December 2016

“What are you?” Cooke said.

“What are we? If only you could hear how ridiculous that question sounds. Ask the sun what he is. Ask the moon what she is.”

“I can ask my ship what she is and she will remain in coquettish silence,” Cooke said. “But I still have a word for her, even if she doesn’t answer to it.”

“The Mayans called us alux, the Spaniards call us duende,” said Vega. “Both are outsiders’ names and bitter on the tongue, but you may use them if you must. Some would call us spirits, but we are quite mortal. Long-lived, if not quite eternal, the precipitate of the natural world made substantial.”

“I don’t suppose you could be more specific?” said Cooke. “This vague talk of spirits and the natural world is the first time you’ve sounded like a real priest since we’ve met.”

“If I cannot be more specific,” Vega said, “then ask yourself this: do you have aught but legend to tell me where humanity came from?”

Cooke bit his lip. “Fair enough.”

“Then there you have it,” the luminous being continued. “We were never numerous, such as we know, but we have become scarce of late. Some, like Sally, live in secret among you. Those that do not wish to do so, we have gathered here.”

“I suppose that’s fair enough,” Cooke said. “A remote mission in Spanish territory…I certainly wouldn’t ask any questions, and I doubt a nuncio would either. But tell me this, why let Mercedes go on her pilgrimage-why conceal the truth of her nature from her–with the risk of her true form being revealed?”

“True form?” Vega laughed. “Such a concept is immaterial to an alux. We can take on whatever guise we think suitable, with enough practice. It is how those of us like Sally walk among you unnoticed for generations. ”

“That’s not what I see with Mercedes,” said Cooke. “She gets more golden than a pirate horde as soon as she hits seawater.”

“It is more an instinct than anything else, I think,” Vega said. “A return to the form she happened to wear when she was born. A joyous day, and a sad one as well. I don’t doubt that, like most of us, she finds it more practical to appear ordinary.”

“A joyous day,” Cooke said. “And a sad one. How would you know?”

“She was born here,” Vega said, sounding a little defensive.

“You’re her father,” Cooke said dully. “Aren’t you.”

Vega folded his wings around himself like a cloak, or a sorrowful blanket. “It’s that obvious, is it?” he chuckled. “I suppose I ought to be flattered that there’s enough of me in her for it to stand out so.”

“So Mercedes is half-human, then,” Cooke said.

“No, no. It does not work that way, Mister Cooke,” Vega said. “We alux are like a bright bonfire; wood and fire come together to create it, but the end result is always fire.”

“And ash,” Cooke said.

Vega choked back what sounded like a sob. “You’re more right than you know,” he said sadly. “The moment of birth, when a new alux comes into the world…it’s a rare event, requiring as it does a human father or mother. But it’s also quite an explosive one, the energy of our world being compressed into a form that can move and talk. It is…not survivable. Poor Julia was consumed instantly.”

“It seems a bit odd, if you knew that, to subject your lover to such risk,” said Cooke.

“Surely you, too, have made rash decisions in pursuit of love, young as you are?” said Vega.

“My rash decisions are my own,” said Cooke quietly. “I’ll not blame love or anything else for them.”

“We thought ourselves special. Immune. And we were so deeply in love.” Vega turned away. “She is the first to be born to us in a long time, perhaps centuries.”

“And you almost lost her to Exposito and his gang. Why did you let her leave Villanueva at all, knowing what she was, what was out there for her?”

Vega didn’t answer.

“What if she’d fallen in love, like you? Would you have let her power consume her lover, like yours?”

“It was her choice to make,” Vega whispered. “I did not want my daughter a prisoner.”

“She wasn’t planning on coming back, you know,” said Cooke. “She told me as much. The pilgrimage was just a ruse.”

“Did she, now?” Vega turned back to Cooke. “Do you see me as an unfit father, an unfit guardian, because of that?”

“It doesn’t matter how I see you, as I’ve no high horse to sit on when it comes to that,” Cooke said. He grinned crookedly. “I’d be a terrible father and any child of mine would be liable to share the same hardships I did on that slave galley. I wouldn’t wish it on any tot. Not existing at all is a better lot than that; never being born is the best gift I can give any children of mine.”

“Many of we alux feels the same way you do. They have sworn themselves to celibacy, or hidden themselves away from temptation, masquerading as we often do.”

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Cooke turned to Father Vega. “Well now,” he said. “We do have quite a bit to discuss, don’t we?”

“First, I should thank you,” said Vega. “You returned our Mercedes to us, at great risk to your men and your ship. I’m told you lost nine men in your journey.”

“We did, and while I appreciate your appreciation, a good pirating voyage would likely have incurred similar losses,” Cooke said. “Resisting a navy ship and pirating two prizes are very much in our usual line of work.”

“I can’t say I approve of the latter, but you did what I’m sure you thought you had to. It was a great torment to me personally to see Mercedes leave, as we all worry about her so. But she was so adamant.”

“I’m sure she was,” Cooke said. “Adamant is perhaps the word I would use to describe her. And as to our reward?”

“Oh yes, of course,” said Father Vega. “We have some stores of currency for…mundane transactions, and for proselytizing. We don’t often recieve officials from Ravenna, so we are not as rich as we might perhaps be, but I will be happy to personally reward you with ten thousand reals in addition to repairs to your ship and repairs to your crew.”

“That is most equitable,” said Cooke. “Thank you. Now, what do you say we dispense with the charade?”

“Charade?” said Father Vega, looking flustered. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Come now, Father,” Cooke said. “I have just finished returning your Mercedes to you, and every man and every woman on my crew can swear to her transfiguration in salt water.”

“Well, miracles are strange things,” said Father Vega. “We’ve always known Mercedes to be a special one, and-”

“Every man and every woman aboard the Fancy Rat can also swear to me being borne forth from the water, wounded, by a brilliant serpent-woman with iridescent wings, who we all once knew as Sally Coxswain.”

“Well, courtesans and harlots are hardly-” Vega began.

“Father,” said Cooke. “I never said she was a courtesan or a harlot. And I’m quite sure I never told you my first name, and none of my crew could have known it to do so. And Ravenna? It hasn’t been the seat of the Church for centuries. I may not look it, Father Vega, but I was raised by a Catholic mother with a library. St. Veronica was the result of a mistranslation and never existed. I’d also love–love!–to know how a book on the depredations of pirates entered your library, as Mercedes claims, so soon after its publication.”

Vega didn’t say anything; his fatherly expression was now one of guarded neutrality.

“I think people should be honest with one another, generally,” said Cooke. “I hate to do mischief to anyone when it’s not to my advantage. I think it’s best if you put your cards on the table, Father. Because my men will start telling tales soon enough, after what they’ve seen. Shall we let them? Whatever secret you mean to keep guarded here is already at risk.”

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“Hey, Cooke!”

Braxton was in the courtyard below, and rushed up the steps when she saw Cooke emerge.

“You’re dressed in…well…a dress!” said Cooke, surprised.

“Yeah, I don’t like it either,” Braxton said. “I’m used to having pockets. But it’s all these missionaries have in my size.”

“How’s everyone doing?” said Cooke.

“Well, you look like hell and damnation, but that’s about normal so I think we can put that in the plus column,” Braxton laughed. Then, growing serious: “We lost seven men in that fight, Cooke. Foote didn’t make it.”

Cooke bowed his head. “I had an inkling,” he said. “Did you at least do him the courtesy of planting him in some good ground?”

“Look for yourself, over in the mission cemetery. Ordinarily they don’t allow Protestants in there, but I think the head of this place made an exception for us, on account of us bringing Mercedes back.”

Nodding, Cooke continued: “Who else did we lose?”

“I can field that.” Doctor De Groot called out from the entrance of a room that he’d been occupying. He started walking toward Cooke as he named the crew off. “LeFleur, chopped in half by a cannonball. Grimm, splinter through the eye from a broadside. Stanley, overboard and drowned. Van Hoorn, same but in pieces thanks to that Spanish artillery. Brix, disarmed by ball and shot and bled out on the deck. And I’m not sure what happened to Freeman, but I found parts of him that he certainly couldn’t live without.”

Cooke rubbed his brow. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “You…saw that they were planted somewhere nice as well?”

“Aside from the ones lost at sea, yes,” De Groot said. “I can’t say that I’m sorry to see any of them go, Mister Cooke, but I want you to know I did the best to save them that any man kidnapped and impressed against his will and the will of the Almighty could.”

He retreated into his room and slammed the door at this.

“That man does know how to bring things down, doesn’t he?” muttered Braxton.

“Still, I’m grateful for his efforts,” Cooke said quietly. “How are the others?”

“Mister Hume is in the hospice wing, with Mister Mott,” Braxton said. “Mott’s consumption has taken a turn, I think, and Hume hasn’t left his side.”

“I wish De Goot hadn’t made himself scarce, I would have liked to ask about that,” Cooke said.

“Come on,” said Braxton. “You can ask Father Vega all about it.”

The priest’s quarters were adjacent to the church, and the entrance was flanked by a pair of rather burly laymen who had the feel of guards. They grunted Cooke and Braxton in.

“Mister Ebenezer Cooke, I am so delighted that you have recovered.” Father Vega was an older man, greying at the temples, but with a strong frame and a piercing stare.

Braxton looked over. “Ebenezer?” she said, incredulous and half-giggling.

Cooke blanched. “Please don’t call me that, Father. I go by Cooke if I must go by anything, and Ben Cooke if you must have a Christian name to go with it.”

“My apologies,” Father Vega said. “I meant no offense.”

“No, I assure you, it is a delight,” laughed Braxton. “What a trendy name your parents gave you, fit for a New York fop! No wonder you go by Ben.”

“Might I remind you,” Cooke said icily, “that you are in no position to judge when it comes to false names, Lydia Braxton.”

“Oh, oh, I’m sorry,” Braxton said. “I was unaware that Ebenezer was a lady’s name. I suppose I should find you a petticoat to complete the disguise!”

“My Scots ancestors called them kilts, and I would wear them every bit as well as you wear men’s breeches,” Cooke replied.

“And I would counter that I wear men’s breeches a damn sight better than most men,” Braxton said. “Less baggage out front means more room for pistols.”

Throughout the exchange, Father Vega looked more and more uncomfortable. Finally, he cleared his throat. “Miss Braxton,” he said. “Would you excuse us? I believe Mercedes is in the chapel in prayer, would you see to her for me?”

“I’m not sure I’m the right one for that job,” Braxton said. “Me and the Almighty have agreed to see other people.”

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“I am…very disappointed, to put it mildly.”

Viceroy Balthazar paced back and forth within his spacious office in the Palacio Municipal. Exposito stood before him, along with Captain Ramirez. A bedraggled-looking Samuels lurked behind them, along with the senior surviving officer from the Magdalena other than the captain: Gutierrez, the cabo of the marine complement who had been promoted in the field.

Exposito was clearly bristling under the viceroy’s scrutiny. “I do not see what the problem is,” he said. “Mistakes have been made, perhaps, but-”

“Mistakes? Mistakes?” Balthazar approached his subordinate closely enough that the spittle from his words lightly dusted Exposito. “You let not one but two precious alux escape from your grasp. You let not one but two crystal skulls slip away, into the hands of pirates no less! You allowed the Magdalena, one of our finest barques, to be blown to smithereens along with the better part of our most experienced crew and my own, personal crack squadron of marines!”

“It was a terrible defeat, Viceroy,” said Gutierrez. “We can only apologize again.”

“Viceroy, if I might-” Captain Ramirez began.

“Quiet!” snapped Balthazar, jabbing a finger like a dagger in the captain’s direction. “I haven’t even begun with you yet, so wait your turn!”

Chagrined, Ramirez nodded and looked at the mirror-shined marble floor.

“Speak when the Viceroy speaks to you, captain,” said Gutierrez.

“With the losses in men, in material, in the components that are absolutely necessary for my plans to come to fruition, where does that leave me?” Balthazar screamed. Retreating to his desk, he slapped a letter atop it that bore the royal seal. “This arrived from Cádiz while you were paddling your way back here at a snail’s pace. It is a royal warrant summoning me to Madrid–MADRID!–to take up Corazon’s place as Chamberlain now that the old fool has died.”

“My congratulations, your lordship,” said Samuels from the back of the room.

“Yes, all glory to the new Chamberlain!” cried Gutierrez.

Balthazar responded only with a contemptuous snort before he went on: “The letter empowers me to fully advise His Majesty on the full, worldwide deployment of our innovations. What am I to tell him? What am I to tell him when we begin seeing pirate ships that can resist our shot and blow our warships out of the water with a single shot?”

“Tell him nothing,” said Exposito. “Just like Corazon did. The Chamberlain exists to shield the king from the results of his own decisions.”

“How dare you suggest we lie or omit to His Majesty!” cried Gutierrez, apparently shocked.

“Bah,” said Balthazar. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t have the lot of you strung up or shot.”

“I’ll give you several, if your Excellency will allow me a word in,” said Exposito.

“How dare you speak to the Viceroy that way?” Gutierrez said.

“Consider this: we know exactly where the pirates were headed,” Exposito continued. “The Villanueva Estuary.”

“You merely caught them there. They could have been intending to plunder the mission, or careen their ship.”

“They have the skulls with them, Exposito said. “We can track them. If they’re still in Villanueva, we can assume it was their final destination.”

“To what end, Exposito? To what end? We already knew that the alux was posing as a lay member of the mission there. Surely it will not resume its guise now that it has been found out. And even if it has, what is one alux compared to what we’ve lost?”

“Valid points,” said Gutierrez. “Valid points.”

“I wish you would be quiet, Gutierrez.” Exposito glowered a bit. “And I believe Villanueva is the nest, Viceroy.”

“The nest?” snapped Balthazar. “A Catholic mission? Inconceivable. The alux would never be able to maintain such a ruse.”

“Never,” Gutierrez said.

“It would explain why they have been able to elude us for so long, save the stragglers we have rounded up,” Exposito said.

“And so would the nest being on the moon!” cried Balthazar. “I will not burst into a sacred place and turn the Church against me without absolute proof!”

“What would you have me do, then?” said Exposito. “Sit here, cooling my heels, and ignoring what I know could bring our cause to fruition?”

“Cool your heels while I decide whether or not to string you up in the Palacio Municipal square,” said Balthazar. “Ramirez! Report to the docks for reassignment. Exposito! You and your English monkey are confined to your quarters. I trust you can find your way there.”

The Viceroy swept out of his office in a whirl of his cloak, taking up the crystal skull behind his desk as he did so. Ramirez followed with his head bowed, nodding at the others with only a weak smile.

“Perhaps if you throw yourself on the Viceroy’s mercy,” said Gutierrez, “get down on your knees and beg his forgiveness, and-”

Exposito drew Conchita and plunged her up to her tail into Gutierrez’s abdomen. “Be quiet,” he said. “Adults are talking.”

Gutierrez grabbed at the wound, opening his mouth to scream, but found his mouth covered by the Corregidor’s other hand. Exposito’s eyes flashed amber, and the life rapidly drained from the cabo’s eyes as they rolled back in his head. He also rapidly took on an emaciated look, only partly concealed by his uniform.

“Good God almighty,” said Samuels. “You did that without a skull.”

“Tell me something I am not already aware of,” said Exposito, breathing deeply and flashing a satisfied smile. “Help me dispose of the body, and then we will see what we can do about this…situation.”

“After all,” said Samuels. “As far as anyone in the port knows, you are still the Corregidor of Veracruz with the full faith of the Viceroy.”

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But, just beforehand, the Magdalena had pitched precipitously to starboard, suddenly lunging away from the Fancy Rat and away from the gunners’ sights. The broadside they fired, therefore, went mostly into the water. Still, the ship shoot and rattled from the impact, and Cooke lost his footing. His great jacket, pinched from the Dutch captain, spilled the contents of all its pockets, most notably the crystal skull that he had confiscated from Mister Mott.

It skittered across the deck before coming to rest, almost as if by magnets, upon the timbers.

Across the churning waters, the Spanish ship righted itself. Reloaded, its guns were once again brought to bear, and there was nothing to prevent their guns from finding their mark. In a burst of smoke and fury, the Magdalena roared its broadside…

…and the shot bounced off the Fancy Rat’s battered timbers as if they were coated in iron.

“What?” Cooke said, wonderingly.

“What?” said Hume, down on the deck with the guns.

“What?” said Braxton, trying to plug leaks belowdecks.

“What?” said De Groot from inside his surgery.

“What?” said Mott, malingering within that selfsame surgery.

“What?” said Exposito, on the bridge of the Magdalena.

Cooke, thinking quickly, pulled the Fancy Rat to port to try and compensate for the list and give his gunners time to reload. “Ready again on those guns, my jolly fellows!” he cried. “I think this next one might give them something to talk about in Cádiz!”

“It will indeed.”

Cooke looked behind him, startled. The same golden creature he had been so terrified of before had slithered up the ship’s superstructure behind him. And even as her magnificent scales began to dry back into ordinary olive skin, Mercedes tossed something at his feet.

A velvet bag, dripping wet.

Opening it, Cooke saw a crystal skull, a twin of the one he had just dropped to the deck. “I think,” he said, “that as much as I may not understand it, this will definitely put us a head in this game.” He planted it firmly on the deck next to the other.

The Spanish fired again, with their shot just as ineffective as before. But by now, even the ragged and depleted gunners of the Fancy Rat were ready. They had chocked up the guns enough to compensate for the list, and loaded them with double powder and shot to boot.

“FIRE!” howled Cooke.

From his vantage point, the effect was devastating. Cannonballs tore through the formerly iron sides of the Spanish ship as if it were made of rags. Men and cannon were tossed about like toys. A moment later, in a terrific conflagration, the center part of the ship erupted in flames, smashing the Magdalena in two. The prow continued for a little bit before slowing and dipping beneath the waves, while the stern was slow enough to sink that the ship’s jolly boats appeared in the water before the final plunge. In the middle, there was nothing but ruin.

“Ha!” Cooke cried, looking at the bobbing wreckage and the Spanish survivors trying to make their way into the few boats. “There’s the answer of a free prince to your false power!”

A musket cracked from amid the debris; Cooke had a momentary vision of the Spanish leader, Exposito, with murder and strange amber in his eyes before he pitched over the side, holding a spreading red stain on his shoulder.

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“Braxton!” Cooke said. “Go to Mister Foote down below, and instruct him to fire our own stern guns at will! Slow that blasted Spanish ship down! Aim for the sails–I’ve seen our ball and shot cut into their bewitched rigging before!”

Braxton took the order below, where Foote had just finished slinging two additional chase guns out the great cabin’s rear windows to complement the two on lower decks. Foote had his gun crews well-drilled in such a way as to compensate for their drunkenness; the Fancy Rat was able to muster an impressive rear shot at the Magdalena.

It did little good; a skilled seaman was clearly at the helm of the Spanish ship, and she had changed tack to match the Fancy Rat. The shot splashed into empty waters.

“She’s still gaining on us, skipper,” said Hume. “You have any other tricks up your sleeve?”

“Not a one, Hume,” said Cooke with a grim smile. “You?”

“Prayer has been known to work, on occasion.”

“Try it then, and we’ll see if it deserves its reputation.”

The Spanish chase guns roared again, and this time they struck true. There was no magazine explosion, but the shot nevertheless tore through the Fancy Rat, tearing a hole in the side and ripping through one of the sails. The impact knocked back some of the loaded guns, and loaded gunners, crushing a few of them beneath the careening weapons. Cooke, at the wheel, felt the ship heave as the torn sails were felt.

“The Spaniards are catching up!” Hume cried. “They’ll be ready for a broadside any moment!”

“Go to Mister Foote,” Cooke said. “Have him fire everything at the Magdalena.”

“Everything, skipper?”

“EVERYTHING!” Cooke screamed. “Bring the guns from the port side and fire them two to a port if need be! Strew them on the deck! You saw what happens if they get a good shot at us, the magazine blows and we fly our way home!”

Below, Mercedes clutched Reynard the rat and wafted aside smoke from the Fancy Rat‘s chase guns. As the crews loaded up for another volley, she looked across at the approaching Magdalena. “We’re not going to make it,” she said to the rat, “are we?”

Reynard looked at her, then flinched as the guns fired a volley. The shot bounced off the Spanish ship harmlessly, having been fired too low to reach a sail.

Hume arrived bearing Cooke’s orders. “Get these guns to starboard!” he cried. “As fast as possible! We’ve got one chance to wipe these Spaniards off of us!”

“Here,” said Mercedes. She handed the rat to Hume. “Take this.”

“What? What are you doing?” he cried.

“This is all my fault. They’re here for me.” Mercedes stepped up on the threshold of the windows. “I need to make this right.”

“Miss!” Hume cried. “MISS!”

It was too late. She had stepped off the stern of the Fancy Rat and into the briny waves. Hume could see a flash of gold in the waves and then nothing.

Rather than simply firing its chase guns again, the Magdalena’s skipper apparently decided it was time to risk a broadside. The ship wasn’t quite in position, so half of the shots were over open water, but the other half were murderous. Wood splintered, men screamed, and one of the fore masts fell, taking with it two men and all its sails. Seawater began seeping in through cracks in the hull, and the ship slowed still further, with a decided list to starboard.

One of the casualties was Mister Foote, who took a full brunt of splinters from a nearby impact. Doctor De Groot appeared among the carnage, walking unperturbed past those beyond his help, to bear Foote and the others that might be saved down below for surgery.

“Fire all the guns,” Cooke cried. “FIRE ALL OF THEM! Don’t you understand this is our last chance?”

Mister Foote’s men were not even close to being in position, but the order was taken up and passed along regardless. Every gun that was ready was touched off and fired, not quite a double broadside. But the list made shots at the rigging impossible; there was no way, and no time, to correct for it. Instead of tearing into the sails like Cooke had hoped, the shot went straight into the bewitched sides of the Magdalena and rolled into the sea.

Cooke could only stare as his last chance to make an escape disappeared. He closed his eyes and sighed. “I’m okay with this,” he said. “Better to go out like Sam Bellamy. That’ll show Bess. That’ll show her.”

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The preparations were made apace, even as the Spanish ship made sail to attempt a pursuit. Despite the Fancy Rat having the wind gauge and being a smaller ship, the Spaniard made uncommonly good speed against them and, in fact, was soon within gunnery range. The Spaniard fired a second warning shot, but then, oddly, a man in ragged clothes appeared at its bow, shouting across the gap between the two ships.

“Oy there! Ben Cooke!”

“What the devil…?” said Cooke. He turned to Hume. “We oughtn’t be able to hear that.”

Hume nodded. “There’s no way, even with a speaking-trumpet, that ought to be audible.”

“There’s no way, and yet I can hear you and you can hear me! How’s that for a rub?”

Cooke squinted. “John Samuels, is that you? Did you finally get nabbed for pinching one fishing boat too many?”

Samuels laughed. “I’ve thrown in my lot with a winning hand of cards, Cooke! I work for the Spanish now, on the inside!”

“What witchcraft is this?” shouted Hume. “I’ve had my fill of things not making sense on this voyage, thank you very much!”

“You needn’t mind the witchcraft, Jacob Hume! Are you still dragging behind Cooke like a weighted anchor with that consumptive toy Mott of yours as still more ballast?”

“You shut your mouth!” Hume cried.

“Oooh, struck a nerve, have I?” chortled Samuels. “I’ll strike a few more before the end, never you worry! But I actually come with merciful tidings!”

Cooke, still at the wheel and still snapping orders to rig the sails for a getaway that was seeming increasingly unlikely, replied: “The same mercies you showed to those Jamaican fishermen over that piece of eight they wouldn’t surrender?”

“Maybe so, if you keep arguing when you should be listening!” Samuels said. “This ship, the Magdalena, outguns you at the best of times. But you’ve seen what her sister could do at Jolly Port, and she bears the same enchantments and more! One good blast of her guns, and you’ll go straight to the bottom!”

“If you mean to blast us, blast us,” Cooke shouted. “Otherwise, turn off your witchcraft, and leave us be!”

“Surrender your passenger, Cooke. Surrender what you stole from the Nuestra Señora. You needn’t concern yourself with why King Phil wants them. But give them over and you get to leave with your ship and your life. At least until you fall back into your old plundering ways, you feisty mulatto, and get holed and sunk by this navy or some other!”

Cooke looked at the others on the bridge. Hume, clearly incensed by what Samuels had said, was fuming. Braxton had a hand on her brace of pistols. Their faces were a clear enough indication of what they thought.

“Do accept our generous offer, Mister Cooke.”

It was a new voice, with a Spanish accent but also cultured and lilting, with an inflection that suggested…instability. Insatiability.

A man in uniform, albeit a messy uniform with very few of the necessary buttons done up, appeared next to Samuels at the Madgelana‘s prow. “I am Augustín Exposito, Corregidor–governor–of Veracruz and special envoy from Don Balthazar, the Viceroy of New Spain.”

“I’m flattered!” Cooke cried back. “I’ve never been able to tell anyone with so high a rank, and so many powerful friends, to go to hell!”

Exposito laughed. “As I’ve learned from Mister Samuels, you pirates have a coarse texture all your own. But I must insist that you listen to him and accept our generous offer. What’s one Spanish brat and her offer of a little gold compared to your lives and all the gold yet to be stolen in them? I ask for nothing yet offer you everything.”

“We have a compact, signed into the ship’s articles of piracy, and sealed by secrets,” Cooke shouted back. “I always keep my word.”

“A pirate, a thief and a murderer bound up in one odious word, telling me that he dare not break a promise?” Exposito thundered. There seemed to be an odd light in his eyes as he spoke. “What about the promise between you and the civilized world, the covenant between you and the Almighty, the every natural law that piracy and free agency leaves shattered upon the ground?”

“You sniveling puppy!” Cooke cried back with a laugh of his own. “You rob the poor under the cover of law, while I plunder the rich under the protection of my own courage! You’re every bit the pirate I am; the only difference is you’ve enough gold and power to buy your way out of the name!”

“What did you call me?” Exposito clawed angrily at the air as he spoke. “I worked my way up from the lowest rung, the very bottom! Providence has seen me through thus far, and it is divine will that it be so! I am no rich princeling content to buy the valor of other men! If I were, would I be out here myself?”

“Then you’ve forgotten your roots in elevating yourself,” Cooke snorted. “I’m a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world as someone who has a hundred sail of ships at sea and an army of 100,000 men in the field.”

“Forgotten my roots? They are deeper and stronger than any you’ve got, ‘prince’ and I would warn you to mind your tongue lest you feel exactly how much war I can make!”

“You, and everyone who serves you, is a hen-hearted numbskull!” Cooke shouted.

“ENOUGH!” screamed Exposito, with a fury–and a volume–that nearly everyone on both ships was startled. “Enough talking. You, and everyone who sails with you under that scabrous rag, are going to die!”

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This Christmas Eve, the Amarillo Armadillo Smokehouse and Steakery invites you to join us for our latest taste treat: a pound and a half of beef tenderloin, smothered in blueberries. We call it the Smurf ‘n’ Turf, and we think it’s just the thing for the winter blues.

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Q: Did you ever hear about my editor who obsessed over punctuation?

A: My writing gets a routine semicolon-oscopy.

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“What are you?”

The giant raven’s head perched atop the being’s shoulders turned. “What sort of question is that?” it said in a surprisingly normal voice.

“You’ve got a raven for a head.”

“And you’ve wax with a bit of hair poked in. What of it?”

“I mean…” I said, “How did you get that way?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the raven. “Maybe it was a curse, maybe a choice, or maybe, just maybe…it’s none of your business.”

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