In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean
The morning sun shone bright on Celia’s face. Below her, on the main deck, activity was lazy and, for the most part, curtailed, the crew engaged in menial tasks that nevertheless must be done. Two of the women aboard were mending sails and rope. Two more were in the galley baking the day’s bread. Another was with the men who sat along the rails fishing. Yet another was aloft with Kit, keeping watch. Mary and Solomon were behind her at the communal secretary, Mary dictating correspondence to Celia’s moneylender concerning Celia’s accounts and holdings.
Celia sang the chanteys along with the men, though she grew so lost in her thoughts that it took her a while to realize the other voices had dropped off, and it was her voice alone that filled the sails—and it was not because she was an officer.
She knew what Skirrow thought: Her success as a woman aboard a ship without need of a disguise, one who had survived a flogging wielded by James Dunham, was a result of a bargain she had struck with Lucifer.
Skirrow looked at her askance, half afraid, half aroused. She stared back at him while she sang, lifting her brow. He turned away, unable to hide his unease with her. That did not go unnoticed, if the sudden shift of several men’s bodies around her were anything to go by.
Celia arose to her full height as she finished that chanty, then pulled her shirt over her head, baring her to the waist. She took a deep breath, raised her face and hands to the sky and let her voice ring out, a robust, clear soprano that echoed across the still ocean.
And with His stripes we are healed . . .
The ship nearly rocked in the becalmed sea when the Christian and Muslim sailors alike scattered away from her to escape her blasphemy and nudity. Celia grinned and continued to sing of things a witch should not be able to voice at all, much less in such a heavenly manner—
—unless she truly was a witch and her song was a joke she shared with her master Lucifer.
Skirrow remained at the helm and glowered at her, his cockstand all too evident, yet he would not attempt any offense against her person. Firstly, he needed her too much. Secondly, he feared any reprisal by Dunham. Thirdly, like the animal he was, he only attacked weak humans.
Celia was anything but.
She turned the wheel a bit, allowing the wind to strike her face sharply, and smiled at the memory. It was one of the very few good ones she had of her time aboard the Carnivale. In great need of some respite from her restlessness, she took a deep breath as the Thunderstorm sliced cleanly through the waters and listened to the music in her head.
“For, unto us a child is born . . . ”
Work halted around her when she began to sing to them, her men and women, even the ones who did not know her voice had kept her as safe as her scars and her sword.
“Oh, child,” Mary sighed happily.
“Unto us . . . A son is given . . . Unto us . . . A son is given . . . ”
Johann’s tenor answered her soprano immediately: “For, unto us a child is born.”
‘Twas only a half measure before the few men and one woman who could, in fact, sing, joined her lustily.
The mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace . . .
It had taken time for her and Master Gunner Rico, a highly trained castrato, to teach the crew to sing thusly, but now they did so with vigor and skill and the length of a watch could be easily passed in near-complete abandon.
Cam’s deep bass rose as her soprano faded away, then Johann’s tenor slipped in and out. Rico’s contralto—the lowest register he could manage without flaw—joined their voices.
Then she heard a violin expertly playing the recitative before the soprano’s next aria. Someone else had found his recorder flute, and a third had fetched his squeezebox.
She was certain Maestro Handel had not intended his piece to be performed on the deck of an American privateer by a crew of ne’er-do-wells for no one but themselves, yet here they were.
And suddenly, there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying—
“SAIL HO!” Kit bellowed from the crow’s nest.
“God’s teeth,” Celia gritted, instantly on the alert. She was at once disgruntled at the loss of her respite and glad of the termination of her boredom—if only for a while.
The instruments were put away and the menial chores abandoned for preparations of battle. Everyone who could not fight went below immediately, taking their work with them if they could. Mary and Solomon hurriedly gathered up the parchments and pens, books and ledgers, and disappeared.
If it were British, they would either take it or blow it up. Celia waited for more information before giving her orders.
“British, but not navy. Looks like a merchantman. Off the larboard bow. Alone.”
“Are you certain?” she demanded, wary of a trap, and waited patiently another ten minutes before the answer came:
“Brit-built. Square-rigged. Two masts. Ten guns, if that. Aye, Cap’n, I’m sure.”
Well, that settled it.
Celia spun the wheel to come hard about. Sea spray and sun splashed her face, her heart beat faster with excitement. ‘Twas hard to remember why she was bored with this life at times like these.
“Run up the Union Jack.” She grinned now, the urge undeniable. “Look sharp! If we cannot sing praises to God, then we shall plunder in his name!”
Celia could now see the white sails of the British merchantman, which were approaching fast. It would not take but a few moments to reach them.
“Has she spotted us, Kit?”
“Aye, and she’s spilling wind.”
“Glad of a Navy escort, is she?” Celia laughed, but the sound was whipped away by the stinging wind.
“Cap’n, there’s a woman aboard. In a dress.”
Celia’s eyebrows rose in surprise. It made no difference in her battle plans, but women in dresses aboard British merchantmen bound for England meant gentry and that did not bode well for her.
Bataar barked orders for the guns to be readied in the surreptitious manner she had drilled into them.
“I hope to settle this with not a shot wasted,” Celia mumbled.
A quarter hour passed before the Thunderstorm was close enough to the Lamplight to hail it.
“Ho, Lamplight!” Cam called from the prow, his voice strong enough to carry back to Celia. His bare chest glistened ebony in the sunlight.
“Long live the king!” came the return.
“Run up Congress’s colors!” Celia bellowed. The Union Jack was struck. The gunports slammed open.
The crew aboard the Lamplight scrambled in panic.
Cam cupped his hands around his mouth. “Stand down and prepare to be boarded!”
She struck her colors the moment Cam ended his command, and Celia’s crew ran to grab the grappling hooks. Down the rails, the hooks struck the wood one after another in rapid sequence—
—then Celia’s crew heaved as one until the two ships crashed together. Immediately, thirty of her men swarmed the deck of the Lamplight, swords bared. They met no resistance, much less a fighting force.
Celia handed command off to Smitty, clipped down the stairs to the main deck and vaulted over the rails, Solomon and Cam following. Ten of her crew followed the pair of them, her other officers left behind to sail the Thunderstorm should anything untoward happen to Celia.
Celia surveyed the scene before her before she spoke. A normal-looking crew, scattered across the decks, betrayed a great deal of fear. The captain slowly came forward because his position demanded it, but the man would have turned and fled at a moment’s notice. Across the deck, Celia caught the flash of pale blue going down a hatch, and with a slight signal that only her crew could discern, one of her men sprinted across the expanse and dove down after it. With another signal, the rest of her crew disappeared into the holds to inventory what she held, leaving Celia, Cam, and Solomon alone on deck.
The captain of the Lamplight stood before Celia, trembling and wringing his hands, looking amongst the three of them, unable to decide which would be the captain: the Arab, the woman, or the Negro.
Her lip curled. “Speak, man.”
“Captain Tunney at your service, ma—er, uh—”
“I am Captain Fury,” Celia intoned, her eyebrow raised and her lips pursed. If this man swooned, she would lose a ten-pound wager with Smitty. “You may address me as Captain or Sir. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma—er, Sir.”
She gestured to her right. “This is Captain Bull, who will be commanding this vessel once I have completed my inspection.” He watched warily as Cam strode off to oversee preparations for his command. “What do you carry?”
“Cotton, m’lady—er, Sir—er, Captain. Spices. Tobacco. Coffee. Naught else.”
Not a word about passengers. She and Solomon exchanged glances, which only made the man fidget more.
“There is a woman aboard this ship, aye?” His face colored, but before he could stammer a reply, Celia said, “Loyalists bound for England, mayhap?”
But the captain was beyond speech. His eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped, a dead weight, onto the deck. Guffaws rang out from the quarterdeck of the Thunderstorm.
Celia sighed and looked at Solomon. “Another ten pounds sterling lost to the leftenant. I believe I shall have to cease wagering with the man.”
No sound or change in expression came from Solomon but a speaking glance told her he had found amusement in both the circumstance and her comment.
She turned to the crew, and said, “Who here would like to work for me?”
To a man, not one raised his hand. Well, that was no surprise. Celia was not especially good at impressing men, because she wanted willing sailors, but no matter. Cam would need this crew and she did not.
“Cap’n! Hold’s full of cotton and tobacco.”
She nodded at the crewman who yelled this bit of news. “Offload the spices and deliver them to Solomon’s cabin.” With a salute of acknowledgment of the order, the crew went back to their preparations.
Her crewman appeared shortly thereafter with a woman, a girl, and a man in tow.
The man was obviously well-heeled merchant gentry, and even in this dire situation, the wife would not allow her hem to touch the sailor who held her. She was not well pleased a Moor held her arm in his iron grip.
“What is the meaning of this outrage? Get your hands off me, you animal!”
Celia looked at the woman as she was dragged, struggling across the deck, to stand before her.
With one look at Celia, she ceased struggling and threw herself at her, hugging her and wailing. “Oh, m’lady, what shall we do? They’re monsters, the lot of them!”
Grimacing in distaste, Celia tried to extricate herself from the arms that held her. The woman seemed not to have noticed that Celia was dressed quite differently from current fashion, in a white cotton shirt and breeches. The tarred moccasins, white head scarf, broad slashes of kohl across her cheekbones, and huge gold hoop earrings were also quite beyond the pale for this season’s rage. The flintlock in Celia’s waistband, the dagger strapped around her thigh, and the scabbard swinging from her hip did not seem to register.
“Madam,” Celia muttered as she sought to disengage herself. “I say, Madam!”
With that, the seaman pulled the woman back with some force, and she stood, panting, staring at Celia as if she had somehow grown another head.
Celia calmly dusted herself off before looking back at the woman. For some reason, however, the girl caught her attention. So, she was the daughter of this gentrified pair.
She tilted her head in curiosity. “What is your name, girl?”
“Georgina, Sir.” Ah, the girl had courage. She did not flinch. She held her head proudly and looked Celia in the face.
“How many years have you?”
“Where are you bound?”
“England, Sir. To wed.”
Celia thought a bit. Had she grown up as other girls, a match would have been made for her, but now, a score of years past and a truly scandalous marriage behind her, she could not imagine being given no choice in the matter. “Have you met this man?”
“No, Sir. He is titled and wealthy and more than twenty years older than I. I—” The girl stopped abruptly and snapped her mouth tight.
“Say what you will, girl.”
“I do not want to wed. ‘Tis as if I have been sold.”
The girl’s mother, so outraged she forgot everyone’s presence but her daughter’s, raised her hand to slap her, but Solomon caught her wrist in a vise grip until she whimpered and then harder until he’d forced to her knees.
“Your parents have whored you out, eh?”
Oh, the girl was completely bitter, then. Celia ran her tongue over her teeth. “Tell me something. Would you return to your life with them now, if you could? Until it was appropriate for you to marry? Even someone of your choosing?”
Everyone but her own crew started at that question, though the girl herself started the least. “No.”
Her mother continued to weep in pain and her father looked away. Celia looked at the girl for a long time and the girl stared back.
“Marriage or piracy. Choose.”
She gulped, but did not look away. “Piracy,” she whispered.
The father blanched. “No!” screamed the mother. “You can’t! Georgina! Don’t do this to us, please!”
The girl looked down at her mother, her mouth tight. “I told you I would rather die than marry that man,” she murmured. “This is the best choice I have.”
“Lucio!” Celia bellowed finally, looking over her shoulder to the Thunderstorm. When he appeared at her side, she waved a hand at Georgina. “Take the girl to Officer Mary.” Her crew did not hesitate and the girl looked at her with wide eyes.
“You’ll thank me for this someday.”
She sucked in a breath. “I already do, Sir. I already do.” She said nothing more, but went willingly with Lucio, who, ever the gentleman, would have assisted her over the rails even if she hadn’t been wearing a rather cumbersome dress.
“Now,” Celia began again. “I will reiterate in case the situation is not perfectly clear: I am Captain Fury, of the American privateer Thunderstorm. This vessel now belongs to me, claimed in the name of the United States of America. Cambridge Bull will be the commander of this vessel and has every right and protection afforded me as part of the privateer fleet.”
Celia sat on her haunches before the weeping mother and said, “Where do you wish to go?”
“We have nowhere to go,” she wept. “We sold everything, and cannot set foot in England without Georgina. We are ruined.”
“I see. In that case, England is exactly where you’ll be going. I’ll be sure to deliver the pair of you up promptly to Georgina’s former betrothed.”
Solomon chuckled as he loosed the girl’s mother, who fell into another bout of weeping at Celia’s feet, begging for mercy, but the sailor who’d fetched her earlier picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. Her screams of outrage made Celia laugh a bit herself and the father cast her wary glances.
“Ah, I amuse myself mightily betimes,” she murmured, and the crew that heard her laughed. She turned back to the woman. “And thus we see the Ottomans are not the only ones who buy and sell Christian women. What name did you sell your girl to?”
The woman could not speak for her weeping and gasping and the shoulder buried in her belly, so Celia looked to the father for the answer. He gulped. “Commander Elliott Raxham, second son of the Earl of Tavendish. A good friend to my cousin, who arranged the match.”
Celia slapped a hand on the hilt of her cutlass, put a finger to her lips, and studied the deck. “Who is that?” she muttered to herself. “I know that name.”
“Tried for high treason and acquitted,” one of her officers called from the Thunderstorm. “Siege at Casco Bay. Captained the HMS Iphigenia and commanded the fleet. In the midst of firing on the village, he turned on one of his own ships and sank it.”
“Aye, that would get one tried for treason. And you sold your daughter to a man who’d turn on one of his own fleet?”
“Cap’n, wait,” Croftwood continued. “His barrister proposed Raxham was the target of an assassination attempt by the captain of the ship he sank and thus was acting to save his and his crew’s life.”
Celia turned to stare at Croftwood, but he nodded solemnly. “Well! I simply have not heard a yarn that preposterous in years!”
“Bloody hell, Jack,” Smitty called, “you have no room to call that preposterous.”
Celia’s face split wide in a grin and the crew of the Thunderstorm roared. “Ah, just so,” she finally said. “‘Twouldn’t matter. His name is forever black. He’ll not be able to find a bride with sufficient settlement or title, I’ll wager. No noble in England would desire a traitor’s name attached to his own by marriage, wealth or not—and a second son has no title to sweeten the pot.”
“Wot’s ‘at?” her pesky lieutenant called again. “Another wager?”
She looked over her shoulder and yelled back, “Aye, another, you whoreson! An hundred pounds this time!”
It took another hour to prepare. The family’s trunks were stowed aboard the Thunderstorm, though Celia would have to think about where she wanted to put them and what they would do to earn their keep.
“Captain Bull,” Celia called and jerked her head for him to follow her back aboard the Thunderstorm. She led the way to her cabin and counted out some gold for use as shares and bribes. “I’ll send Li Chen with you to navigate. He has not as much training as I’d like, but can find his way to Holland. Dock in Rotterdam and seek out my agent there. You have met him?”
“Sell everything, dole out shares as you see fit, then oversee any repairs she may need. Your new crew promises to be unwilling. How many of our crew will you need to keep them in line?”
“A good score, Sir.”
“Done. Take whom you will. What do you plan to do with the captain?”
“Throw him in the brig. I’m not in the habit of killing mice.”
Celia chuckled. “I don’t expect to be far behind you. Once we arrive, you will deposit George’s parents wherever her formerly betrothed lives. Mama and I will likely be gone to London by the time you return.”
“Godspeed. George!” she bellowed once Cam had disappeared up through a hatch and she heard his deep, commanding voice. The girl poked her head out of Mary’s door and looked at Celia with some trepidation. “Come up on deck with me. Your education started three hours ago.”
Once up on deck, Celia went directly to the pair whose name she did not know, nor did she care. Woman and Man would do nicely, she supposed, and she went to stand in front of them, who huddled, terrified. Activity went on all around them, crewmen jumping over the rail to the Lamplight, grappling hooks being retrieved, Cam bellowing orders as he stood on the quarterdeck and threw the wheel hard to larboard.
Celia waited until the pair actually looked at her.
“Man. Take George’s trunks to the salon. A crewman will show you where. Take your own to the hold. You will sleep in the berth with the rest of the crew. The purser’s mate will give you a hammock and change of clothes. You will work and work hard. Mayhap my crew can shove a ramrod down your spine with regard to your wife and with any luck, you won’t die from it. Get going.”
Man began the process of laboriously dragging their trunks belowdecks, a crewman waiting impatiently for him to direct him.
She turned her attention to Woman, who cowered. “Have you tailoring skills?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Have you needle and thread, scissors and a tape?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Good. You will also earn your keep on this ship, since you did not pay me passage. You will sew George and yourself clothes like mine. As regards George, she is now under my command by her choice; thus, you no longer have any claim on her, her belongings, or her behavior. You will treat her with the same respect you will be expected to treat the rest of my crew and obey any orders she gives you, understood?”
She swallowed. “Yes.”
Celia then curled her hand into the low neckline of the girl’s dress and pulled, ripping the dress all the way down to the deck. It was George’s first look of terror as she attempted to cover herself as if her shift were not enough.
“Take off the dress. Give it to Woman.” The girl did as she was told without a word of protest, though she was terrified and the crew watched and snickered.
“God’s blood! The girl’s bound up in stays and she’s not yet grown tits. Have you your courses?”
Her mouth dropped open. “Yes,” she squeaked.
“Condolences. Well, what are you waiting for? Get that thing off.”
But the girl looked at her helplessly. Heaving a longsuffering sigh, Celia bid the girl turn around. She drew her dagger and sliced the laces with no further ado. George turned back around and Celia, catching the garment as it fell, unceremoniously tossed it overboard.
Celia then pulled her own shirt off over her head, and both George and Woman gasped to see not her bare breasts, but the matting of horizontally striped scars that encircled her torso from hips to collarbone. “Here,” she said, handing the shirt to George, whose breasts were, in fact, rather respectable. “Well, so you’re not titless after all. Good. Put that on over your shift. KIT!”
Only a moment it took for the boy to land on his feet beside her. “Cap’n?”
“This is George. Loan her a pair of your breeches and then teach her to climb the rigging.”
As she walked away in a daze, Celia heard Kit demand, “Gimme yer slippers,” followed by a faint plink in the ocean. Celia chuckled.
“Woman. George is to have one pair of breeches and a shirt like mine before sunrise. After that, you will make her enough to last a week before laundering. When you’ve finished her new wardrobe, start on your own. I do not allow skirts on my ship.”
“I have no cloth,” she whispered. “What shall I use?”
“Your wardrobes, of course. She’ll not need a dress again for months, if not years. After that, you will be emptying the slop jars, doing laundry, and keeping all the women aboard this ship supplied with clean menses rags.”
With that, she dispatched Woman to the galley to use one of the broad mess tables for cutting and sewing. Yet before—
Celia gripped Woman’s neck and hauled her back to speak in her ear. “I am your entire existence now, Woman. You do what I say when I say how I say. Do you understand me?” She nodded frantically.
Celia let her go with a shove, then turned to watch the little merchantman sail east, ahead of her. She smiled at a job well done and stretched, running her hands up her ribs, over her breasts, under her braid until it fell from her outstretched arms.
“Captain! I must protest!”
Celia whirled at this voice she did not know and who questioned her authority. The entirety of the crew within earshot stilled to watch this scenario play out.
A man approached her with some urgency, a great weaselly fellow. Tall and bulky, he had thinning hair of an indeterminate mousy brown. One colorless eye did not focus in the same direction as his other colorless eye. He tended to squint most likely because he needed spectacles. His hands were large as hams and, Celia imagined, just as clumsy.
“Who are you?” Celia asked calmly.
“My name is Marcus Rohmler, Madam.”
“Captain or sir, Mr. Rohmler. You’ve been on this vessel a fortnight now; you know the proper address.”
“What is your protest?”
“The treatment of the women, sir. They’ve brought you no harm.”
Celia tilted her head and looked up at him. Their height difference did not bother her in the least. “Mr. Rohmler, tell me: When you came aboard this ship seeking employment, did you not know ‘twas a privateer and its captain a woman?”
“And now you question my behavior?”
“‘Tis not right to treat gently bred women thusly.”
The male crewmembers held their breath, Bataar wrapped her hand around the hilt of her sword, and the rest of the women abovedecks began to murmur angrily.
“‘Tisn’t it now? Richins!” she bellowed without taking her eyes from the man before her. “Fetch Woman back here.” She waited, never taking her eyes off of this upstart, who began to squirm under her cool regard. Once Woman was shoved to Celia’s left, she dropped to her knees, sobbing.
“Mr. Rohmler,” she began. “You say it is not right to treat gently bred women as I have treated Woman here. Do I understand you to say that it is right to treat common women thusly?”
The female crew growled and Rohmler’s mouth dropped open. “No—no, not at all.”
“Pray tell me why you protest for this woman—a woman who sold her girl’s womb to an aristocrat? What has she done to earn your chivalry that the other women aboard this vessel do not deserve?”
“Ah . . . the others are here to—of their own free will. This one is an innocent being taken hostage. Sir.”
Celia laughed. “I am a pirate, Rohmler!” Guffaws rang out. “‘Tis what I do!” She leaned forward. “What I do not do,” she murmured, “is tolerate insubordination. So. I will test your chivalry. You get back to work and mind your own business or Woman here gets the lash.”
His eyes widened. “But I—” Celia’s eyebrow rose and his stuttering became nearly painful before he said, “Please don’t lash her, Captain.”
With a glance slid to Richins, he took weeping Woman belowdecks once again. “I do not know you, Rohmler,” she said, “and I hear you came aboard bearing Washington’s name.”
“You’re lying to me.” He started and Celia knew she was right. “I cannot prove it, but I don’t have to, as I am the only law here. One more misstep, Rohmler, and I’ll shackle you in the hold for the duration. I don’t like liars and I will not have my authority questioned.” She turned and walked away from him then, toward the quarterdeck. Over her shoulder, she called, “I’d watch my back if I were you, Rohmler. Methinks you’ll not want to cross swords with me.”
Once she’d taken the wheel over from a glowering Smitty, she saw the man still standing there, his mouth agape. “Get to work, Mr. Rohmler,” she murmured just loudly enough for him to hear. When he didn’t move, out of fear or rebellion Celia did not know, she pulled the dagger out of its sheath on her leg and fired it at him.
It pinned his foot to the deck.
He howled in pain and bent to grapple at it, sobbing.
“Mayhap now you’ve an excuse not to move when given a direct order.”
She watched as he dislodged it from the wood beneath his foot, then pulled it out of his foot. He hobbled away, blood streaming behind him. “Get Senzeille to tend his wound,” she mumbled to Smitty. “I want him alive for his flogging on the morrow and do not wish an infection to rob me of that.”
“Made me waste a bloody nice day. I’ll not forget that soon.”
She began to yell instructions and sails were unfurled. She spun the wheel to starboard and fought to catch a breeze.
There was some commotion above her and she was obliged to smile at Kit’s attempts to teach George to climb. ‘Twas a difficult task made more difficult by the softness of the girl’s feet, the dizzying height, the strength of the wind, and the pitch of the ship as she turned. It took tremendous strength and a strong stomach. If George could master the rigging, she would be able to master anything.
At the moment, though, Kit hopped from the platform to the ratlines and ran down the net, upsetting George’s timorous hold on the ropes so that she lost her grip and fell. Celia watched as the girl caught herself halfway down, but she clung to it, breathing heavily; Celia smiled with the memory of herself having done the very same thing. ‘Twould teach her to hold on better.
Oblivious to his charge’s circumstance, Kit launched himself off the rigging by a rope and swung out over Celia, dropping neatly beside her. “The Silver Shilling’s twelve miles behind us, two points off larboard.”
She speared Kit with a look, and realized she had to look up. When had he gotten so tall?
“Are you sure?”
“The figurehead, Cap’n.”
“Oh, aye, that would do it. Does she see us?”
“Aye. She’s heavy in the water but seems to me she is trying to overtake us.”
“Excellent. Get me a shirt.”
• • •
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