- The Sea Wolves
Ghost slapped him across the face so hard that Finn went to his knees on the deck. He stood over Finn, waiting for him to try to rise, but instead the sailor curled into a fetal ball and began to whimper and cringe like a whipped dog, utterly humiliated.
“You’ll have to try me eventually,” Ghost told him. “Either that, or you have to live with your cowardice eating away at you, gnawing at your guts until it drives you mad. I look forward to the day.”
He began to walk away, leaving the sniveling Finn on the deck, but then Ghost paused and glanced around at his pack. Their faces betrayed their disapproval, but none of them dared challenge him.
“I’ll need a new first mate,” Ghost said, glancing at Huginn and Muninn, the two he trusted most of all. Then he turned to Jack. “It’ll be you, Mr. London.”
“What?” Jack said, feeling the pack’s hateful, violent eyes upon him. “You can’t—”
“You’d put a man—and barely a man at that—above the rest of us?” Kelly asked.
Ghost arched an eyebrow. “Are you about to tell your captain what he can and cannot do?” he asked, turning from Kelly to Jack. “Either of you?”
Jack hesitated. He was not one of them, not a part of the pack. His presence as a member of the crew had only ever been some strange capricious whim of Ghost’s, his death a matter of Ghost growing uninterested in their philosophical dialogue. The pack would never accept him. Already they were exchanging glances, and he saw the bitter, resentful, almost mutinous way they were looking at their captain.
And Jack thought… I can use this. If it doesn’t cost me my life first.
“No, sir. Of course not,” he said.
“No, Captain,” Kelly added.
“Excellent,” Ghost said, grinning. “Demetrius has our new course heading, Mr. London. See to it. And then finish your doctoring. I notice Louis never joined us on deck. He’ll be needed before long.”
“Yes, sir,” Jack agreed.
Ghost returned to his cabin, leaving his new first mate to discuss their heading with fat Demetrius, even as the rest of the crew prowled the deck, eyeing him carefully and planning for the moment of his death.
Jack knelt in the galley’s gloomy light and dug the bullets out of Louis one by one, letting them clink into the blood-dappled pan. The black man grimaced with each twist of the tongs, and his gold tooth gleamed as the others grew longer and sharper. Something changed in his eyes, too, when he was in pain, and patches of fur sprouted on his dark flesh.
“Talk to me, Jack,” Louis said, his voice a snarl. “Best you distract me, ’fore I forget we are friends and let the pain make me do something we’ll both regret.”
So Jack told him everything that had unfolded up on deck with Finn and his knife and the decisions Ghost had made.
“You’re joking with me, Jack,” Louis said. “Just be glad I have a sense of humor.”
Jack had to probe deeper for the last bullet, widening the wound so he could get to it. He thought Louis might claw at him then, but though the werewolf’s eyes changed color and grew larger, he only groaned and clenched his claws into fists.
“It’s no joke,” Jack replied.
Taking deep breaths to calm himself, flesh returning to normal as the last of his wounds began to heal, Louis looked at him worriedly.
“No, I don’t suppose the crew finds it funny one bit,” Louis said. He shook his head in bewilderment, eyes searching the shadowed corners for some way to make sense of what he’d been told. “This bodes ill for us all.”
Jack glanced at the entrance to the galley, listening for the telltale creak that would give away the footfalls of anyone who might be eavesdropping. Then he turned back to Louis, wondering if this man, this beast, might not be his enemy.
“Their faith in him is shaken,” Jack said. “I saw it. Hell, I felt it.”
“Ghost is toying with Finn,” Louis said. “He will never let him leave this ship alive. Finn knows it, and he will have to try to kill Ghost eventually. Surprise is his only chance, and a very thin one. Ghost will tear him apart. But Finn killed Johansen, and the punishment for that is clear. I have only been a loup-garou, a wolf, for three years, but the laws of the pack are taught to us in our first days. We kill each other, but face-to-face. A challenge is followed by combat, and the winner takes his place in the ranks above the loser. And if the loser should be killed, there is no retribution. It is the law.”
“But murder…,” Jack said, letting the word hang there between them, echoing with the clanging of pans and ladles swinging on their hooks.
Louis nodded. “Murder is different. The punishment is swift death. Ghost is playing a game with Finn, but the pack will see it as weakness. Might even wonder if he is getting soft.”
“Is he?” Jack asked.
The question troubled Louis—Jack could see it in his eyes—and it was precisely the reaction he had hoped for. The pack had begun to doubt Ghost. His savagery was expected, but they would obey only him as long as they respected his authority, and that had begun to deteriorate. Jack had seen it. Now he needed to push it a little further.
“He has been different since you came on board,” Louis admitted, nodding thoughtfully. “We wondered at first why he kept you apart … kept you alive. The others have all seen it before, most recently with me.”
“Seen what?” Jack asked.
Louis frowned, a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “You don’t understand? Truly? Smart as you are, I am amazed.”
Irritated, forgetting that he talked with a monster, Jack leaned back and threw up his hands. “Are you going to spell it out for me or make me guess?”
Louis raised his chin, ears pricking up like a dog’s, and Jack froze, waiting to see if he had pushed the pirate too far. But Louis only gave an admonishing shake of his head.
“He’s grooming you. Just as he did me. Just as he did all the others, in their time. Making you first mate is an insult to all of us. Ghost has spit in our faces. I like you, Jack. But Ghost has marked you for death. The rest of the crew will want you dead, not only because of the insult but because of what it means for you to be first mate.”
Jack felt the ice in his gut spreading out to engulf the rest of him. “Grooming me. You mean—”
“I mean he intends to turn you. He’ll make you a wolf. And then you won’t be an insult or a joke. You’ll be a member of the pack, second only to Ghost himself because you’re first mate.”
“Never,” Jack said, bile rising in the back of his throat. “I’ll die first.”
“Aye,” Louis said, climbing to his feet, hands across the healing wounds on his chest. “That would be best for you. But if you want to live, consider this: you’ve got a much better chance of staying alive when they come for you if you’re one of us.”
Jack pushed his fingers through his hair, shaking his head, staring at Louis. “But you just said they hate Ghost now. They don’t trust him anymore. Won’t they go for him?”
“They might, if they weren’t so afraid of him. He’s the worst of us, the most formidable. Finn tried his betrayal in secret because he didn’t dare try to sway others to his side. Ghost made us, and he keeps us rich and well fed, but there is always some measure of discontent. It’s the nature of the wolf to want to move up in the pack. If Finn had tried to enlist others, it’s likely they’d have told the captain in order to curry favor. We trust each other with our lives, and yet not at all; for at any time, one might go for another’s throat, just to climb a little higher and have a larger share of the spoils.
“Mark this, Jack: I’ll speak for you, if the opportunity arises. But if it comes to it, I won’t fight for you. I won’t die for you.” He grinned. “I don’t like you that much.”
Limping slightly, Louis made his way out of the galley, leaving Jack alone in the gloom with the clanging pots and a bloodstained floor. Jack leaned against the wall, mind awhirl. At the moment, the only thing keeping him alive was Ghost. Their fates were intertwined. Even if he could add fuel to the fire of the pack’s resentment toward their captain, and turn them against him enough to mutiny, where would that leave him and Sabine?
Next to die, he suspected.
If they had any chance of survival, he would have to play Ghost and the crew against one another. And when he made his move, he would need to time it perfectly, and Sabine would need to be ready.
It was time to talk to the witch who had stolen his heart.
DIAMONDS AND DEATH
Jack spent the rest of that day going about his duties, keeping a low profile but attempting to fit himself into the role of first mate. It was a trying time. He had read books set at sea, and he tried to remember the mate’s duties from them. But they had been stories about high adventure and low men and had concentrated little on procedure or tradition. Still, he did his best, and when Ghost emerged on deck again and instructed him to issue an order, Jack did so with as much confidence as he could muster. Though he felt the crew’s loathing like a cool breeze on a hot day, they went about their own duties without a pause, and with no sign that they would disobey.
He knew that his new post was a sign of Ghost testing his crew, as well as Jack, and that they would take out their frustrations in darker, quieter moments.
When sunset came, he descended to his new cabin and tried to barricade himself inside. The first mate’s cabin was past the galley, next to Ghost’s cabin and across the gangway from the chart room, and Jack had ventured down only once to glance at it since being given his new rank. Much larger than his previous nook at the rear of the galley, it stank just as badly. The bare walls were scuffed and scratched, the cot was piled with bedding that might once have been white but was now the color of the sea, and the few personal belongings Johansen had left behind were broken, cracked, or torn. Occupying the cabin just made Jack feel more in danger than ever before, and he tried to slide the small chest of drawers across the doorway. But it was screwed to the floor to prevent movement during storms, and he sat on the cot and laughed at his foolishness. Even if he could move the furniture, it would not keep them out when they came for him.
For a moment hopelessness washed over him, like a tide of inevitability drowning a prisoner buried neck-deep on some alien shore. He sat on a dead man’s stinking cot and felt hatred and resentment darkening the air around him, compressing the walls and dulling his senses with their pressure. He was confident of his abilities and content in himself, but the odds stacking against him were staggering. One monster, perhaps, he could find ways to fight against. But a whole crew? An array of monsters, each horrible in its own right? What would Tree look like changed into his wolfish state? Or Ogre.
For a moment hopelessness washed over him, like a tide of inevitability drowning a prisoner buried neck-deep on some alien shore.
And what of Ghost, the worst of them all?
Jack clenched his fists on his knees, staring into the corner of the cabin. In that darkness he saw Sabine’s face, so sad and pure, yet hiding such terrible knowledge. His heart swelled, and his breathing calmed as determination once again sought to overcome the hurdles yet to leap. No one who won tremendous victories could ever let the odds grind them down. And no one who had to save someone he loved could let hopelessness divert him from his course.
“Love,” Jack said aloud, and the word seemed so pristine in these dank surroundings. He hadn’t known Sabine long enough to love her. And yet…
He stood from the cot and waited in the center of the cabin, not touching anything, trying to ignore Johansen’s stench, which he thought might be ingrained in the wood of this place. And he waited.
The ship rocked in familiar rhythm, timbers creaked, and soon he started to make out footsteps and tried to imagine to whom they belonged and where they might be heading. Closing his eyes, he sent his senses outward, as he had been taught in the Yukon wilderness. In his mind’s eye he built a schematic of that terrible ship, reaching out with the senses he had developed under Lesya’s tutelage and placing each of the pirates’ locations. Some were in the forecastle, ready to sleep the night through. Finn was tucked away back in the galley, shamed and vengeful where he lay in bedding that now smelled of Jack. Louis was up in the crow’s nest. Jack thought it was Demetrius who steered, and there were one or two others on deck, keeping watch and seeing to any rigging adjustments that might be necessary during the night.
Huginn and Muninn he could not place. They were an enigma, silent and oppressive wherever they stood. It was as if Ghost had created two shadows from his dark soul to guard him against attack and ill will.
From outside came footsteps and a door opening and closing. The footsteps paused for a moment outside Jack’s door, and rather than holding his breath, he breathed long and deep, as if asleep. The footsteps moved on, and Jack listened to Ghost climbing up on deck.
Now’s the time, he thought. Everything Louis had told him increased his sense of urgency. Jack had always viewed the passing of time as an expansion of his life and experience, but now each second ticked toward something terrible. He resented that theft of optimism.
He opened the door quickly, pulling it past the squeals set into its hinges by the corrosive sea air. The gangway beyond was home only to shadows. He stood in the doorway and looked left at Ghost’s closed and forbidding door. Across the gangway was the door to the chart room. This must be where Ghost kept Sabine, watching greedily as she expended her amazing abilities on finding vessels he could raid, treasures he could steal, passengers he could kill, people he could hunt and eat come full moon. Jack’s hatred burned bright as he closed his cabin door behind him.
Even as he touched the chart room door’s handle, he sensed the movement inside. There was nothing threatening about it—indeed, there was a warmth, an excitement at what was happening and what might come. Sabine is waiting for me, Jack thought, and he opened the door and pushed inside, left hand at the small of his back where the knife handle protruded from his belt.