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“So you’d keep me here against my will—”

“Know this, pirate,” he said, his hands gripping the railing, “you are my passenger, and I will be damned before I let any harm come to you.”

She was unsure how to respond to the fervor of those words. “Another rule?” she managed finally.

“A promise. If I see that you’re in danger from Ironwood, I will help you escape myself. But should you try to leave on your own, know that I will go to the ends of the earth to bring you back.”

She felt color begin to creep up her throat, her cheeks, at the intensity of his words. “You’d risk not getting your payment?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’ll escape after I get my payment.” He shook his head, but Etta caught the hint of teasing in his tone. “Really, Miss Spencer. You ought to surrender your colors for that.”

“Do pirates ever surrender?” she asked. “I thought they only went down in blazes of glory.”

“Only the bad ones,” he said, one corner of his mouth kicked up. “The rest live long enough for another war and go legitimate.”

She managed a small smile. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You’re right,” he said, studying the small scars scattered over the back of his hand. “About the rules—they go largely unspoken and without explanation.”

At first, watching the men at their game had been almost funny—it was so ridiculous to hear such devastatingly polite words delivered with such obvious hatred. And then, with Wren, it had suddenly become sinister—a way to do serious harm while still fitting inside that mold of acceptability.

Sophia had described it as a game, but Etta disagreed. In that first hour, the ceremonial flow of introductions, conversation, seating, had made her feel like they were part of a small orchestra. Written into every piece of music were strict rules on how to deliver the notes, how to keep the pacing, and a hundred other aspects that added up to the sound and movement that the composer had intended. There wasn’t much room to be playful, to reinterpret pieces; that’s why Etta always tried to flood her performances with some kind of emotion, to set them apart from what was expected. The most critical judges always seemed to be looking for perfect execution over inspiration, or even passion.

But both the game and orchestra metaphors were flawed. They implied that everyone was a willing participant, but the truth was, she doubted that anyone was really eager to participate in the charade of society aside from the people who created and benefited from the rules.

“I choose to exist outside of it whenever possible,” Nicholas said slowly, as if unsure whether he wanted to continue. His voice dropped, and Etta had to lean closer to him to listen. “This—having to dine with the captured officers—is a rare exception. I have no problem paying respects to the men I sail with, because I admire and appreciate them. But you’re right, the falseness is tiresome. And worse, deceitful.”

“It seems like one of the benefits of being out here,” she said, gesturing to the water, “should be the ability to make your own rules.”

“Well, in all truth, there are more rules to follow on a ship, and they tend to be far stricter. You might have plucked young Jack from danger after the spoon fiasco, but everyone in the cabin knows he’ll be disciplined for behaving that way toward an officer.”

“Disciplined how?” Etta asked sharply. “He’s just a boy—”

“You don’t have the luxury of being ‘just a boy’ when you sail,” Nicholas said, not callously. “He is a member of a crew. Our rules and hierarchy add up to survival, and there’s a logic and purpose to it all in maintaining order, even in the most desperate situations. The punishments for breaking them are as severe as they are because failing to fulfill your role affects everyone.”

Etta set her jaw, taking a step back from him. He’d mentioned using a kind of whip earlier, and the thought of it snapping down on the boy’s bare back, the thought of him trying to take it stoically under the eyes of the crew, for doing something that everyone at that table wished they could do…

“Miss Spencer, I only meant his rations will be docked,” he said quietly. “Don’t trouble yourself. He must learn discipline, but it was hardly a capital offense.”

There was a softness to the words that she hadn’t expected. “Were you ever…disciplined?”

He nodded, rubbing a thumb over his bottom lip. Etta watched its path as it skimmed over the generous curve until she remembered she wasn’t supposed to be watching at all.

Focus. Home. The pearl was cool between her fingers as she rolled her left earring back and forth. For a moment she felt a strange prickling sensation just below it, like someone was watching the stretch of skin where her exposed neck met her shoulder. But when she looked up again, there was no one else nearby, and Nicholas had fixed his eyes on the moon.

“When I was about his age, certainly,” he said. “I had a devil of a temper then, and it took every ounce of Hall’s restraint to keep from smothering me out of exasperation. I thanked him for it in the end, since he gave me the opportunity to be a part of his crew. I prefer the candor of this life, that we’re forced to cut out things that don’t truly matter—qualities that matter far more to landlubbers. Here, what defines me first and foremost is my work, my capabilities, just the same as Jack. And unless you’ve been pressed onto a navy ship, a man’s there by choice.”