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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