"I favor the red ribbons because they look like blood."
The pirate worked as he spoke, plaiting thin lengths of crimson silk into the raven hair of a wig on its tabletop stand. His own hair was almost exactly the same color of black, but closely cropped, the short growth even, suggesting that he had shaved his head a fortnight or two back. His beard, on the other hand, was thick and long, the ends of it bleached to a lighter brown by salt air and sun. Every strand had been combed and lightly dampened with sperm-whale oil, the scent of it warm and very nearly spicy in the small, close cabin of the sloop.
The pirate stepped back a bit to look at his work, leaning naturally to keep his footing as they canted over onto a fresh heel. Above their heads, the ship groaned and creaked with the turn, the mate's commands coming through the wooden bulkheads as a series of curt, muffled shouts.
The pirate gazed down his nose at the barefoot and barechested fifteen-year-old on the other side of the table. The younger man's skin was a deep chocolate brown, almost as dark as his jet-black hair, a fact that made his eyes appear larger than they were, giving him the appearance of an innocent.
"Why do you think that is, boy?"
The young man startled and stood a little straighter. "Sir?"
"The ribbons, boy." The man's voice was a calm baritone. "Why would I favor ribbons that resemble blood?"
The younger man kept his eyes fixed on those of the pirate but canted his head slightly down and to his right, a mannerism he had when he knew the answer to something but was thinking it through, just to be certain. Lips still closed, he took a quick dart of breath through his nose.
"Because a fierce man, streaming blood but on the attack, would present a most frightening aspect, Captain. Because a person so startled would hesitate in his own defense, and a moment of hesitation is an opportunity in which to attack. At very least that is how I see it, sir."
The pirate stopped his work and touched an index finger to his lower lip. "Tell me, boy—have you been speaking with my crew, discussing my manners, my ways?"
His companion shook his head. "No, sir. The crew doesn't talk about you. The crew doesn't talk about anything but women and riches and rum."
The captain laughed. "And which of those three interests you?"
"The riches, Captain."
The pirate laughed again and started another ribbon into the wig. He turned it to look at his work. The younger man watched and then cleared his throat.
"Might I ask you something, Captain?"
The captain lifted a single eyebrow—his right. "You cannot learn if you do not ask."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.... When you took the slaver? When you took the crew ... ?"
"You sold all the rest of the ... cargo. Yet you did not sell me. Why?"
"Because you speak the King's English, lad. Speak it, read it, write it as well as any Yorkshireman. Because you are familiar with Scripture. Because you seem to have an extremely able head on you."
"Those things—the learning and the Scripture—they were the doings of the Scotsman who raised me. He and his wife. Before he came to Africa to start his chandlery, Mr. Bascombe was a vicar. He taught me the Scripture, and history and philosophy."
The pirate smiled. He had white, even teeth. "Then, when you say your prayers, you must thank God for Vicar Bascombe."
He tied off another lock of the wig.
"But, Captain, does a slave not fetch a higher price if he speaks English?"
The captain looked up from his work. "I sold those men and women to save them, boy. They'd made it all the way across to the Indies; they were strangers in a strange land. If I'd put them ashore on some island, thirst and starvation and the Arawaks would have killed most of them off by now. And those who lived would be hanged for escape when the colonists found them. By making them chattel, I gave them food and a roof and the hope of still being alive by this time next year. Slavery may be the devil's own commerce, but death is irreversible. So I sold them to save them, lad. That and put a few farthings in our pockets. But you?" The captain picked up another ribbon. "What you've got between your ears is all you need to survive, boy. I kept you apart because you showed that promise. Why? You had no kin among the others, did you?"
The teenager shook his head. "They were people of the bush. I was raised in town."
The pirate shrugged. "Then what I did was best for all concerned."
The teenager handed the pirate another ribbon. "May I ask you another question, Captain?"
"Has your learning come to an end?"
The younger man shook his head.
"Then the same principle still applies. Ask away."
"Well, Captain, you seem to be a man of principle."
"Principle?" The pirate laughed. "There are those who might argue that point, but we shall grant it for the moment. And as you precede your question with it, I take it you are going to ask about behavior that appears ... unprincipled. You want to know why I—why my crew and I—take ships. Is that it?"
The younger man's eyes widened. "Why ... yes, sir. That is it precisely."
"Open that chest." The pirate pointed with a hand that was uncallused, its nails neatly trimmed and filed. "Bring me the case that you find on the very top."
The young man peered into the open chest. "A tube, like a chart case?"
"The very one. Bring it to me."
The young man did as he was told, and the pirate unwound the leather lace that secured the cap, then extracted a rolled sheet of parchment. When he unrolled it, it was clearly a government document, written in the thin, iron-gall cursive favored by government clerks. The foot of it was stamped with a wax seal and tape, and signed with an ornate scrawl.
"This"—the pirate tapped on the parchment with a manicured finger—"is a royal letter of marque, signed by His Majesty's lord governor of the colony of Tortola. The king has lands in this new world which are presently ... uhm, occupied by nations other than his own. As such, they steal from the royal coffers, so we overhaul ships flying the flags of those nations and take back what is rightfully our own."
The young man worked his lips.
"Say it, lad. What is on your mind?"
"Well, sir, if they take from the king, should we not return what we ... retrieve? To the king?"
The pirate nodded. "We do, lad. When one gives a thing to the king's lord governor, it is the same as giving it to the king himself. And the workman is worthy of his wage; I believe that is in your vicar's book. So, in his graciousness, the governor—on His Majesty's behalf—allows our crew to keep part of what we take: the greater part. The ... well, the considerably greater part. Very nearly all of it, if truth be told."
"So!" The young man brightened. "You are not a pirate at all. You are a privateer."
"That all depends—" the pirate laughed as he replaced the document in its case and handed it back to his young compatriot— "on whether you are on the giving or the receiving end of the transaction.
"I daresay the captain of that slaver we took you from is calling me a pirate. In point of fact, I would venture that he is calling me considerably more than that. But he is an enemy of His Majesty—and I rather imagine an enemy of yours as well."
As the boy returned the case to its chest, a knock sounded above them at the cabin's hatch.
"Come." When the pirate spoke in commands, his voice went lower, from a baritone to a bass.
The oak hatch swung open, sending sunlight streaming down into the tiny cabin. A barefoot, bearded man descended the ladder on the forward wall; he was wearing a faded Royal Navy officer's waistcoat over canvas breeches. When he turned, his tanned and naked chest showed in the gap of the coat, which was a full size too small for him. He gave a nod by way of a salute.
"Begging your pardon, Captain, but we've closed half the distance on the merchantman."
"Near enough to make out her ensign?"
The mate nodded. "It's the old flag, sir. White cross on a blue field."
"Servants of King Louis. Splendid. We'll have to air her out if we take her, but I'll wager she has brandy. How many guns, Ben?"
"Ports for ten each side. Plus a swivel gun or two: that'd make twenty-two. Looks like deckhands in her rigging, not marines, but she could be carrying some."
The pirate looked at the young man. "Twenty-two guns to our twelve four-pounders and the chance of two dozen muskets, to boot. What do you think, boy? Try to take her, or let her run?"
The teenager straightened. "Take her."
The pirate returned to his plaiting. "You'd risk my men's lives for a prize when we don't even know what she's carrying?" He looked up again.
"No, sir. But I'd risk her men's lives."
The pirate tied off the tip of a lock with a silver bead. "How so?"
The younger man motioned toward the silver brush and a tortoiseshell comb on the tabletop. "May I?"
The captain nodded once, slowly, his eyes on the boy.
"Say your brush here is the merchantman. Even if she has guns we can't see atop her aft castle, she'll still be blind in the quarters. She can shoot broadside and possibly straight aft, but she cannot shoot at an angle astern—not without repositioning a gun, and that takes time. So we sail straight into that unprotected quarter." He moved the brush. "Then we turn broadside and fire chain shot: take down her rigging and maybe even her masts. That puts her adrift; she can no longer maneuver to return fire. We can stand off and fire solid shot at her until she surrenders."
"Well." The captain looked at his mate. "It seems that young ... What's your name, lad?"
"Theodore, sir. Theodore—"
The captain shushed him. "Your Christian name alone will suffice on this ship, unless you're married, which I doubt very much that you are."
He divided his beard in two and began plaiting the left side with the scarlet ribbons. "So, Ben, it seems that young Ted has a knack for the scheming of things. What think you of his plan?"
The mate hoisted his breeches a bit. "It leaves us with a crippled prize, Captain. We can't put the half of what she's carrying in our hold; the rest would go to waste."
The pirate glanced up at Ted. "He's right, you know."
The young man scowled. "Then we take her gold and silver and burn her."
Both pirates laughed, and the teenager's face reddened.
"I like the cut of your jib, Bold Ted," the pirate said. "But that's an inbound merchantman. She carries very little gold or silver; only what her frightened passengers might have stuffed away in the corners of their trunks. Her cargo is probably cloth and tools and furniture, gunpowder and shot and some cannon, I wager, in her bilge as ballast. And perhaps—if Providence smiles upon us—some brandywine, seeing as she's French."
"Cloth and tools? What good are those?"
The pirate finished plaiting the other side of his beard.
"Those goods are needed by merchants here in the Indies, Bold Ted. They order them from the Old World, and pay when they arrive on the dock. Now, those merchants—or one of their cousins—will still get those goods, but they will buy them from us for a few shillings on the guinea. We can do that and still profit, because we paid naught for their manufacture, nor for the cost of crossing all of that." The captain waved a hand in the general direction of the great rolling Atlantic.
The boy's eyebrows rose. "You mean you buy and sell like common shopkeepers?"
The captain shrugged. "Not 'buy,' perhaps. But sell? Yes. That we do. Help me on with this wig, lad."
The captain sat on a three-legged stool, and Ted, waiting a moment while the deck assumed a new angle beneath him, lifted the wig from its stand and settled it on the pirate's close-cropped head, placing it with the care of a pontiff consecrating a king.
"Excellent," the pirate said, admiring the result in a looking glass. He topped it off with a scarlet-plumed tricorner hat, slipped a brace of dueling pistols into his golden sash, and turned to Ted. "When a shop owner or a chandler or even a military garrison buys from us, lad, they save money, and they save a great deal of it. It is far cheaper to buy from the brethren of the coast than it is to do business with the trading companies. That tends to make them like us very much. It tends to make them rather lax about demanding protection on the high seas.
"And as for burning that ship, we'll do that only if she fights us. She is manned by a crew that was either pressed into service or signed on out of desperation for what amounts to ten pence a week, maybe less after they've drawn goods and provisions. They have no interest in protecting a rich man's fortune, not unless they feel they are in danger of losing their lives as well. That is the key to the whole thing."
The pirate held a finger to his lip again, as if thinking. He opened a chest next to his bunk and took out a rolled piece of muslin. He unfolded it, revealing a handsome flintlock pistol with a well-engraved, heavy brass bolster on its grip. Working with the speed of a man long accustomed to such actions, he swiftly loaded, tamped, primed, and cocked the foot-long gun. Then he handed it to the young man.
"There you are, Bold Ted. That is a Spanish-made half-inch from the shop of Geromino Menandez, one of the finest pistolsmiths in old Madrid. Tuck that in your belt. If we have to board in force, fire the shot to help clear the deck, and then use the gun as a club until the prize is ours."
Ted looked at the pistol in his hands. It was the finest thing he had ever seen.
"Captain," he said, "I have no way to pay you for this."
The captain cocked an eye toward the ceiling. "Now that you mention it, nor did I when I acquired it. Now slip it in your belt, Ted, and mind the trigger. That ball can take your leg off."
Ted put the pistol in its place. He seemed to grow an inch taller in the process.
The captain held a hand out, toward the ladder. "Shall we take the air?"
* * *
The three of them climbed to the open hatch and the deck—the teenager first, then the mate, and finally the captain, who had topped his finery off with a brocaded velvet waistcoat. The crew, on the other hand, had opted for practicality, pulling on tarred breeches and jackets and leather jerkins—clothing designed to turn a light sword's blade. All around them the Caribbean Sea shone a deep and rolling blue under a sky dotted with only a few small clouds.
Their quarry, a three-masted ship, was under what seemed its own small constellation of cumulus—a full set of snow-white sails straining concave before the wind. But it was plain to see that she was losing her race to the pirates' faster Jamaica-built sloop. Already they were close enough to make out the men in her rigging, shielding their eyes as they watched the closing pursuer.
"Colors," the pirate said evenly. Behind him, a man ran up a black flag. On it was a winged skull wearing a white crown. In its lower left was an hourglass; in its lower right, a pair of crossed bones.
The captain accepted a spyglass and took a look at his quarry. He lowered the glass, still gazing at the distant ship. "Raise ports. Run them out."
On both sides of the sloop, hinged gunports were lifted. Gun crews hove together on thick, greased ropes and rolled deck cannon out so their muzzles cleared the sides of the ship.
"Vapors," the pirate commanded.
Musicians—a fiddler, a piper, and a horn player—began playing a screeching, cacophonous melody, a veritable hornpipe from hell. All along the deck of the pirate ship, men shouted, barked, bellowed, and screamed as they jumped into the air, stomped on the deck, and rang cutlasses together.
The captain pointed to one of his crew. Raising his voice to be heard over the din, he shouted, "One across her bow ... at your leisure, Jack."
Standing well to the side, a gunner waited until the sloop was rising on a swell and then lowered his improvised match—a piece of burning hemp—to his cannon's touchhole. Sparks shot up, thunder erupted, and the cannon leapt back on its carriage. A thick cloud of smoke wafted by—foul, sulfurous, blue-gray in color. When it had cleared, the pirates could see a geyser of white shoot up from the blue sea on the far side of their quarry's bow. Moments later, the merchantman's acre of sail collapsed as she came sharply about and spilled the wind. Her gunports remained shuttered. A man with a cutlass ran back to her ensign and hacked at it. The crossed flag fluttered and fell into the sea.
The pirate crew roared their approval.
The captain smiled down at Ted. "And that is how it is done, lad. We'll still keep our guns on her, and we will sink her in a minute if anyone decides to be brave or foolish. But I doubt anyone will, and we've a fine prize with no unsightly gaps for our carpenter to patch."
He turned to the mate. "Ben, would you be so good as to assemble a prize crew?"
The mate saluted—the first time anyone had executed a proper shipboard salute all morning—and chose men from the volunteers clustered around him.
The captain clapped the teenager on the shoulder. "You are a good lad and a bright one, Bold Ted. But I daresay that this Vicar Bascombe of yours took his knowledge of tactics from the histories of Caesar, and perhaps from naval accounts; we will have to do our best to clear your head of all that battle nonsense. Ships of the line fight to the death, and if hard-pressed, so shall we. But for men in an enterprise such as this, our stock in trade is the option of surrender, and surrender is always what's best for all parties. If one of our men is maimed in a fight, we must pay him a pension and buy him a plot of land, and that expense reduces considerably the prize share for all concerned. Not to mention that the prize is worth more if taken whole.
"And those lads over there"—he nodded at the merchantman—"are highly relieved now that things are proceeding in a civilized manner. Most of them will volunteer to crew our prize and receive shares for their cooperation. As for the ones that don't, they will be locked in the hold and set ashore at the nearest landfall."
Ted shook his head, his close-cropped black hair glistening in the bright Caribbean sun, as the sloop closed in on the drifting merchantman. "It's not how I thought it worked at all."
The pirate laughed and lifted a hailing trumpet.
"I am Captain Henry Thatch, a servant of King George." Behind him, the first mate coughed. "And you are my prize." The captain squinted at the mate, then continued, his deep voice amplified nearly threefold by the brass horn. "We give you all quarter so long as you submit; on that you have my word. Drop us a net and stand by to assist as we board."
He handed the horn to a crewman and smiled once again at Ted as the crew swarmed around them. Grappling hooks dangled from the tan hands of several. Most had exchanged their cutlasses and muskets for smaller arms—dirks and clubs and cocked flintlock pistols slung in pairs on cords about their necks.
"Consider this the beginning of your finer education, lad. There are things in this world and the next—things worth knowing of which you have probably never so much as dreamed. But you have a good head on your shoulders, and I shall do my best to enlighten you."
The pirate looked down and cocked his head.
"Let us begin," he told the teen, "with the brighter points of history. What would you say was the seminal accomplishment of the year of our Lord sixteen hundred and twenty-three?"