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Excerpt for Devil's Bargain by Andi Marquette by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Devil’s Bargain

By Andi Marquette


They loaded the four strongboxes onto the longboat. Each box required four men—one for each side—who waded into knee-deep seas. Sarah splashed after them, awkwardly holding three shovels, and she made her way to the boat’s side, where she carefully lowered the shovels within, left hand on the gunwale.

Two men pushed the boat into deeper water, and maintaining her balance proved difficult as the men clambered aboard. She clung to the gunwale, and water knocked against her chest as she waited for a hand. None came. She hung on the boat’s side with both hands and tried to pull herself aboard, foreboding enveloping her as surely as seawater.

“Not you,” Crenshaw rasped. “Cap’n’s orders.”

Stunned, she glared at him. “You bastard. Bloody, thieving son of a whore!” She slung one leg over the gunwale and with a last effort, threw herself into the craft, to the imprisonment of rough hands on her arms. She struggled but only succeeded in drawing a boot to her neck.

“Stubborn,” Crenshaw said. “Thought you was a lady.”

The boot came off her neck amidst the coarse laughter Crenshaw’s comment had generated, and the two men who held her lifted her to her feet to face him, and his smirk stretched the scar above his upper lip into a thin line.

“I paid him,” she said between clenched teeth. “We had a deal.” Fear and anger clogged her throat. Two other men sat impassively on the strongboxes in the stern. Crenshaw balanced aft as the craft bucked beneath them.

“Deal’s off,” he replied with a shrug. “Cap’n’s orders.” He drew his cutlass. “Hope you can swim.” He smiled, then, but his missing teeth made it more a leer. “Many thanks for your help. We’ll be sure to toast you in Nassau.”

“You lying—” she surged forward, momentarily breaking free. The tip of Crenshaw’s cutlass slid cleanly into her gut and exited out her back. Shock, rage, and excruciating pain ripped her flesh with the blade.

“Why’d you go and do that, now? You’d have had better luck swimmin’. Not even useful as a whore.” He withdrew the blade to more laughter, nodded, and two men picked her up by her hands and feet and heaved her over the side back into the water.

The warm, salty waters of the Caribbean closed over her head and filled her wound with the sting of a thousand wasps. She broke the surface with a gasp, every movement searing. The longboat was already halfway to the schooner and her blood stained the water like paint. Automatically, she pointed herself toward shore and half-swam, half-kicked, gasping and grunting at the agony in her abdomen.

Her toes scraped bottom and she threw herself ashore, one hand clamped to her stomach. She knew her efforts to staunch the bleeding were futile, that a wound like this was a death sentence. She sank to her knees in the sand, pain and blood leaking between her fingers.

Just a few more days of life, she thought. Just a few more days to find the scum-sucking captain of the Queen’s Rest, the equally scum-sucking Crenshaw, and what was rightfully hers.

She clamped her other hand over her stomach and hunched against the pain. Bastards. I’ll haunt you both. Just watch me. She grimaced, her best attempt at a last smile. She still had the key and she still had her ring. Blakesley wouldn’t be able to open the boxes. Not easily, anyway. He’d have to offload them somewhere and wait for his claim to be approved. The thought offered some comfort as blood continued to stain the sand beneath her knees. She watched as it welled between her fingers, and she wondered how much time each trickle cost her.

The sun was hot on her back as her shirt dried, and the pain in her gut settled into her bones, into her veins. Each breath was a gift and a curse, because as grateful as she was when one came, she knew it only brought her closer to the end.

She had failed. Her father’s gold would line a privateer’s pockets. Lady Sarah Churchill had not only failed in her quest, but disgraced the family name. She’d been consorting with thieves, whores, beggars, and privateers. Dead at the point of a pirate’s blade, dressed like some rakish sailor. Damn you, Blakesley. And Crenshaw. Damn you both to hell, she thought, tasting blood in her mouth. She spat it onto the sand. I’ll be waiting for you both, you bastards.

#

Sarah stirred and opened one eye, though the effort to do even that hurt. Something blocked her view. She opened her other eye and a pair of black boots, battered and scuffed, frosted with sand, came into focus. She slowly turned over onto her back, her stomach burning with the movement. From this position, she was able to follow the lines of the boots upward along the grey-trousered thighs to the faded blue shirt.

A woman, Sarah registered. A woman with dark hair pulled back, tied behind her head upon which perched a plain black tricorn. Sarah groaned again. Another damn pirate. She closed her eyes, waited a moment, and opened them again. Maybe she was hallucinating in her death throes.

The woman regarded her, the expression in her dark, placid eyes cool. Sarah shifted her gaze slightly and looked past her. Three others stood behind her, a dozen feet distant. A man and two women, all attired in plain sailors’ clothing, a longboat behind them on the edge of the water.

The woman knelt down on her right knee and rested her left arm casually across her left thigh. “I can help,” she said in a pleasant alto.

Sarah stared at her, puzzled. “Help me what? Die?” Her voice was creaky in her throat.

The pirate cocked her head, perhaps amused. “In a manner of speaking.”

Sarah very slowly got to her knees, caught in a wave of utter exhaustion and weakness

that swept her limbs and dulled her mind. She checked the front of her shirt, crusted with dried blood and sand, and then she stared at the dark pool of blood coagulated on the beach beneath her. Was this, then, death? Sarah looked at the woman and she could discern no pupils in the dark, dark eyes. The foreshadow of a smile played across the buccaneer’s lips. There was no warmth in the expression.

“Lady Sarah,” the buccaneer said, “I’m Nefi, captain of the Black Angel. You’ve lost something that meant a great deal to you.” She raised an eyebrow. “Betrayed, yes?”

Sarah nodded dumbly. How did this woman know her? She couldn’t place her accent. Melodious and clipped around the edges, like her features, which hinted of ancient places etched in the sands of swarthy countries.

“What would you pay to have these things back?”

“Anything.” Sarah surprised herself with the immediacy of her answer. But then, she’d come this far. She would do anything.

Nefi propped her chin in her left hand, left elbow still on her knee. “And what would you pay to ensure a proper punishment for Captain Blakesley and first mate Crenshaw?”

Anger swirled sluggishly through Sarah’s veins. “Anything. Whatever you want.”

Nefi nodded slowly. “My price is high.”

“Name it.”

The buccaneer’s hand fell away from her chin. “Twenty percent of what was taken and—” She grinned, displaying a set of fine white teeth, the long canines of which ended in points. “Your services, Lady Sarah.”

Sarah gaped.

“Your history has already been written,” Nefi continued. “You disappeared while searching for your father’s lost shipment. Your body was never found.” She shrugged. “I can change that. I can grant you the time you need to complete the tasks you lamented at your impending death.”

Death? Sarah covered her wound with one hand, and her palm pressed into thick, sticky blood that no longer flowed.

“Once you do so—” Nefi said, “once you get those affairs in order and give me twenty percent, you are bound to me and my ship.”

“How long?” Sarah’s voice was barely a whisper.

Nefi smiled again. “Forever. But have no fear. You’ll be in fine company.” She stood and gestured toward the three behind her and the black brigantine anchored offshore. She turned back to Sarah.

“I’m dead, then?” Sarah croaked.

“Not yet. You still have a few minutes. Plenty of time to contract, if you so desire.”

Sarah looked past her at the ship offshore, then back to Nefi. “If I don’t?”

Nefi inclined her head and her gaze marked the blood on the sand. “I’ll leave you to the island. I can’t guarantee you’ll rest, given the circumstances of your death. And it’s isolated enough here that you may have only this beach to haunt.” She rested her hands on her belt. A sheathed dagger hung at her right side.

Sarah’s thoughts had slowed, but life and death she understood. “If I sail with you, will I live?”

“Not in the traditional sense. But we’re a merry band of immortal damned.”

The three behind her laughed.

Nefi flashed a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “The conditions, now, since you don’t have much time. No one breaks a contract with me. Ever. If you try—” She flashed another grin, one that reminded Sarah of wolves. “There’ll be hell to pay.” The laughing continued behind her.

“What’s worse than death?”

“A life without it. I’ll grant you years on this island, plagued by the agony of your wound. You’ll rot, from the inside out. Scoured by maggots and flies. Ravaged by thirst and hunger. But you will not find release. You will not be able to move. You will feel each and every bit of your decay. And when the wind finally claims your dust, your spirit will haunt this beach, bearing the pain of your final disintegration. Until time ends.”

The laughter behind her had ceased.

Sarah’s muddled thoughts turned to Blakeley’s betrayal and fire flashed through her near-empty veins. Crenshaw stabbing her, with no more thought to it than had he been engaged in a walk through a park. Blakesley with her family’s gold. God knows what he would do with it. After she had promised her father. Promised him she’d find the shipment and return it to England. Promised him she’d marry his choice if he just granted her a taste of freedom to find his gold. Freedom. Sarah had grown quite fond of it. And she was quite fond of life. “I accept your offer.”

Nefi nodded once and extended her right hand. Sarah tried to raise her own hand, but she was too weak. Nefi took her hand and a cold wind raced up Sarah’s arm into her midsection. She released Sarah’s hand, pulled her dagger from its sheath, and ran its razor tip lightly over her own left wrist.

Sarah watched, fascinated, as blood oozed quickly to the skin’s surface. Nefi dipped her right index finger in it and gently wiped it on Sarah’s lower lip. Not knowing why, Sarah licked her lip, tasted the ferrous overtures of blood, along with something else. An insistent throbbing, an ache in her bones, a need so deep it overwhelmed death’s mantle. The buccaneer leaned forward, gently gripped the back of Sarah’s neck with her right hand. She brought her left wrist to Sarah’s mouth, and with a greed Sarah had never felt, she clamped her lips over the wound and sucked like a starving dog on a bone.

Heat and pain coursed down her throat, infused her muscles, but she couldn’t stop wanting the taste of this life, such as she had never experienced. Nefi withdrew her wrist, and Sarah gasped, hunched, and curled into a fetal position. It was as if her bones and blood vessels bubbled. A strange ache filled her, but she burned, too, with new, cold life. Gasping, she turned her gaze to the Black Angel’s captain.

“Welcome aboard,” Nefi said. And she winked as she clapped Sarah gently on the shoulder.

#

What unholy alliance had she made? Sarah stared at the ship’s timbers above. Maybe she had died after all and gone to hell. She turned over on the mattress so she might stare at the door and await Nefi’s visit. Or was it dread? Sarah thought of food, of tables set with fine silver and china from distant lands. She envisioned her mother’s servants bringing puddings and fruits from the kitchen, and platters of meat. Her stomach churned in revulsion and she hung her head over the side of the bed, staring down into the bucket she’d had yet to use for vomit.

The door opened but Sarah didn’t look up. She focused on the bucket, waiting for her nausea to subside. “How long,” she whispered, “will I feel this bad?”

Nefi didn’t respond right away. Instead, she stroked Sarah’s hair until the sickness passed and Sarah once again lay on her back, staring at the timbers and avoiding Nefi’s gaze.

“Perhaps you have yet to accept your true nature,” Nefi said, and the sound of her voice made Sarah both ache and fume. Nefi pressed a cool, damp cloth to Sarah’s forehead.

“What nature is that? My birthright? Or what I traded death for? What manner of monster am I?”

Nefi turned the cloth over, then shifted her weight, and moved closer. With Nefi’s lips on her neck, soft and sensuous, her stomach was unsettled again, but not from sickness.

“I only bargain with those who want it,” Nefi said against her ear, and her breath was warm, arousing. “You summoned me, Sarah. And as long as you continue to fight this process, you will feel this bad.” She trailed her lips down Sarah’s neck. “Now, what would you have me do? You’ll be strong enough to take the change tomorrow.” Nefi took the cloth away from her forehead.

Sarah clenched her teeth, an ache between her thighs and at her core, far beneath the fresh scar that marked the cutlass’s entrance wound. She nodded and Nefi drew another thin line on her wrist as Sarah watched, battling revulsion and need. Need always won. She took Nefi’s wrist to her lips and sucked, greedily, remembering folktales from Romania she’d heard in salon discussions and her family’s kitchens as servants tossed dark tales to each other while working. Old, musty stories about phantoms, banshees, and blood-suckers drowning in sunlight.

And then Nefi’s blood would roar through her veins, charging her with life she’d never felt, leaving her sated and relaxed on Nefi’s bed, on Nefi’s ship, in Nefi’s arms. She’d bargained with thieves, privateers, and cutthroats to find the family gold, which she’d tracked to the unmarked island where she’d been left to die. She’d bargained with far worse than Nefi, and it had nearly killed her. Nefi could be no worse than what Sarah had seen in the year she’d left England. She shut her eyes and Nefi’s lips rested for a moment on her forehead before Sarah slipped into sleep again.

When Sarah next woke, a new resolve shared her bed, and she sat up. She’d bargained with Nefi and accepted her terms. She’d made her choice, and so she stood and waited for Nefi, no longer plagued with nausea or weakness. When Nefi arrived, and she moved toward Sarah, and her hands traveled from Sarah’s waist up to her shoulders and then her neck, Sarah sighed and tilted her head, trembling with anticipation.

Nefi’s teeth penetrated Sarah’s neck quickly and painlessly, effortlessly graceful. Sarah gasped, tried to scream in combined ecstasy and pain as her blood flowed freely into Nefi’s mouth. She clutched Nefi, an erotic hunger racing through her core. She held Nefi’s head against her neck with a strength she didn’t know she had, writhed against her, and weakened as her life’s blood ebbed.

Nefi pulled Sarah to the thin border between life and death before she released her hold on Sarah’s neck, and carefully lowered Sarah to her bed. “Once more,” Nefi whispered in Sarah’s ear as she opened a vein and held it to Sarah’s mouth. “Drink.”

And Sarah did, clamping her lips over the cut. She suckled and licked, and Nefi’s blood now mixed with her own to fill an aching void within. All Sarah knew was the exquisite taste in her mouth and the pinpricks of power running down her throat. Sated at last, she fell back, felt Nefi gently wipe her lips with a cloth then kiss her on the mouth.

“There will be pain,” Nefi said softly. “But it will pass.”

She was right. The pain started within minutes. It suffused every joint, muscle, and cell of Sarah’s body. Sweat leaked from every pore as Sarah endured the shift, felt her body change, her bones creak and moan. Her teeth loosened in her gums and her eyes were surely melting, dripping from their sockets. Nefi stayed with her throughout and wiped her forehead and limbs with a cool, damp cloth. She spoke soothingly in a language Sarah didn’t recognize, though it hung images in her mind of a great river flowing north from the guts of Africa to dump its legacy into a turquoise sea. Finally, Sarah slept. And when she woke, everything had changed.

#

Sarah stood on the deck, surveying the crew of the Black Angel, which defied easy description. An odd mix of twenty men and women from a plethora of backgrounds, nationalities, and eras. The women had surprised Sarah. She herself had chosen to sail disguised as a man in search of her father’s gold, but didn’t realize how common such behavior actually had been through the ages. Through new eyes blessed with Nefi’s gift, Sarah saw the differences between them. Some were like her, predators who needed blood to survive. Others were simply not alive. But not dead.

“I only go to those who ask,” came Nefi’s voice behind her. “Sometimes, I’m too late and can only grant a half-life. But those who agree, do so willingly.”

Sarah didn’t answer right away. Had she called Nefi? She must have. How else could she explain what had happened? Things she’d never thought to believe had come to pass.

“So, Lady Sarah. You have questions.” Nefi regarded her, calm. “Ask.”

“What language were you speaking when I changed?”

Nefi smiled. “A very old one. You will find it inscribed in stone within the pyramids of Giza and the tombs of Thebes. That is my language, what I spoke when I was mortal.”

Nefi’s fingers ran the length of Sarah’s bare forearm. The sensation was more than pleasant. Nefi smiled again and turned, placing her forearms on the railing to gaze out to sea. “My name is Nephthys. I was given that name when sent to grace the house of the Pharoah Sneferu.” She caught Sarah’s eye. “I was never to marry. Instead, I was educated and trained in the ways of diplomacy and entertainment for visiting dignitaries. At the age of twenty-five, it was time for me to earn my name.”

“How?”

“Nephthys is the goddess who grants immortality. My people believed she required appeasement from a mortal woman chosen from the kingdoms during each Pharoah’s reign. I was Sneferu’s choice. And on the eve of my twenty-fifth mortal year, the contract was made.”

“Who—”

She turned, dark eyes unreadable. “The high priestess of Nephthys bequeathed her blood to me. It was understood that I would serve in the same capacity, should such be required. I entered the temple of Nephthys after my transformation was complete.”

Sarah saw something shift in Nefi’s eyes—sadness, maybe. Or perhaps it was merely a trick of the afternoon light.

“My world lived and died many times during my service, until finally, beneath the onslaught of foreigners, the old ways dispersed. With the coming of the Greeks, I took to the seas.” A smile seemed to twitch at the corner of her mouth. “I learned quite a bit from the Greeks,” she added, thoughtful. “Including sailing.” She straightened and regarded Sarah with her implacable eyes. “We dock in Nassau on the morrow. I have a feeling you’ll have a bit of luck in your search for the Queen’s Rest.” Her gaze held Sarah’s for a long moment before she turned languidly and headed for the bridge. As Nefi’s boot hit the first step, she cast a glance back over her shoulder and smiled and Sarah knew that she was extending an invitation to her for the evening.

She smiled back. She would accept.

#

The Port of Nassau crawled with beleaguered privateers, pirates, deserters from a variety of navies, merchants, speculators, bandits, thieves, and assorted lowlifes from every conceivable occupation. The city itself was a mish-mash of squatters, tents, and ramshackle structures, erected on the cremated remains of earlier buildings that had been burned to the ground by contingents from the French and Spanish navies.

All manner of craft anchored in the harbor. From the most resplendent vessels of the British Navy to the meanest sloop, all found welcome in the boomtown atmosphere of Nassau. Whatever debauchery, decadence, illegality, or perversion one could imagine, it had already been tried here, expounded upon, and cast aside for newer manifestations. And for those who chose to live far outside the boundaries of acceptability, Nassau was perfect.

And as Sarah had expected, Blakesley had come here with his “find” and registered the strongboxes at the customs house. All it took for Sarah to convince the agent was the seal on her ring and the key she inserted into the locks, opening them each. Blakesley wouldn’t be alerted to her right away. She almost wished she could tell him herself. But she knew any conversation she had with him was best left to open water, where he wouldn’t stand a chance against Nefi or her ship.

She stood on the pier in the late afternoon light then turned abruptly and strode back into the city, hat pulled low over her eyes. She made her way along the filthy, crowded street that edged the harbor, bumping into a variety of humanity in a variety of stages of cleanliness. Shouts and shots filled the air, chased by screams and screeching laughter. Nassau was a pit and for those who weren’t already dead, it promised to press them into the service of those ranks quickly.

Sarah worked her way around vast mud puddles, sloppy with filth, and searched for a proper target. She needed to feed after her long day in this hole. She ducked down a narrow alley between a tavern and a boarding house just as a young serving woman emptied a pail of scraps out the tavern’s back door. Wearing new seaman’s trousers and a rough linen shirt, Sarah presented as a man. The tricorn on her head further marked her as a sailor. She smiled at the serving woman and tipped her hat as she approached. The alley was very dark. The woman was too trusting.

Though she hadn’t had much practice, Sarah was very good at locating a human jugular quickly and piercing it efficiently. She had overcome her initial discomfort with seducing women, and found them easier to attract in her male guise than men, though she had fed on an amorous sailor who returned her advances because he thought she was a man. On Sarah’s first boarding—a Dutch schooner—Nefi had demonstrated to Sarah how much blood to take, and how not to leave lasting harm beyond small puncture scars.

Nefi also took her on proper hunts in New Providence soon after, though the initial outings proved difficult for Sarah, who could not yet reconcile her thirst for blood with her mortal past. Nefi seemed to understand, and she made it easy in some ways for her to adjust to this new existence, so Sarah thought of her now as a mentor, among other things.

And now here she was, in a dark, stinking alley, enthralled with the taste of the barmaid’s life on her lips, coursing down her throat. It aroused her, caused an ache between her thighs, this unholy intimacy. Not too much, Nefi had instructed. Leave them mortal.

Sarah’s first had died, a young Dutch sailor aboard the schooner. She had felt an overwhelming need to sob but nothing came, except the insidious and exhilarating sensation of life, throbbing through her veins. Terrible, terrible bargain. Nefi had only laughed softly. “I knew you would accept,” she said. “I only offer to those who will.”

Thousands, Nefi had said. She had ignored thousands over the centuries. Unlike others, she did not pass the gift lightly, something that intrigued Sarah. In every port, dozens like her occupied every strata, every job. She sensed them now, saw the ethereal glow in their eyes and caught brief glimpses of canine teeth too sharp. When mortal, she would not have noticed. Yes, Nefi had standards. But looking around the seething city, it was obvious others did not.

The serving woman collapsed against her and she withdrew her teeth with an effort, wiped her mouth and the woman’s neck on a bit of cloth she pulled from her pocket. The gift granted her physical strength unlike any she had ever known, so it was an easy matter for Sarah to carry her the short distance to the tavern’s back door and leave her just inside, out of reach of other nightcrawlers with even baser intentions. She straightened her clothing and quitted the alley to make her way through the foul streets to a particular drinking establishment.

Low-slung and slovenly, this tavern stood at the end of a another foul, dark street. Sarah entered and shouldered her way through the crowd to a table in the corner. Nefi sat with her back against the rough wooden wall, chair tipped back, left leg draped rakishly over the tabletop. She was surveying the room, ignoring the full tankard she held in her right hand. She offered one of her oddly appealing smiles as Sarah sat down across from her.

“Success, I trust.” She held a discreet finger to her lower lip. Sarah quickly wiped her own mouth again with the bit of cloth. Nefi nodded. “My ablest apprentice thus far.” She grinned, handed Sarah the tankard. Sarah sipped, washing the taste of ecstasy down her throat with harsh ale. She slid into the chair to Nefi’s right.

“And the other matter?” Nefi was speaking to her, but her eyes were on a young Spanish man who had just entered. Nefi obviously needed to hunt as well.

“Tomorrow afternoon. There are four strongboxes. However many crew you think to carry them. Ask for Townsend and use the name Lord Samuel Churchill.”

“Well done,” Nefi said softly, eyes once again on Sarah. She had already acquired her target. She stood and stretched languorously. “You’ve completed a task. And had a grand time doing it, I’d warrant.” She winked and moved off into the crowd with a leonine grace. Sarah drained the tankard and sat back, enjoying a sense of satisfaction, ease, and excitement.

#

Two-masted and square-rigged, the Black Angel strained to be set loose as it glided out of Nassau harbor at dawn. A predator, gathering for the spring. The crew leaned on the railing as the sails unfurled themselves. Those who had needed to hunt had done so, and a calm had descended over the ship, which sliced through the Caribbean, gathering speed and power. Dark and lethal, like an obsidian blade. The miles washed beneath them, more quickly than Sarah dreamed possible.

“Ship ahoy!” came the melodious call from Peisino, the Siren.

“Ah.” Nefi was suddenly at Sarah’s side. “Do you recognize the vessel?” she said softly in her ear

The Queen’s Rest was painted in red on its stern and something deeper than blood lust stirred at Sarah’s core.

“Your chance.” Nefi smiled, an expression that among the living would not offer warmth. But to Sarah, Nefi’s smiles scoured frost from stone. “Prepare to engage,” Nefi ordered, and the ship turned swiftly with no help from the crew. She honed in on her target and of its own accord, Nefi’s flag hurtled up the mainmast, unfurling in the breeze. A white cutlass piercing a crimson heart on a field of black.

Sarah heard shouts from the Queen’s Rest as the distance between them closed. She saw crewmen running about like ants, trying to turn the ship from the path of Nefi’s juggernaut. The opposing vessel swung laboriously portside, exposing her guns. Nefi’s eyes, like chips of onyx, caught the rays of the setting sun and flashed in warning. Sarah gripped the railing, bracing for the impact of either cannonball or broadside. The crew of the Queen’s Rest scurried about, no doubt preparing to fire, but the Black Angel’s guns remained silent even as cannons bellowed from the Queen’s Rest. Sarah closed her eyes, waiting for the thud of metal on wood.

Instead, five cannonballs stopped in midair as if they had struck a great wall. They hovered momentarily then splashed heavily into the water. Three more cannons fired and three more cannonballs joined their predecessors in the depths. The Black Angel was too close now for effective cannonry. The air filled with the crack of muskets, and chips of wood flew from the railing near Sarah’s fingers. The gouges sealed themselves within moments.

The Black Angel slid into boarding position next to the Queen’s Rest and Peisino stood on the bridge, her song entrapping the enemy crew as if they were bound with chains. Nefi’s crew swarmed aboard the other ship, Peisino’s lilting voice the only sound they made. Mortal sailors dropped their weapons at her song and fell to their knees, slack-jawed.

Sarah made the leap to the opposing vessel easily, reveling in the fluidity of her motions and the untapped strength in her muscles. She searched the deck, finding Crenshaw entranced at the foot of the foremast. Two Chinese pirates lifted him and carried him to Nefi’s ship. Blakesley stood on the bridge, staring dumbly at Sarah as she climbed the steps. Two undead pirates lifted him from his position, hauled him to the main deck, and handed him across the space to waiting hands on the Black Angel.

With her prey off-loaded, Sarah swung onto the railing and stepped easily off the Queen’s Rest, and Nefi’s ship pulled away from it as Peisino’s song faded. Blakesley and Crenshaw shook themselves, as if awakened from a deep trance. Nefi had ordered them placed near the mainmast, seated and unbound. Sarah regarded them, arms crossed, boots planted firmly on the deck.

“Gentlemen,” she said when she saw recognition in their eyes.

“You said she was dead.” Blakesley growled in a liquor-ripped voice. The ends of his mustache drooped below his chin and the scar across the bridge of his nose twitched with his words.

“She was,” Crenshaw stammered, eyes wide. “No one could have survived such a slice as that.”

“Death, Captain, doesn’t always put an end to a matter.” Sarah leaned over, face very close to his. “Perhaps you should have considered that when you broke the contract with me.”

He remained silent, glaring at her.

Nefi interrupted. “Captain Blakesley, I am Nefi, captain of the Black Angel. Do you know of this vessel?”

It was Crenshaw who reacted. His eyes widened and sweat beaded on his balding skull. “Stories,” he managed. “Just stories.” But his voice was uncertain, and he trembled.

“Good. Our reputation precedes us.” Nefi stroked her chin. Several crewmembers snickered behind her. “Lady Sarah has already collected her boxes from the Nassau port customs office. If perhaps you thought the Churchill fortune would be yours after a requisite waiting period.”

Blakesley turned his attention to Sarah, surprise on his weather-beaten features.

“I still retain my family seal,” she said, holding her hand up so her ring was visible. “And I kept my key. Easy enough to prove my identity.” She pulled the leather thong from beneath her shirt from which the key hung. “Careless of Mr. Crenshaw, don’t you think?” She put the key back inside her shirt. “But then again, Mr. Crenshaw didn’t expect I would survive.”

“Witch,” Crenshaw muttered almost inaudibly, but Sarah heard it.

“No, not quite. Something else entirely.” She glanced over at Nefi, who smiled.

“So,” Nefi said to the prisoners. “Perhaps you’d like to clear your consciences about other matters?”

“Please.” Blakesley reached toward her, entreating. “I’ll do anything. Anything you want.”

Nefi smiled even wider. “I have no doubt of that. But you obviously can’t hold a contract. And I am very, very particular.”

An odd elation filled Sarah at her pronouncement. As if on cue, Nefi turned her scrutiny to Sarah. “What would you have me do here?”

“I seem to recall a certain island, where you and I first met.”

Nefi nodded, expression unreadable, as always. The Black Angel pitched to starboard and gathered momentum. Wind snapped against the sails. She knifed through the waves, cleaving the Caribbean, a shark. Hunting.

Sarah stood, feeling the caress of the breeze, the scent of salt water and distant lands filling her nostrils. She knew she should turn Blakesley and Crenshaw over to port authorities in Nassau. Knew she should feel a responsibility as a representative of a noble British family to conduct herself through the proper channels. Knew all of this. And felt none of it. How quickly we forget life, she thought as she delighted in the sight of two men cowering against the mainmast, when we have been granted it forever.

#

The longboat’s prow dug into sand, sending a jolt through the soles of Sarah’s boots. Four members of Nefi’s crew hauled Crenshaw and Blakesley out of the craft and dragged them, bound, onto the beach. The crew dropped them unceremoniously onto the ground and returned to the longboat, where they stood, waiting. Sarah and Nefi disembarked. Sarah drew her cutlass and turned to meet Nefi’s gaze with her own. Nefi nodded. Sarah turned and strode up the beach to where the two men lay, arms bound behind their backs.

“Do you know where you are?” Sarah asked as she stood over them.

Crenshaw licked his lips and his gaze flicked over her to the longboat, then to Blakesley. He knew. She smelled fear in his sweat, heard it in the shallow breaths that eased between his lips.

“Please,” Blakesley whispered, pleading. “I didn’t know.”

Sarah shook her head. “You broke a contract.” She pursed her lips. “I was fortunate. You are not.”

The smell of urine assailed Sarah’s nostrils. Blakesley had pissed himself. The stain grew on his trousers, and disgust mingled with anxiety in Crenshaw’s eyes.

“Please.” Blakesley tried again. “I’ll sail with Nefi. I’ll do anything she wants. Anything you want.”

“Too late.” Sarah drew her cutlass, examined its blade in the afternoon sun. “It wasn’t so long ago that I, too, reclined on this beach.” She held the tip of the blade to Blakesley’s cheek, nicked it. He yelped, and tried to move away. A thin trickle of blood slid down his jawline. Sarah watched it, transfixed by its smell. The hunt thrummed through her veins. Without hesitation, her cutlass found Blakesley’s abdomen, sank deep. Sarah rammed it through his gut, through his scream, until the point buried itself in the sand beneath.

She pulled it free and ran the tip of her left index finger along the blade, collecting his blood. She licked her finger, and the predator within stirred. She turned to Crenshaw, who stared at her, horrified. He tried to get to his knees, out of the way of Blakesley’s strangled screams and thrashing.

“I meant nothing by it,” Crenshaw stammered. “It was Cap’n’s orders. I was just following orders. He’s a coward. I’ll do right by you. I’ll serve aboard the Black Angel.” The words shot from his mouth like cannonballs from the Queen’s Rest, and they fell, useless, beneath Sarah’s gaze.

“Funny, the things you think about at the moment of death,” Sarah mused. “Are you afraid?”

Crenshaw bobbed his head like a puppet. “I’ll do anything you want. Any kind of work. I’ll serve you honorably. I swear it.”

“Too late for you as well.” Sarah pressed the tip of her cutlass to Crenshaw’s abdomen. He fell backward, skittered away awkwardly like a crab. Sarah watched for a moment, amused, then moved too quickly for him to see. The blade slid into his stomach and his eyes registered utter surprise before a harsh gasp burst from his mouth. Sarah punched the blade through, paused, and pulled it out. Crenshaw watched, agony and disbelief on his features as she again licked a fingerful of blood from the cutlass. She needed to hunt, but she would not sully her tastes here. She felt Nefi at her elbow, felt another kind of hunger as she turned to look at her.

Nefi offered one of her smiles. “Shall we?”

“Please.” Sarah followed Nefi to the longboat. She did not look back.

#

Nefi stood on the bridge. She never had to give orders, as the crew knew exactly what to do, if something warranted doing. The sails unfurled and the warm wind filled them. The ship lurched forward, away from the island and through the crystal waters, wood creaking and canvas snapping. Sarah watched the crewmembers on deck then turned back to Nefi, whose hair was loose today, flowing behind her. She might have been a figurehead come to life, the way she appeared.

“Ah, a long, long life at sea. Does it entice you?” She smiled enigmatically, gaze boring into hers.

Sarah smiled back. The thrum of the ship, the thud of waves against wood . . . it stirred longings in her veins reminiscent of a hunt.

“I’ve been sailing a fair amount of time,” Nefi continued, self-effacing laughter in her voice. “And I never tire of it. When I think, sometimes, that the burdens of history and the uncertainty of the future are too high a price to pay for this life, I raise the flag on the mast and head to sea. I think, Sarah, that you know what I’m talking about.” She rested a hand on one of the spokes of the wheel. “It’s why you called. And it’s why I came.”

She held Nefi’s gaze. She didn’t need to answer. Nefi knew. She had surprised herself the day she died. Surprised herself when she accepted the final transformation. A soft English noblewoman at birth, destined to marry a soft English nobleman and produce soft English offspring to bear the name for more soft nobles. And then her father’s gold disappeared. Sarah was the youngest of his brood and before her brothers could be notified, she volunteered. She had never had an inkling of ever doing such a thing. Where had the urge come from? Her father at first had balked, but then agreed when a male cousin offered to accompany her.

He took ill and died within the first two months, and rather than inform her father, Sarah continued on with three servants to New Providence, where she followed buccaneers with her eyes and her longing. So unlike her. Brutish and unseemly. Merciless. Indulging pleasures of the flesh, rutting like dogs, and drinking the excesses of mortality. But so like her after all.

She audaciously donned men’s clothing and went to sea. The first breach of decorum, tradition, and social mores. She contracted with privateers. The second. Then she learned to sail, learned the feel of a ship. It was as if she knew nothing else. The third.

She automatically took the wheel from Nefi, to whom every sea was intimately familiar, lovers all. Nefi, who came with the tides and brought Sarah a choice. A soul cached in blood. A life outside life. A freedom to wander every sea, every land. I can help you, she had said, kneeling there in the sand, her dark eyes filled with the wisdom and mysteries of ages.

Sarah raised her face to the sun, then turned her gaze to Nefi, who stood at the railing, hands on her hips, hair free and flowing in the wind of the ship’s passage.

I can help you.

Yes, she could.

And she did.


End


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