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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