Dunham 19: Chapter Nineteen

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March, 1780
In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean

On Sunday, George entered the cabin, again without knocking, but quietly this time and with breakfast.

From under shuttered eyelids, Elliott watched her set out the food, humming to herself and smiling as if she had just divined the meaning of life. Indeed, she probably thought she had, Elliott supposed. The girl was in love. In his opinion, nothing good could come of allowing George and Kit’s shipboard trysting to continue, but it was Fury’s business and he would not mind it.

From where Fury still lay against Elliott’s side, he felt her breathing and heartbeat quicken apace with awakening, but she did not stir or open her eyes.

George left as quietly as she had come and done her duty, but then Fury’s mother sauntered in and said, “Good morning, children.”

Fury groaned. “Go away, Mama. Isn’t there some young buck aboard the Silver Shilling who might interest you?”

“Too many to choose from.”

“An old one, mayhap?”

“If I wanted an old one, I’d have gone with your father.”

Elliott chuckled.

“Go find something else to do, then. Go! You are off duty. I forbid you to work. There. That is your order.”

But, as mothers will do, she ignored Fury and sat down to breakfast. “Will you sing for us today?”

“Will you go away?”

“Aye, sing,” Elliott croaked, his voice tight from hours of disuse.

“She sings like an angel,” Officer Mary sighed. “If there is one thing That Man did right, it was discerning her voice and seeing it trained.”

“Mother, please . . . ”

Officer Mary cast Elliott a sly glance and purred, “I like to see her all aflutter over you.”

“Mother!”

That surprised a laugh out of Elliott, and his grin widened at the flush that now stained Fury’s face. “Aflutter?”

“She laughed when she found her figurehead gone.”

“Mother,” Fury gritted.

Elliott leaned down to catch Fury’s glance, but she pressed her face into his ribs. “You laughed?”

Fury slowly looked up at him, her eyes narrowed, and drawled, “I did, my lord.”

Though they were both raw from that delicious game they had played hours ago, his yard roused for her again, simply for this little threat, which delighted and excited him at once.

Officer Mary cleared her throat when neither he nor Fury would look away first. “I apologize. I did not mean to provoke a spat. Besides, Captain Judas,” she continued, and rapped her knuckles on the table to direct Elliott’s attention toward her, “I think I might like you.”

“Congratulations” Fury muttered. “You’ve the approval of both my parents.”

That shocked him. “After that brawl?”

“He mentioned that he did not object to you.”

“Does he object to That Man?” Mary asked caustically. The undercurrent of stories untold running between Fury and her mother was thick.

“You know very good and well he does, Mother. Now will you go?”

Officer Mary balled up her linen and arose with a huff. The cabin door opened and closed with a bang.

Fury growled and sat up. “Oh! Sometimes she treads too close to . . . to things that should not be spoken of.”

“Why was that too close?” he asked gently, smoothing a finger along her collarbone.

“It just was,” she said with a genuine pout, but then her righteous indignation must have fled because she slumped. “I am not used to having a mother,” she muttered. “She is not used to having a daughter. Having her here has been more difficult than either of us had imagined.”

“Do you regret it?” he asked quietly.

“Oh, no!” she denied with wide eyes. “Never. ’Tis true I would rather she be with Papa, but that is simply a child’s longing for her parents to be together. It is— Well, we have too many years to make up and both of us are people we wish the other had not become. There are some things she would rather not know about me, and the reverse.”

Elliott nodded. “Where is your home?” he asked for no reason he could think of.

“I have no home,” she snapped.

Her voice was thick with bitterness, and Elliott did not know what to say. He had a home. No matter how long he had been at sea, he had a wonderful place to return to with wonderful people who loved him.

“Where is your birthplace, then?” he asked carefully.

“Philadelphia.”

“You don’t consider the Thunderstorm your home?”

“Whisht! Why would I? It can sink. All this can be gone with one lightning strike. The Iron Maiden is the third one Papa has had. The first two sank in storms.”

“Surely you shared a home with your husband?”

“Two, actually. One in Marrakech and one in Casa Blanca. But . . . I cannot go back.”

Elliott looked up at her for a long time, intending to ask her why, but she would not meet his eyes and, indeed, arose and swept that swath of red silk around her, cinching it with a saffron sash. She plopped down at her breakfast and gestured impatiently at the chair next to her.

He swung his legs out of the bunk and stood slowly, then stretched, deliberately putting himself on display for her—then smirked when she relaxed back in her chair to watch with undisguised appreciation.

Elliott was shocked at how much he loved the way she looked at his body. Oh, aye, women aplenty had ogled him from the moment he had attained his height. He had exploited it with abandon as soon as he could, but he had never been particularly vain; his appearance was a means to attain the beds of the most beautiful women available.

But this woman’s obvious delight in looking at his body fed his previously unexplored vanity in ways he had never imagined. Her attention was as palpable as her touch.

“You’re a lusty wench, Fury,” he murmured as he came down out of his stretch.

“That I am,” she said lightly, feigning attention on her plate, but huffed when he wrapped the sheet around his waist. It seemed almost no one on this ship knocked on Fury’s door, and whilst he did not mind posing for her, he was not in the habit of going about in the altogether where anyone could see him.

“Why can you not go back?” he asked once he’d seated and piled his dishes high with yet more delectable food.

“Every Ottoman sailor in the Mediterranean wants me dead.”

Elliott blinked. “Surely that’s an exaggeration, Madam.”

She shook her head slowly. “How much do you know about Robert Skirrow?”

“He was cruel. He was cashiered from the British Navy for insubordination. The Carnivale was a slaver. And he died in a very . . . unconventional . . . manner.”

That made her snicker. “Aye, well. He was despised and feared by the Muslim sailors—pirate, slaver, merchant—it didn’t matter. He hated them and would abandon better prey in favor of Ottomans. He slaughtered or enslaved every one he encountered.”

“Why would you sail with a man like that?” he asked quietly.

She snorted. “And do what? Become a whore?”

Elliott flinched.

“’Tis better to rule in hell than serve in heaven,” she muttered.

Elliott snorted, wondering if she had somehow overheard what he had said to Georgina not two days ago.

“I was an armed white blonde infidel female alone in Ottoman territory with no home, no money, no veils, no male family members to escort me, and dressed like a man. Amongst those captains who might have taken pity on me, I had a bit of a reputation for insubordination, and would not hire me. Smitty had heard rumors I was in Cairo and came looking to hire me, since their last navigator had left for a better captain. Skirrow knew I was trouble, but he had need of me and was not so stupid that he would harm his last means of finding his way around the ocean.” She shrugged. “If he stayed ashore, he would be a dead man within the week. He had to sail, but he could not pick out a constellation to save his life. ’Twas why he was desperate enough to hire a woman.”

“Did he touch you?”

Fury had bent to sip at her soup, but her lashes fluttered up. “Rape me?”

He nodded.

Fury snorted in derision. “There are a thousand reasons that bilge rat deserved to die, but that is not one of them. And lose the only thing standing between him and his enemies? No. How do you think I could protect all the ship’s boys from him?”

“Then why did he kill your husband?”

Her jaw began to grind and she paid more attention to her meal. “He killed my husband,” she said low, “to take away my reason for leaving him without a competent navigator, and to frighten me into doing his bidding.”

“He must have been desperate to do such a thing. Did you not think it a possibility?”

“Talaat was a very powerful man,” Fury said calmly enough, but her grip on her spoon was deathly. “We—nay, I—did not believe anyone would be so bold as to attack him. Thus, it was . . . the easiest thing in the world to do.”

Elliott’s mouth pursed.

“I . . . Sometimes, I think perhaps I was the worst thing that ever happened to him.”

So her grief was wrapped up in guilt. He took a deep breath and released it on a long, slow whoosh. “It was not a simple murder, was it?”

She laughed caustically and wiped her eye with her linen. “Ah, no. It was Skirrow, who was incapable of a simple murder anyroad. He also forced me to watch to teach me a lesson. That is all I will say on that. I cannot speak of that day.”

“Aye,” he said hoarsely. “There are things of which none of us speak, I think.” He cleared his throat. “What will you do when the war has been decided?”

“Go to Algiers.”

Elliott choked on his coffee. “I thought you said—”

“I made a promise to Solomon to go back to Algiers to find his wife. I intend to keep that promise, but since Maarten has no intention of accompanying me, I do not expect to escape the Mediterranean alive.”

He put his elbow on the table and rubbed his forehead. “I don’t understand. If Skirrow was hated and feared, but you killed him, would that alone not keep you safe?”

She waved a hand. “Oh, that. That I cut off his head does not matter; the fact is, Skirrow preyed on Ottoman ships and I was no more shy in battle than he was. Secondly, I am a woman. Not only should I not be aboard a ship, much less as a commander, I should not be aboard one half naked and killing Muslim men. I am an affront to the whole of Islam.”

“Not enough to cross Gibraltar, clearly.”

“Ha! The only way I could cross Gibraltar was to disguise myself as a British patrol with Papa as escort. The Ottomans would never attempt to breach it, no matter how much they want me dead.”

“Cannot he protect you from them?”

She took a deep breath. “He can. One reason he sought me out in Oranjestad was to see for himself my current occupation, and to see if I wanted to go back. If so, we would sail together the way Maarten and I do. He is getting on a bit and, worse, he is lonely and bored. He’s been going farther and farther afield for new challenges, but he is restless. Unsettled.”

“Which is one reason you want your mother to reconcile with him.”

“Aye.”

“And you must return to fulfill your vow to Solomon anyway.”

“Aye. I did not tell Papa of it, though, as he is not happy that I’m working for the Americans and he would argue that I return now. I did inform him that I refuse to fight for any British cause, which Papa will do on occasion when covert action is needed.”

“That would make you adversaries at those times.”

“Aye, precisely. But it is a moot point whilst my current obligation must be satisfied before returning to Africa.”

“What will you do after that?”

She scoffed. “I have no plans. Why would I plan anything if I expect to die?”

Elliott blinked at something odd in her voice, her eyes. He reached out a finger and traced it along her thigh. “You’re frightened, aren’t you?”

She swallowed and looked away.

“I would go with you.”

“And leave the wife at home?”

He shrugged. “’Tis done all the time.”

“You said you hated sailing, that you were on your way home to stay.”

“Ah, but I would do it for you.”

“Why? We barely know one another.”

“I know enough to make that commitment to you.”

Fury’s mouth tightened and more uncomfortable silence fell until her stomach growled and she laughed suddenly. “I cannot let melancholy interfere with my favorite pastime, Judas. Eat! Eat!”

Elliott had never had better meals at sea, not even once he was promoted to fleet commander. Sailors—especially impressed ones—were resentful enough, and Elliott had learned that eating modestly, though a bit above his men, was a small way he could mitigate the anger aboard a ship and still display his rank and privilege appropriately. Fury, it seemed, took the opposite tack. Those pleasures she would not give up, she shared with the rest of her crew. Then again, she had one-fifth the complement he did and could afford such luxuries.

“I did not think your galley could outshine itself,” he said in wonder once he paused to take in the savory foreign dishes.

“Thank you,” she returned in like manner, then picked up her cup of lemonade and drank it down, then poured another.

“I could never afford this.”

She shrugged. “’Tis a point of contention with my mother, who thinks I am too extravagant, but I have the funds and see no point in austerity if there is no need.” She pointed her spoon at him. “Pare down to a real pirate ship and you could.”

He shrugged.

“How do you keep your secrets with four hundred men who could turn on you at any moment?”

“Five hundred. All my officers know who I am and why I have embarked upon this path. Indeed, they are as invested in doing so as I and for the same reasons. There are perhaps one hundred regular seamen who also know and have the same motives. I rely upon their goodwill and hatred of the Royal Navy to keep the rest in line.”

“Tell me: Barring soldiers, how few men would you need to sail and fight?”

“Two hundred fifty able seamen,” Elliott said, “provided they can also fight as well as my marines.”

“One hundred fifty, rather,” Fury drawled with a sidelong glance.

“You have that many here, and this vessel in no wise compares to mine for size.”

She smiled sweetly. “I like my extravagances, as you have seen, and I can afford them. I could sail this ship with forty men and women did I have to. I like good food, good liquor, good entertainment of an evening, and good sleep. You, on the other hand, have a large secret to keep, which is an extravagance you cannot afford. You would have to give up sleeping, though, to pull one or more men’s share of the work aside from your own.”

Elliott would not dignify that with an answer, as he did not care being lectured to thusly as if he were a midshipman three days out and green around the gills. Oblivious, she continued:

“The fact of the matter is that you are not comfortable sailing any way other than how you were taught. Considering how soundly you sleep when in the bed of a pirate you don’t know, I would wager you don’t find much rest anyroad.”

She had noticed, then. “I cannot deny that,” Elliott murmured.

“You say you leave no survivors. Have you once taken a ship that required the use of a marine where an armed sailor would have sufficed?”

He pursed his lips and again declined to belay her assumptions.

“I thought not. The loss of your marines and the other two hundred men you don’t know and don’t trust would make this endeavor easier for you. Any seaman can be turned into a gunner.”

He laughed bitterly and sat back in his chair. “You must think me the stupidest commander who ever sailed.”

Her head snapped up from her bowl, her wrinkled in confusion. “Most certainly not. Why in God’s name would you think that?”

“According to you, I have done everything wrong.”

She scoffed. “If you had done everything wrong, you and your crew would be dead. You have met success after success, and your ship barely has a dent in it. ’Tis simply that you have done everything with more than you needed to be successful and thus laid yourself and your officers a heavier burden than necessary. But so what. ’Tis not stupid to take on more provisions than you need. Extra can be tossed overboard, but more cannot be found in the middle of the ocean. ’Tis a matter of degrees of efficiency, not fatal errors.”

She laughed without humor and took another bite. “I tell you . . . if Washington had men like you, Congress wouldn’t need to hand out letters of marque to any merchant who can pay the bond. He needs a navy he doesn’t have and cannot get. I dare say, whether you care or not, whether you intended it or not, whether you realized it or not, you make up a significant portion of our navy, and you, Sir, are no barbarian.”

Elliott couldn’t help but laugh.

“Such a large crew also necessitates you lead by fear, and I suspect this is not to your taste or your nature.”

“I very rarely flog anyone.”

Her eyebrow rose. “Oh? Then how do you keep order?”

“Death.”

She stared at him warily for a long moment. “Oh,” she said in a very small voice.

“Minor infractions I care naught for so long as the work gets done. But— A shot through the head for cheating at games. The kind of insubordination you showed Dunham. A threat my identity will be exposed. Theft. Rape.”

She glared at him suddenly. “I hope you are as careful about enforcing that if the victim is a woman as you are if ’tis a man.”

“I make no distinction, nor do I make a distinction whether it happens aboard ship or ashore. Or even if ’tis against a whore.”

She nodded approvingly. “That is efficient,” she murmured. “What more?”

He shrugged. “I cannot think of anything else that has been done to warrant that. I had no reason or desire to do that whilst in the Navy, but I underestimated the influence of government sanction on men’s behavior.”

“What do you fear most that you lie awake at night?”

Elliott looked at her and wondered if he should tell her all his worries. It was not one or two things. Nor was it five or six. It was a dozen, and a dozen more on top that, worries major and minor. ’Twould seem all he had done in the last four years was worry.

Finally he sighed. “Too many things to list. One of them is the fact that the Navy now knows Captain Judas and the Silver Shilling actually exist. Another is that both Rathbone and Bancroft may have seen me. If they did, the question is whether they can identify me or not.”

Fury chewed on her tongue a bit. “They know you, don’t they? In your real life? They have sailed with you?”

“Aye. I served under Rathbone and trained Bancroft. Further, I did a favor for Rathbone when I was a very new captain that I soon came to regret deeply.”

She said nothing, though the question in her face was plain. He refused with a shake of his head. “I don’t speak of it. ’Tis one of very few things I am ashamed of in my career.”

“Rathbone is my adversary, if not my enemy, but his reputation is that of an honorable man. I cannot imagine him setting you upon such a dishonorable task.”

“He did not know what it entailed and he did not know what it cost to have it done. He still doesn’t.”

Elliott was not aware he was clutching his spoon so hard he was bending it until Fury laid her hand over his fist. “Judas,” she said softly with a comforting smile. “I ken. You are not alone anymore.”

Anymore.

“Would you care to sail with us?”

Elliott blinked. Was she was offering exactly what he needed but was loath to ask after she had all but charged him with stupidity? He could not find words.

“Judas?” she said carefully. “Have I offended you or made you suspicious of me?”

“Nay,” he lied. “I have not sailed in a fleet in years. ’Twould be a nice change.” He slid her a glance and smirked. “Why should I trust you?”

“I haven’t killed you.” Elliott’s smirk turned into a laugh, but realized she had not caught his jest. “I have killed men for lesser offenses than what you dealt me by stealing my figurehead.” Or mayhap she had. “Yet here we are after that, of four days’ acquaintance, having fucked to hell and gone—after you sneaked aboard my ship—sharing meals and secrets, touring each other’s ships, and leaving our crews to their pleasures.

“You are heavy in the water, Sir. You have something very valuable in that hold of yours, because cotton and tobacco do not weigh that much, and you do not have enough armament and ordnance to displace so much. Do you think Maarten and I could not take you to find out what? You are bigger, true, but we are seasoned pirates and have together taken ships bigger than yours. And my hold is utterly barren, as I sent my last prize ahead of me to Rotterdam.”

He drew in a deep breath.

“I might not know your name, Sir, but I know you are of the upper classes, a merchant or landowner’s son. I know that you were not born your father’s heir, and that you have been somehow charged with continuing your line or you would not be obligated to wed. I also suspect a few other things of you, which I will allow you to wonder over. With what I know, it would not take me but half a glass in London to learn your name. Questions of trust are moot at this point. You have no choice but to trust me, and, I will submit, you would not be here—and sleeping so well in my bed—if you did not already know you could.”

“Why did you not pursue me for the figurehead?” he asked abruptly.

Fury’s eyelashes lowered. “I told you. I was ill. I was abed and senseless for the better part of a week.”

“Did you laugh? Truly?”

“I did. I knew it for the prank it was. You did not injure my men but for their pride. You cut the rails in a manner that would make it a simple repair and did not damage my ship otherwise. I left the Bloody Hound the morning after simply furious with you for not coming back to find me. I was cursing you for a coward.”

He was furious with himself for not going back. She had been ill whilst he was making merry elsewhere, congratulating himself and his crew for their fine bit of mischief, awaiting her pursuit or word of her departure so he could chase her.

“But then I saw what you had done, and I laughed. I did not pursue you for my figurehead because I hoped you would come to me.”

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