She’s seasick, Etta realized.
“Indeed?” There was a wry twist to Nicholas’s mouth. “I can see the resemblance.”
Etta was glad she looked back then, not because he deserved a laugh, but because she caught Sophia’s reaction as she saw him for the first time. Her thin mask of pleasantness slipped into revulsion. It lasted only a moment, but the impression of it stamped itself into her memory.
Captain Hall gave Nicholas a wry look before turning to the young man in glasses. “Perhaps you’d be so good as to tell us your name, as well as this ship’s?”
“Oh! Certainly. This ship is the Ardent,” he said. “I am Abraham Goode, the surgeon’s mate, and now, sir, your most obedient servant.”
“Looking to stay out of the hold, eh?” Captain Hall chuckled. “You’ll serve the prize crew without complaint?”
“It would be my pleasure,” Mr. Goode said bravely, setting his shoulders back in such a way that Etta caught Nicholas rolling his eyes.
“Where is Captain Millbrook?” Etta’s “sister” asked, glancing around. “Are you now in possession of the ship?”
Her accent wasn’t British. More like an old movie starlet’s, with her careful cadences; so different than how she’d sounded at the Met.
“I’m sorry to say he’s dead, ma’am.” The diminutive man in glasses stepped forward from the rail, where he’d been hanging back. He had to raise his crystal-cut voice to be heard above the clanging from the men on deck.
Nicholas and Captain Hall exchanged a look.
“I suppose that makes your job easier,” the older man said.
Nicholas shrugged, but his eyes drifted back to Etta. “Would you like to return to your cabin and rest? Today has been an ordeal, I know.”
“Yes,” Sophia said hurriedly, before Etta could speak. “A good course of action. May we continue to use the cabins near the great cabin?”
“Well, I certainly won’t put either of you in the forecastle with the prize crew,” Nicholas said. “That will be fine.”
Etta turned toward him, surprised. So…he was in charge of this ship, not Captain Hall? Then that meant…Captain Hall led the other ship they’d mentioned, the Challenger, and they’d captured this one, installing Nicholas in command. The men that had been marched down into the hold must have been whatever was left of the original crew of this ship.
Sophia looped her arm through Etta’s, drawing her attention back to her.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Mr. Goode said.
Etta must have looked as confused as she felt, because Sophia dug her ragged nails into her arm.
“Captain Millbrook was the young ladies’ uncle,” Goode said, scratching at his scalp. Sophia, as if suddenly remembering she needed to be devastated, dabbed at her eyes as the surgeon’s mate continued, “He was escorting them back to England following the death of their father and the sale of their plantation in New Providence. We departed from Nassau a few days ago.”
Nassau? New Providence? Why did she get the feeling they weren’t talking about New York or Rhode Island?
“Ah, how terribly unfortunate,” Captain Hall said, strangely unsympathetic.
“Forgive my rudeness, but I”—Sophia swallowed hard—“will take my sister below, and leave you to your work. Perhaps…” She swallowed again, squeezing her eyes shut as the winds picked up and batted at the ship. “Mr. Carter, you would be so good as to accompany us?”
Nicholas looked like he found the idea of pulling out his own fingernails more appealing.
“It would be my pleasure,” he said stiffly.
Sophia smiled tightly and nodded, bidding Captain Hall and Mr. Goode a pleasant afternoon. Etta steadied her legs enough to trail behind her. Nicholas lifted the hatch’s cover, a lattice of dark wood.
No, Etta thought as a flash cut through her memory of the body, the blood, the twisted face. Don’t make me go back down there.…
Like she had a choice. Sophia put a hand on the small of her back and pushed her so hard, her foot nearly caught the hem of her dress.
“It’s perfectly safe,” Nicholas reassured Etta, holding out a hand. She focused on the warm pressure of his fingers closing around hers, not the sharpness of the descent, the smell of gunpowder and blood. The ladder wasn’t a ladder so much as a set of steep, shallow stairs. Etta held the sopping fabric of her dress in one hand and kept the other on the rim of the hatch as long as she could for balance. Fabric pooled around her ankles, wet and itchy, as she took each step.
Etta managed to keep both her balance and her eyes open. Smoke hung in the air, heavy but no longer blinding. She got a better look at the long stretch of deck in front of her. Light was pouring through the square holes in the side of the ship, where men were rolling large cannons back into place and securing them with ropes. Etta couldn’t make out what was at the other end of the space—canvas curtains were strung up to hide it from view.
Finally, Etta forced herself to look down, only to find that they’d moved the body. They’d rubbed every last trace of it away until there was only a faint discoloration on the wood. The repairs down here had begun immediately; the debris of battle had been brushed to the sides of the ship. Those men who weren’t patching the walls were picking through the piles, tossing useless wood fragments and unsalvageable broken glass out through the gun ports to be swallowed by the waiting waves.