With a pulse of fear, Etta leapt to her feet. The coat wasn’t a barrier against their gazes, and it wouldn’t be much of a shield against their weapons, but she felt better for having it close.
“Oh my God—” she choked out.
A ship. She’d seen it just before—before all of those sails had come crashing down and she’d been knocked clear into next Tuesday. Her back had slapped against the freezing water, ankle twisting down as she’d struggled to paddle up. All those years of swimming at the 92nd Street Y for nothing. Her fingers had been too frozen, her vision too blanketed with black, to untangle the netting.
It had hurt, so bad—her head, her chest, every part of her had felt like it was tearing apart with the need to breathe.
Etta looked from the young man with the wire glasses to the one who had spoken when she’d come to, the one with the dark, stern eyes. He watched her calmly, almost as if challenging her. The words registered almost as surely as if he’d taken one of his long fingers and stroked the letters into her skin.
Is this who you are?
He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back, bracing himself against the roll of the ocean.
Not the Met.
Not New York City.
Not a piece of land in sight.
Just two tall wooden ships.
Just men in…costume.…
They were costumes. They were.
You know they’re not. Etta tried to swallow, the memory of the concert ripping through her, tearing at her heart, her lungs. Alice is dead. I…the Met…the girl…
The older man with red hair sent the others out of the way, moving with long, efficient strides.
“She’s well, and there’s work to be done,” he told the crew, motioning two burly-armed men forward. Both were missing patches of their beards and hair, as if they’d been singed off in clumps, and both were bare down to their waists. The impressive expanse of muscle was offset by the fact that Etta could smell them from a good ten feet away.
“Mr. Phelps, Mr. Billsworth, please escort this ship’s crew down into the hold. And see that the carpenters begin their work posthaste.”
These men…they’d been fighting, hadn’t they? And not just fighting—killing one another.
The man said to bring them down into the hold, she thought. They’re being locked up. Because…they were the enemy? Where the hell was she? How the hell had she gotten from the Met to a ship in the middle of nowhere?
“Now, sweetheart, come here,” the man—the captain—said, beckoning her forward with a hand missing its last two fingers. Etta wasn’t sure she trusted her instincts in that moment; the sight of him, bloodied and massive, made her chest clench. But there was nothing menacing about the way he was approaching her, or even a thread of threat woven through his words. She shook her head to clear that last thought before it made her do something reckless again, like let her guard down. If he thought he was going to grab her, he was going to get every last ounce of New York City she possessed. Etta swung her head around, searching for something sharp.
“Don’t be afraid, sweetheart,” he said, firmly, hand still outstretched. Soft eyes. Soft voice. Perfect for luring unsuspecting ingénues to their untimely deaths.
“I am not your sweetheart!” she snarled.
The man cleared his throat, a poor disguise for his laugh. “We aren’t scoundrels. Any man who attempts harm to you—who casts a single unwanted glance in your direction—will find himself eating barnacles off the keel.”
In some strange way, she did believe him. If they’d wanted her dead, then fishing her out of the ocean and reviving her probably wasn’t the most competent way of going about it.
Funny how it didn’t make her feel any safer.
These people were strangers, and by the looks on their faces when she’d first appeared, they’d seemed just as surprised to see her as she was to see them. If anyone actually knew what was going on, and where she was, Etta knew her best and maybe only bet would be the girl she’d left below deck—the one who had pushed her through that strange door of glimmering air at the museum.
“Scoundrels?” Etta repeated in disbelief. “Are you supposed to be…pirates?”
The young man looked highly offended, but the red-haired man merely shrugged. “Aye, pirates. Legal ones, though I suppose His Majesty would beg to differ. That ship—” He pointed to the ship sitting alongside the one they stood on. Countless lines of rope and hooks connected the ships to one another. “She’s a privateer outfitted in New London, Connecticut. The Challenger. We’ve captured this one,” the man continued.
Right. Etta forced herself to nod. Of course.
The men who hadn’t been sent to the hold were working now, scrambling around the deck like ants rebuilding their colony. Planks and beams of wood were being handed up from below, over from the other ship. Men disappeared below, still bloodied, and reappeared with bandages. Her stomach flipped and flipped and flipped, and she thought that there was a real chance she was going to tear the jacket apart at the seams just to do something. Something other than sit there and feel helpless.
You are not helpless. Being down wasn’t the same as being out. She just needed to—find her bearings. Get her sea legs under her. Or whatever pirates said.
And now they were clearing the deck of…
Bodies. Say it, Etta. Bodies.