow in his hands. The seaman drew up short so quickly that his feet nearly slid out from under him. He was close enough for Nicholas to smell him—the acrid sweat, the gunpowder—to see his nostrils flare with surprise. The sailor’s grip on the tomahawk eased, just for a moment, and Nicholas threw the knife. He imagined he could hear the thwack as it pierced the sailor’s meaty neck, and felt some grim satisfaction that he’d hit his mark.

The fight was finally slowing as more of the men realized the fact of their defeat. Bodies began to ache, and powder cartridges emptied; where there had been shouts, there was now a growing silence. The knife was lodged in the side of the sailor’s neck—he must have turned just before it struck. He’d given himself a bad death, drawing the whole business out as he drowned in his own blood. Nicholas leaned over him, instinctively bracing his weight against the swelling sea.