By Andi Marquette
They loaded the five strongboxes onto the boat. Each box required the straining of four men, one for each side, wading into knee-deep seas. She splashed after them, carrying three shovels, and made her way to the boat’s side. She carefully lowered the shovels within, left hand clutching the gunwale. Maintaining her balance proved difficult, as two men were pushing the boat into deeper water and clambering aboard themselves. She waited for a hand. None came. The water knocked against her chest. She clung to the boat’s side with both hands now, tried to pull herself aboard, foreboding in her brain.
“Not you,” the mate’s voice. Raspy. “Cap’n’s orders.”
She glared at him, clinging to the boat. “You bastard,” she hissed. “Bloody, thieving son of a whore!” She had one leg slung over the gunwale and with a last effort, she threw herself into the craft, only to feel rough hands grip her arms.
“Stubborn. I’ll give you that.”
“I paid him. We had a deal.” Fear and anger clogged her throat. Two men held her, two more sat impassively in the stern. The mate balanced aft as the craft bucked beneath them.
“Deal’s off,” he replied, smirking. “Cap’n’s orders.” He drew his cutlass. “Many thanks for your help. We’ll be sure to toast you in Nassau.”
“You lying—” she surged forward, momentarily breaking free. The tip of the mate’s cutlass slid cleanly into her gut, exited out her back. Shock, rage, and excruciating pain ripped her flesh with the blade. He withdrew it, nodded, and two men picked her up by her hands and feet and heaved her over the side back into the water. The two in the stern took positions at the oars, and the boat pulled away from her on its way back to the schooner anchored a quarter-mile offshore.
She felt the warm waters of the Caribbean close over her head. It entered her wounds. Stinging. Her blood eased into the sea, pulling bits of life with it. Automatically, she pointed herself toward shore, one thought guiding her: revenge. It overrode the agony in her abdomen and the rage of betrayal. Her knees scraped bottom. She threw herself ashore, wishing fervently for just a few more years of life, for even a few more months or weeks to find the scum-sucking captain of the Queen’s Dream, his first mate, and what was rightfully hers. But even that was denied her.
She collapsed on the sand. Bastard. I’ll haunt you, then. Watch me. She grimaced, her best attempt at a last smile. She still had the key and she still had her ring. He would not be able to open the boxes. Not easily, anyway. The thought offered some comfort as she felt blood ease from her body onto the sand beneath. The sun was hot on her back as her shirt dried. But light was fading quickly in her eyes. She knew her breaths were numbered. Sarah Abigail Churchill would die angry and her father’s gold would line a privateer’s pockets. She groaned and spat blood onto the smooth white sand. Damn
Sarah stirred, opened one eye. She could hear the mutter of waves as they rolled onto the beach. Right in front of her was a pair of black boots, battered and scuffed, frosted with sand. In her peripheral vision, she could just make out the sparkle of sunlight on water. She slowly turned over, amazed she had the strength to do so. Her eyes followed the lines of the boots upward along the grey-trousered thighs to the faded blue shirt. A woman. Dark hair pulled back, tied behind her head upon which jauntily perched a plain black tricorn. A buccaneer, perhaps. The woman was regarding her, the expression in her dark, placid eyes cool. Sarah shifted her gaze slightly, looked past her. Three others stood behind her, near the water. A man and two women, all attired in plain sailors’ clothing. A longboat had found purchase on the beach.
The woman knelt on her right knee. Her left arm rested casually across her left thigh. “I can help,” she said in a pleasant alto. Sarah couldn’t guess her age. No older than thirty, she gauged. She suddenly realized that she wasn’t bleeding any longer though her shirt was crusted with blood and sand. She very slowly gained her knees, caught in a wave of utter exhaustion and weakness that swept her limbs and dulled her mind. She stared at the dark pool of blood coagulated on the beach beneath her. Far too much for life. Was this, then, death? Sarah looked at the woman. She could discern no pupils in the dark, dark eyes. The foreshadow of a smile played across the buccaneer’s lips. There was no warmth in the expression.
“Lady Sarah. I’m Nefi, captain of the Black Angel. You’ve lost something that meant a great deal to you,” she said, thoughtful. “Betrayed, yes?”
Sarah nodded dumbly. How did this woman know her? She couldn’t place her accent. Melodious and clipped around the edges, like her features, which hinted of ancient places etched in the sands of swarthy countries.
“What would you pay to have these things back?”
“Anything.” Sarah’s voice was creaky in her throat, unused.
Nefi propped her chin in her left hand, left elbow still on her knee. “And what would you pay to ensure a proper punishment for Captain Blackwell and his first mate?”
Sarah felt anger swirl sluggishly through her veins. She clenched her teeth. “Anything. Whatever you want.”
Nefi nodded slowly. “My price is high.”
The buccaneer allowed her hand to fall away from her chin. “Twenty percent of what was taken and—” here she grinned, displaying a set of fine white teeth, the long canines of which ended in points. “Your services, Lady Sarah.”
“Your history has already been written,” Nefi continued. “You disappeared while searching for your father’s lost shipment. Your body was never found.” Here she shrugged. “I can change that. I can grant you the time you need to complete the tasks you lamented at your impending death.”
“Once you do so—once you get those affairs in order and give me twenty percent, you are bound to me and my ship.”
“How long?” Sarah’s voice was barely a whisper.
Nefi smiled again. “Forever. But have no fear. You’re in fine company.” Here she stood, gestured toward the three behind her and the black ship anchored offshore. She turned back to Sarah who had somehow managed to remain on her knees.
“I’m dead?” Sarah croaked.
Nefi shook her head. “Not yet. You still have a few minutes. Plenty of time to contract. If you so desire.”
“If I don’t?”
Nefi inclined her head, her eyes studying the wealth of blood on Sarah’s clothing and the print of it in the sand. “I’ll leave you to the island. I can’t guarantee you’ll rest, given the circumstances of your death. And it’s isolated enough here that you may have only this beach to haunt.” She rested her hands on her belt. A sheathed dagger hung at her right side.
Sarah’s thoughts felt leaden but life and death she understood. “If I sail with you, will I live?”
“Not in the traditional sense. But we’re quite a merry band of immortal damned.” The three behind her started laughing. It was not an unpleasant sound. “Now for the conditions, since you don’t have much time…no one breaks a contract with me. Ever. If you try—” she flashed another wolfish grin. “There’ll be hell to pay.” The laughing continued behind her.
“What’s worse than death?”
“A life without it, Lady Sarah. I’ll grant you years on this island, plagued by the agony of your wound. You’ll rot, from the inside out. Scoured by maggots and flies. Ravaged by thirst and hunger. But you will not find release. You will not be able to move. You will feel each and every bit of your decay. And when the wind finally claims your dust, your spirit will haunt this beach, bearing the pain of your final disintegration. Until time ends.” The laughing behind her had ceased.
Sarah thought about Blackwell’s betrayal. It flashed fire through her near empty veins. Robert stabbing her, with no more thought to it than had he been engaged in a walk through a park. It enraged her. Captain Blackwell with her family’s gold. God knows what he would do with it. She had promised her father. Promised him she’d find the shipment and return it to England. Promised him she’d marry his choice if he just granted her a taste of freedom to find his gold. Freedom. She had grown quite fond of it.
“I accept your offer.”
Nefi nodded once, extended her right hand. The sailors behind her also nodded. The man folded his arms over his chest. Sarah tried to raise her own hand, but she was too weak. Nefi reached, took her hand and Sarah felt a cold wind race up her arm into her midsection. Nefi released Sarah’s hand, pulled her dagger from its sheath and ran its razor tip lightly over her own left wrist.
Sarah watched, fascinated, as blood oozed quickly to the skin’s surface. Nefi dipped her right index finger in it and gently wiped it on Sarah’s lower lip. Not knowing why, Sarah licked her lip, tasted the familiar metallurgy of blood along with something else. An insistent throbbing, an ache in her bones, a need so deep it overwhelmed death’s mantle. The buccaneer leaned forward, gently gripped the back of Sarah’s neck with her right hand. She brought her left wrist to Sarah’s mouth and with a greed Sarah had never felt, she clamped her lips over the wound and sucked like a starving dog on a bone.
She felt heat and a searing pain course down her throat, infuse her muscles. She couldn’t stop wanting the taste of this life, such as she had never experienced. Nefi carefully withdrew her wrist and Sarah gasped, hunched, curled into a fetal position. It was as if her bones and blood vessels bubbled. She felt a strange ache from head to toe, but she burned with new, cold life. Gasping, she turned her gaze to the Angel’s captain.
“Welcome aboard,” the pirate said. And she winked as she clapped Sarah gently on the shoulder.
Three days Sarah spent gathering her strength on board Nefi’s ship, ensconced in a cabin near the bridge. She had lost her taste for food and instead, Nefi provisioned her with more blood from her veins. Sarah battled revulsion and need each time Nefi’s dagger drew a thin line on her wrist. Need always won.
“Soon,” Nefi said on the third day, “I must complete your transformation. You are strong enough now.” And she regarded Sarah with her midnight eyes. Sarah knew what Nefi meant. Even before Nefi explained the process, Sarah knew. Most of the folktales from Romania she had heard in salon discussions. Or in the kitchen as servants bandied dark tales about as they sliced vegetables for meals. Even Sarah’s mother loved old, musty stories that reeked of phantoms seeking deliverance and blood-suckers drowning in sunlight.
“Don’t worry,” Nefi told her, tone soft. “It isn’t like that. We don’t live like that.” She placed her hand—ageless—on Sarah’s thigh. “It’s like nothing you have ever felt.” She placed her hand then on Sarah’s abdomen, where the cutlass wound once gaped. It was but a thin scar now, front and back, from the power of Nefi’s blood. “You will never suffer such indignities again.” She smiled and stood to go. “Tomorrow, then.” And she left Sarah to contemplate the contract she had so willingly entered. Lady Sarah, if nothing else, was a woman of her word.
So it was that Sarah came to Nefi’s cabin on the fourth night. She was afraid, but understood what was expected of her. Nefi stood regarding her, a smile tugging the corner of her mouth. She approached Sarah, stroked the side of her face, ran her fingers through her hair.
A woman had never touched Sarah in this manner, and she was uncomfortable at first. But she also understood the implications of the bargain and she would go through with the process. Besides, she found herself settling into Nefi’s touch, enjoying it. She felt Nefi’s lips brush her neck, felt Nefi’s hands at her waist, pulling her close. Sarah’s breathing caught in her chest. Her arms, of their own accord, encircled Nefi and held on for life, dear life.
Nefi’s teeth penetrated Sarah’s neck quickly and painlessly, effortlessly graceful. Centuries of practice. Sarah gasped, tried to scream in combined ecstasy and pain as her blood flowed freely into Nefi’s mouth. She clutched Nefi, an erotic hunger racing through her core. She held Nefi’s head against her neck with a strength she didn’t know she had, writhing against the pirate, growing weaker and weaker as her life’s blood ebbed.
Nefi pulled Sarah to the thin border between life and death. She released her hold on Sarah’s neck, carefully lowered Sarah to her bed. “Once more,” Nefi whispered in Sarah’s ear as she opened a vein on her own wrist, held it to Sarah’s mouth. “Drink.”
And Sarah did, clamping her lips over the cut, suckling and licking, feeling Nefi’s blood now mixed with her own fill an aching void within. All she knew was the exquisite taste in her mouth, the pinpricks of power running down her throat. Sated at last, she fell back, felt Nefi gently wipe her lips with a cloth then kiss her on the mouth.
“There will be pain,” Nefi said softly. “But it will pass.”
She was right. The pain started within minutes, suffusing every joint, muscle, cell of Sarah’s body. Stinging, burning agony. Sweat leaked from every pore as Sarah endured the shift, felt her body change, her bones creak and moan. Her teeth felt loose in her gums and her eyes were surely melting, dripping from their sockets. Nefi stayed with her throughout, wiping her forehead and limbs with a cool damp cloth. She spoke soothingly in a language Sarah didn’t recognize though it hung images in her mind of a great river flowing north from the guts of Africa to dump its legacy into a turquoise sea. Finally, Sarah slept. And when she woke, everything had changed.
The crew of the Black Angel defied easy description. Twenty, an odd mix of men and women from a plethora of backgrounds. Which surprised Sarah greatly. She had chosen to sail disguised as a man in search of her father’s gold, but didn’t realize how common such behavior actually had been through the ages. Nefi’s crew included three Greek women who spoke of the day work began on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi and two Spanish women who had sought adventure on the high seas in the wake of the Inquisition. There were others, from everywhere. French, Spanish, English, and Portuguese sailors and soldiers. One of the Portuguese men had sailed with Ferdinand Magellan nearly two hundred years earlier. Three Moroccans. Two Chinese. Two Phoenicians and a Roman.
Through new eyes blessed with Nefi’s gift Sarah could see the differences between them. Some were like her, predators who needed blood to survive. Others were simply not alive. But not dead. Sarah asked one of the Portuguese sailors about it. He laughed and told her in his heavily accented English that Nefi could only gift the blood-lust to those who had not yet died when they called her. Others had already died before Nefi arrived and she could only offer them a twilight existence between life and death.
“Magic?” Sarah asked.
“Perhaps. I am one of these. Nefi was too late, but I was not ready to leave. She knew this.” He tugged a rope in his gray hands, secured it on a cleat. “Nefi only comes to those she knows will contract with her.” He sucked on the pipe. Sarah watched its smoke ooze from the holes in his neck. “She’s particular that way.”
“But I didn’t know about her.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, blowing the remnants of tobacco smoke through his broken teeth. “Nefi knows about you.”
Sarah looked at him, at his pasty gray skin stretched tight and dry over brittle bones, like canvas on a wood frame. “Does she ever release anyone?”
He smiled. “No one ever wants to be released. That’s why Nefi comes to them.”
“Where does she come from?”
Tomás smiled, took another draw from his pipe. “A tale you should perhaps hear—”
“From Nefi herself,” the captain finished as she joined him and Sarah at the railing. “So, Lady Sarah. You are intrigued.” Nefi regarded her, calm. “My past is my present is my future. There is no progression from one to the other. There are only ebbs and flows.”
Sarah met Nefi’s gaze directly. “What language were you speaking when…”
Nefi smiled then. “A very old one. You will find it inscribed in stone within the pyramids of Giza and the tombs of Thebes. That is my language. That is what I spoke when I was mortal.”
Tomás eased himself off the railing and ambled toward the bridge.
Nefi reached then, allowed her fingers to run the length of Sarah’s bare forearm. The sensation was more than pleasant. Sarah’s reaction was obvious in her eyes and Nefi smiled. She turned, placed her elbows on the railing to gaze out to sea. “My name is Nephthys. I was given that name when sent to grace the house of the Pharoah Sneferu.” She caught Sarah’s eye. “I was never to marry, instead educated and trained in the ways of diplomacy and entertainment for visiting dignitaries. At the age of twenty-five, it was time for me to earn my name.”
Sarah listened, fascinated.
“Nephthys is the Goddess who grants immortality. My people believed she required appeasement from a mortal woman chosen from the kingdoms during each Pharoah’s reign. I was Sneferu’s choice. And on the eve of my twenty-fifth mortal year, the contract was made.”
Nefi turned then. “The high priestess of Nephthys bequeathed her blood to me. It was understood that I would serve in the same capacity, should such be required. I entered the temple of Nephthys after my transformation was complete.”
Sarah saw something shift in Nefi’s eyes, thought it might be sadness. Or perhaps it was merely a trick of the afternoon light.
“My world lived and died many times during my service, until finally, beneath the onslaught of foreigners, the old ways dispersed. With the coming of the Greeks, I took to the seas.” A smile seemed to twitch at the corner of Nefi’s mouth. “I learned quite a bit from the Greeks,” she added, thoughtful. She stood and regarded Sarah with her implacable eyes. “We dock in Nassau on the morrow. I have a feeling you’ll have a bit of luck in your search for the Queen’s Rest.” Her eyes held Sarah’s for a long moment. She turned languidly and headed for the bridge. As Nefi’s boot hit the first step, she cast a glance back over her shoulder and smiled at Sarah and she knew that the Captain was extending an invitation to her for the evening. Sarah smiled back. She would accept.
The Port of Nassau crawled with beleaguered privateers, pirates, deserters from a variety of navies, merchants, speculators, bandits, thieves, and assorted lowlifes from every conceivable occupation. The city itself was a mish-mash of squatters, tents, and ramshackle structures, erected on the cremated remains of earlier buildings that had been burned to the ground by contingents from the French and Spanish navies.
All manner of craft anchored in the harbor. From the most resplendent vessels of the British Navy to the meanest sloop, all found welcome in the boomtown atmosphere of Nassau. Whatever debauchery, decadence, illegality, or perversion one could imagine, it had already been tried here, expounded upon, and cast aside for newer manifestations. And for those who chose to live far outside the boundaries of acceptable, Nassau was perfect.
Sarah stood on the pier in the late afternoon light. She turned abruptly and strode back into the city, hat pulled low over her eyes. She made her way along the filthy, crowded street that edged the harbor, bumping into a variety of humanity in a variety of stages of cleanliness. Shouts and shots filled the air, chased by screams and screeching laughter. Nassau was a pit and for those who weren’t already dead, it promised to press them into the service of those ranks quickly.
Sarah worked her way around vast mud puddles, sloppy with trash and offal, searching for a proper target. She needed to feed after her long day in this hole. Blackwell had off-loaded in Nassau and checked four strongboxes at the customs house. He probably claimed that he found them hidden aboard a pirate ship. He’d get a percentage of the boxes, since it was highly unlikely in the corruption of the Jamaican port that an honest effort to find the rightful owner would be extended. Sarah smiled to herself. Not only had she laid claim, but she knew where he was currently headed. Not that it mattered. Nefi would find him for her. Of that Sarah was sure.
She ducked down a narrow alley between a tavern and a boarding house just as a young serving woman emptied a pail of scraps out the tavern’s back door. Wearing new seaman’s trousers and a rough linen shirt, Sarah presented as a man. The tricorn on her head further marked her as a sailor. She smiled at the serving woman and tipped her hat as she approached. The alley was very dark. The woman was too trusting.
Though she hadn’t had much practice, Sarah was very good at finding a human jugular vein quickly and piercing it efficiently. She had overcome her initial discomfort with seducing women, finding them easier to attract in her male guise than men, though she had fed on an amorous sailor who returned her advances because he thought she was a man. On Sarah’s first boarding—a Dutch schooner—Nefi had demonstrated to Sarah how much blood to take, without leaving lasting harm beyond small puncture scars.
Nefi took Sarah on proper hunts in New Providence soon after, though the initial outings proved difficult for the Englishwoman, who could not yet reconcile her thirst for blood with her mortal past. Nefi seemed to understand, and she made it easy in some ways for Sarah to adjust to this new existence. Sarah thought of her now as a mentor, among other things.
But now here she was, in a dark, stinking alley, enthralled with the taste of the barmaid’s life on her lips, coursing down her throat. It aroused her, caused an ache between her thighs, this unholy intimacy. Not too much, Nefi had instructed. Leave them mortal.
Sarah’s first had died, a young Dutch sailor aboard the schooner. She had felt an overwhelming need to sob but nothing came except the insidious and exhilarating sensation of life, throbbing through her veins. Terrible, terrible bargain. Nefi had only laughed softly. “I knew you would accept,” she said. “I only offer to those who will.”
Thousands, Nefi said. She had ignored thousands over the centuries. Unlike others, she did not pass the gift lightly. Sarah found that intriguing. In every port, dozens like her occupied
every strata, every job. She could sense them now, could see the ethereal glow in their eyes. She caught brief glimpses of canine teeth too sharp. When mortal, she would not have noticed. Yes, Nefi had standards. But looking around the seething city, it was obvious others did not.
Sarah felt the woman against her collapse and she withdrew her teeth with an effort, wiped her mouth and the woman’s neck on a bit of cloth she pulled from her pocket The gift granted her physical strength unlike any she had ever known, so it was an easy matter for Sarah to carry her the short distance to the tavern’s back door and leave her just inside, out of reach of other nightcrawlers with even baser intentions. She straightened her clothing and quitted the alley so she could make her way through the foul streets to a particular drinking establishment.
Low-slung and slovenly, this tavern stood to her left. She waited as two burly men careened through the open door taking prodigious swings at each other. They sloshed through a mud puddle in the dark and skidded against a building on the opposite side of the street. Sarah entered and shouldered her way through the crowd to a table in the corner. Nefi sat with her back against the rough wooden wall, chair tipped back, left leg draped rakishly over the tabletop. She was surveying the room, ignoring the full tankard she held in her right hand. She offered one of her oddly appealing smiles as Sarah sat down across from her.
“Success, I trust.” She held a discreet finger to her lower lip. Sarah quickly wiped her own mouth again with the bit of cloth. Nefi nodded. “My ablest apprentice thus far.” She grinned, handed Sarah the tankard. Sarah sipped, washing the taste of ecstasy down her throat with harsh ale. She slid into the chair to Nefi’s right.
“And the other matter?” Nefi was speaking to her, but her eyes were on a young Spanish man who had just entered. Nefi obviously needed to hunt, as well.
“Tomorrow afternoon. Send three to the customs house. A small wooden box. Ask for Townsend. Use the name Lord Samuel Churchill.”
“Well done,” Nefi said softly, eyes once again on Sarah. She had already acquired her target. It would only be a matter of time now. She stood, stretched languorously. “You’ve completed a task. And had a grand time doing it, I’d warrant.” She winked, moved off into the crowd with a leonine grace. Sarah drained the tankard and sat back, enjoying a sense of satisfaction, ease, and excitement.
Two-masted and square-rigged, the Angel strained to be set loose as it glided out of Nassau harbor at dawn. A predator, gathering for the spring. Nefi’s flag flew from the mainmast. The crew leaned on the railing as the sails unfurled themselves. Those who had needed to hunt had done so. A Jamaican woman came on board earlier then left after patching up the undead. Nefi paid her very well.
The Angel sliced through the Caribbean, gathering speed and power. Dark and lethal. An obsidian blade. Sarah watched as the miles washed beneath them, more quickly than she could have dreamed possible.
“Ship ahoy!” came the melodious call from Peisino, the Siren. Nefi liberated her from Cape Peloris before Orpheus could challenge her sisters. Peisino was only too happy to sail with the pirate. Though bound in service, she was no longer at the whims of the Olympic pantheon and her voice had no effect on Nefi’s crew. It was a perfect arrangement.
“Ah.” Nefi was suddenly at Sarah’s side. She said softly in her ear, “do you recognize the vessel, Sarah?”
Sarah’s eyes narrowed. She saw Queen’s Rest painted in red on its stern. Something deeper than blood lust stirred.
“Your chance, Lady Sarah.” Nefi smiled, an expression that among the living would not offer warmth. But to Sarah, Nefi’s smiles scoured frost from stone. “Prepare to engage!” Nefi shouted. The Black Angel turned swiftly with no help from the crew. She honed in on her target, sleek hull a glistening black edged in gold and red. Of its own accord, Nefi’s flag hurtled up the mainmast, unfurling in the breeze. A white cutlass piercing a crimson heart on a field of black.
Sarah could hear shouts from the Queen’s Rest as the distance between them closed. She saw crewmen running about like ants, trying to turn the ship from the path of Nefi’s juggernaut. The opposing vessel swung laboriously portside, exposing her guns. Nefi’s eyes, like chips of onyx, caught the rays of the setting sun and flashed in warning. Sarah watched, gripping the
railing. The Queen’s Rest crew scurried about, preparing to fire. The Angel’s guns remained silent even as cannons bellowed from the Queen’s Rest.
Five cannonballs stopped in midair as if they had struck a great wall. They hovered momentarily then splashed heavily into the water. Three more cannons, three more cannonballs joining their predecessors in the depths. The Angel was too close now for effective cannonry. Sarah heard the crack of muskets, watched as chips of wood flew from the railing. The gouges sealed themselves within minutes. Atar and Philos, the Phoenicians, each took lead balls in their arms. Like Sarah, they were gifted with the blood-lust. Their bodies expelled the musket balls and the wounds closed almost immediately. The undead simply pulled the balls out of their bodies and tossed them into the sea.
The Angel slid into boarding position next to the Queen’s Rest, held. Peisino stood on the Angel’s bridge, her song entrapping the crew of the Queen’s Rest as if they were bound with chains. The Angel’s crew swarmed aboard the other ship, deathly silent except for Peisino’s lilting voice. Mortal sailors dropped their weapons at the sound of the Siren, fell to their knees, slack-jawed.
Sarah made the leap to the opposing vessel easily, reveling in the fluidity of her motions and the untapped strength in her muscles. She searched the deck, looking for Blackwell and the first mate. She found Robert entranced at the foot of the foremast. The two Chinese pirates lifted him and carried him to the Angel. Blackwell stood on the bridge, staring dumbly at Sarah as she climbed the steps. Atar and a Moroccan undead lifted him from his position and handed him across the space to waiting hands on the Angel.
With her prey off-loaded, Sarah swung onto the railing and stepped easily to the Angel, which pulled away from the Queen’s Rest as Peisino’s song faded. Blackwell and Robert shook themselves, as if they awakened from a deep trance. Nefi had ordered them placed near the mainmast, seated and unbound. They could do no damage here. Sarah stood watching them, arms folded over her chest, boots planted firmly on the deck.
“Gentlemen,” she said when she saw the recognition in their eyes.
“You said she was dead.” Blackwell hissed in a whisky-ripped voice. His mustache dropped below his chin and the scar across the bridge of his nose twitched with his words.
“She was,” Robert stammered, eyes wide. “No one could have survived such a slice as that.”
“Death, Captain, doesn’t always put an end to a matter.” Sarah leaned over, face very close to his. “Perhaps you should have considered that when you broke the contract with me.”
He remained silent, glaring at her.
Nefi interrupted. “Captain Blackwell, I am Nefi, captain of the Black Angel. Do you know of this vessel?”
It was Robert’s jaw that clenched. Sweat beaded on his balding skull. “Stories,” he managed finally. “Just stories.” But his voice was uncertain and Sarah could see him trembling.
“Good. Our reputation precedes us.” Nefi stroked her chin. Several crewmembers chuckled behind her. “Lady Sarah has already collected her boxes. But perhaps you’d like to clear your consciences about any other matter…?”
“Please…” Blackwell reached toward her, entreating. “I’ll do anything. Anything you want…”
Nefi grinned broadly. “I have no doubt of that, Mr. Blackwell. But you obviously can’t hold a contract. And I am very, very particular.”
Sarah felt an odd elation at Nefi’s pronouncement.
As if on cue, Nefi turned her scrutiny to Sarah. “What would you have me do here, Lady Sarah?”
Sarah licked her lips. “I seem to recall a certain island. Where you and I first met.”
Nefi nodded, expression unreadable, as always. The Angel pitched to starboard and gathered momentum. Wind snapped against the sails. She knifed through the waves, cleaving the Caribbean. A shark. Hunting. Sarah knew she should turn Blackwell and Robert over to port authorities in Nassau. Knew she should feel a responsibility as a representative of a noble British family to conduct herself through the proper channels. Knew all of this. And felt none of it. How quickly we forget life, she thought, delighting in the sight of two men cowering against the mainmast, when we have been granted it forever.
Sarah felt a soft jolt as the longboat’s prow dug into sand. Four members of Nefi’s crew hauled Robert and Blackwell out of the craft and dragged them, bound, onto the beach. The crew dropped them unceremoniously onto the sand and returned to the longboat, where they stood, waiting. Sarah and Nefi disembarked. Sarah drew her cutlass, turned to meet Nefi’s eyes with her own. Nefi nodded. Sarah turned and strode up the beach to where the two men lay, arms bound behind their backs.
“Do you know where you are?” Sarah asked as she stood over them.
Robert licked his lips. Sarah watched his eyes flick over her, to the longboat, then to Blackwell. He knew. She could smell fear in his sweat, could hear it in the shallow breaths that eased between his lips.
“Please,” Blackwell whispered, pleading. “I didn’t know. I didn’t understand…”
Sarah shook her head. “You broke a contract.” She pursed her lips. “I was fortunate. You are not.”
The smell of urine assailed Sarah’s nostrils. Blackwell had pissed himself. Sarah saw the stain on his trousers. Disgust mingled with anxiety in Robert’s eyes. He bit his lip.
“Please.” Blackwell tried again. “I’ll sail with Nefi. I’ll do anything she wants. Anything you want.”
“Too late.” Sarah drew her cutlass, examined its blade in the afternoon sun. “It wasn’t so long ago that I, too, reclined on this beach. In the heat.” She held the tip of the blade to Blackwell’s cheek, nicked it. He yelped, tried to move away. A thin trickle of blood eased down his jawline. Sarah watched it, transfixed. She could smell it. The hunt thrummed through her veins. Without hesitation, her cutlass found Blackwell’s abdomen, sank deep. Sarah rammed it through his gut, through his scream, felt the point bury itself in the sand beneath. She pulled it free and ran the tip of her left index finger along the blade, collecting blood. She licked her finger, felt the predator within stir. She turned her attention to Robert, who stared at her, horrified. He tried to get to his knees, out of the way of Blackwell’s strangled screams and thrashing.
“I meant nothing by it,” Robert hissed. “It was Cap’n’s orders. I was just following orders. He’s a coward. I’ll do right by you. I’ll serve aboard the Angel.” The words shot from his mouth like cannonballs from the Queen’s Rest. They fell, useless, beneath Sarah’s gaze.
“Funny, the things you think about at the moment of death,” Sarah mused. “Are you afraid?”
Robert bobbed his head like a puppet. “I’ll do anything you want. Any kind of work. I’ll serve you honorably. I swear it.”
Sarah shook her head. “Too late for you as well.” She pressed the tip of her cutlass to Robert’s abdomen. He fell backward, skittered away awkwardly like a crab. Sarah watched for a moment, amused. She moved too quickly for Robert to see. The blade slid into his stomach and his eyes registered utter surprise before a harsh gasp burst from his mouth. Sarah punched the blade through, paused, and pulled it out. Robert watched in agony and disbelief as she again licked a fingerful of blood from the cutlass. She needed to hunt, but she would not sully her tastes here. She felt Nefi at her elbow, felt another kind of hunger as she turned to look at her.
Nefi offered one of her smiles. “Shall we?”
“Please.” Sarah followed Nefi to the longboat. She did not look back.
Nefi stood on the bridge. She never had to give orders, as the crew knew exactly what to do, if something warranted doing. On Sarah’s first day of her new birth, Nefi elaborated a bit. “Some of us have been together a long, long time,” she had told her. “Atar and Philos were my first. And then Antiope and Xanthe. And Klotho.” The Greek women. “The rest…not as long, but long enough.”
The sails unfurled and the warm wind filled them. The ship lurched forward, away from the island, easing through the crystal waters, creaking and snapping. Sarah watched the crewmembers who were on deck then turned back to Nefi, whose hair was loose today, flowing behind her. She might have been a figurehead come to life, the way she appeared.
“Ah, a long, long life at sea. Does it entice you?” She was smiling enigmatically, eyes boring into Sarah’s.
Sarah smiled back. The thrum of the ship, the thud of waves against wood…it stirred longings in her veins reminiscent of a hunt.
“I’ve been sailing a fair amount of time,” Nefi continued. There was self-effacing laughter in her voice. “And I never tire of it. When I think sometimes that the burdens of history and the uncertainty of the future are too high a price to pay for this life, I raise the flag on the mast and head to sea. I think, Sarah, that you know what I’m talking about.” Nefi rested a hand on one of the spokes of the wheel. “It’s why you called. And it’s why I came.”
Sarah met Nefi’s eyes. She didn’t need to answer. Nefi knew. Sarah had surprised herself the day she died. A soft English noblewoman at birth, destined to marry a soft English lord. Producing soft English offspring to bear the name for more soft nobles. And then her father’s gold disappeared. Sarah was the youngest of his brood and he could spare no sons to find it. She volunteered immediately. She had never had an inkling of ever doing such a thing. Where had the urge come from? Accompanied by three servants, she arrived in New Providence, where she followed buccaneers with her eyes and her longing. So unlike her. Brutish and unseemly. Merciless. Indulging pleasures of the flesh, rutting like dogs and drinking in the excesses of mortality. But so like her after all. Sarah audaciously donned men’s clothing and went to sea. The first breach. She contracted with privateers. The second. Then she learned to sail, learned the feel of a ship. It was as if she knew nothing else. The third.
She automatically took the wheel from Nefi, to whom every sea was intimately familiar, lovers all. Nefi, who came with the tides and brought to Sarah a choice. A soul cached in blood. A life outside life. “I can help you,” she had said, kneeling there in the sand.
And she did.
You can find me at www.myspace.com/fiestaroad or www.andimarquette.com
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