“A lot of good those papers will do for you if you come across the Royal Navy,” Wren said. “Traitors are worse than murderers in the eyes of the king. A length of rope will be your reward.”
“Please, sir,” Chase begged, holding up a hand. “I’ve enough of a headache without a bloody recitation of ‘Rule, Britannia.’”
Wren’s look was withering. “I only meant, Mister Carter, it strikes me as odd you wouldn’t want to join your Congress’s fledgling navy. Surely there’s some fortune to be found in legitimacy over piracy? Perhaps some…honor?”
Chase snorted. “A fraction of what we’ll take on board a privateer. And rest assured, this is a legal endeavor—much to your own misfortune.”
Nicholas raised his own glass, but recognized the glint in Wren’s eyes. The name belied his true nature—this was an osprey across from him, one that was wheeling in circles, waiting to dive.
“I don’t understand,” Etta said, looking uneasily around the table. “Why is it odd? It’s his choice to stay out of the American navy, isn’t it?”
It was the opening the other man had been hoping for.
“Why, on his brethren’s behalf,” Wren said, his smile all teeth. “Surely all this commotion about freedom and liberty has stirred some memories of the chains of his past. Though I’ve also heard that, unlike the British, there have been no offers of freedom in exchange for military service for the slaves of the colonies.”
Hall had told him once that if Nicholas allowed his dislike of every man who insulted him to sharpen into hatred, he’d only end up cutting himself. But truly, did Wren think pointing out the obvious would somehow discredit Nicholas in the eyes of the others? That it would undermine his authority?
You may have this, Wren was saying, this moment, this ship, but you’ll never be anything other than what men like me decide you are.
Never. Never again would he allow any other man to define him, set his course.
Chase shot to his feet so fast that his chair toppled backwards. His blood rushed the other way, straight to his face. “Sir, I’d call you out if—”
Nicholas put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, stood to retrieve his chair, and promptly guided him back into it. “Remember that there’s a lady present, my friend.”
The very same one who looked perfectly horrified. What a wonderful meal this was turning out to be. And to think, there’d likely be about ten other variations of it as they sailed north toward New York.
Nicholas refilled his friend’s glass with more claret, hoping it would settle his temper instead of stoking it.
“Are you speaking of Dunmore’s Proclamation in Virginia last year?” he said, ignoring Wren’s smug expression. “In which slaves of rebels would earn their freedom by escaping and fighting for the British army? The Continental Congress has, in fact, encouraged the Virginians to dispute the ruling, and they have since driven the governor out. I can’t credit your implication that all slaves will be free at the end of this exercise, either. The king is well aware of how much the colonies rely on enslaved labor to produce the goods he enjoys. He means only to punish his wayward children by taking away their tools. Empty their pockets for a time. Nothing is likely to change.”
Wren turned his glass on the table. Nicholas met the man’s eyes, trying to keep the loathing from his own.
“In truth,” Nicholas said, “I simply cannot abide the hypocrisy of fighting for a man who supposedly embodies the ideals of freedom, while at home, dozens of slaves work his land.”
Not to mention any number of military expeditions that this man had fumbled in his youth, and how he had never been deemed worthy of a commission in the British Army. He admired the man’s tenacity, but the moment he’d learned the colonies would actually win the war, he could have been knocked over by a feather.
“You mean Washington?” Etta asked, startled.
Nicholas nodded. “You should also know, Mr. Wren, that I am a freeman, and that will never change.”
“How diverting!” Heath offered loudly, only to deflate when he saw the faces around him.
Nicholas watched as a cabin boy brought in some sort of pudding for dessert.
“Perhaps it will change,” Wren said as his pudding was placed in front of him, “should the colonies break away, and the landowners in the South seize control of the new government. They will be in the position to create their own Eden. Isn’t it fair to say that slavery has been a boon to Africans? At the very least, it breaks them of their laziness and their barbaric violence—brings them into God’s flock. The work they do is fit for their capacities.”
Ah, yes. Here it was, a hundred years’ worth of justifications for the wrongful enslavement of human beings, gathered into a tidy, single breath of hot air. These sweeping lies about the minds of Africans, the denial of every opportunity to advance themselves by reading and writing and thinking, kept them not only in physical chains, but insidious, invisible ones as well.
It didn’t matter that none of it was true. That Nicholas himself stood as evidence of it. What mattered was that these beliefs had swept through the souls of everyone else like a plague. He couldn’t see the end of it. Even a hundred years in the future, he knew, the roots still had not been fully pulled up from society. Wherever, whenever he went, the color of his skin set the boundaries of what he could achieve, and there was very little—if any—recourse for finding a way around it.