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Jean-Charles’s palm was slick with sweat around the rapier hilt. He looked at Léandre, desperately hoping that his friend would step in and interrupt the duel before it started. He had always been able to get Jean-Charles out of trouble before.
Not so now. Jean-Charles had assaulted the man who stood a few paces away, eyeing him distastefully. He did not even know the man’s name, only that he was some ten years older than Jean-Charles, and dressed in the clothing of low nobility. Anyone could have recognized the latter, and known to stay away.
Anyone except Jean-Charles, idiot that he was. The nobleman had gotten drunk and overly familiar with his—Jean-Charles’s—sister. In trying to defend her honour, Jean-Charles had quickly lost his head, and punched the man square in the nose.
He’d been swiftly overpowered then—as had Léandre, after coming to his aid—and as soon as the man’s nose ceased bleeding they had been dragged out of the tavern and into a nearby alley for a duel.
Jean-Charles was no fencer. He studied medicine at the University of Paris, and the deadliest weapons he’d held were scalpels and, infrequently, bone saws. The nobleman’s brother—his second—had provided Jean-Charles’s sword, along with a perfunctory description of how the duel was to proceed.
They saluted one another, followed by a touching of the blades. As soon as steel had met steel, the gentleman was on the offensive, twisting and swinging his rapier in an arc that Jean-Charles just barely managed to deflect.
He stumbled back, winning just enough time to wish that he had let Léandre take his place after all—a cowardly thought—before the man’s sword darted out again. By sheer instinct, Jean-Charles managed to step aside; the gentleman, apparently expecting the duel to be settled in two thrusts, overreached, and was momentarily put off balance.
Jean-Charles thrust out his weapon, sheer luck or providence guiding the tip into the man’s chest. It bored in by one inch, and then two, and then the man’s own weight lowered him further onto the blade. Shocked, Jean-Charles released the sword, and the man fell to the filthy ground, the sword snapping in half beneath him.
There was a moment when everything was still, and everyone just stared. Stared at the body, and the spreading puddle of blood, and at him; surprise plain on their faces.
Léandre grabbed Jean-Charles’s arm. Mechanically, his body followed the motion, and soon they were running through the streets of Paris, thinking only to get away before the gentleman’s brother came to his senses and demanded Jean-Charles’s head.
He would have to leave Paris, a numb part of his mind realized—would have to leave the country. He’d killed a man of noble blood—and if that wasn’t enough, he’d been the initial aggressor.
Léandre understood it too. When they stopped, he stared at Jean-Charles, wide-eyed. It took him several minutes to speak.
‘You realize—’ he started.
‘Yes,’ Jean-Charles said.
‘So, you understand—’
‘My uncle,’ Léandre said, ‘the merchant. His ship is headed for the West Indies tomorrow morning.’
Jean-Charles looked at him, his heart not daring to beat. ‘Would you—’
‘Of course. And I think he’ll take you if I ask.’
Two decades had passed since the encounter in the alley—half his lifetime—and it still haunted Jean-Charles at times: in his dreams, or in his darkest drunken thoughts. A single blow, made in the heat of rage, and it had changed the full course of his life.
Once, he’d wished to be a medicus, a doctor; perhaps eventually physician to nobility. Maybe to the King of France himself. A silly dream, but he had dared to nurture it. Then that damnably satisfying punch.
He turned away from the sea, at which he had stared while contemplating the past, and looked over the ship. Her crew were gathered round the mainmast, while his men searched and plundered all the riches that she had to offer. They had surrendered at his first shot across her waist. Most people did.
His second-in-command, one Englishman by name of Peters, came to report the plunder: a meagre haul, mostly furs and a few silks; combined they’d hardly make the capture worthwhile. That wasn’t uncommon. His crew of buccaneers were not successful, in the scheme of things—not compared with Morgan and his like—but neither were they especially ambitious.
‘A decent haul, Captain,’ Peters concluded.
‘The Madame Royale—’ that was the name of their ship ‘—could use a resupply. What say you we take in at Tortuga? Off-load the booty, load up on vitals?’
‘Tortuga?’ Jean-Charles asked, his spine tingling with apprehension. He had, on the whole, tried to avoid French settlements—less for fear of being recognized and arrested, and more out of a general shame and personal respect for France—and had not so much as set foot on Tortuga since the King had issued the island to the French West India Company, and Governor d’Ogeron.
He wasn’t sure why his instincts always told him to avoid the place. Word was that this d’Ogeron had no qualms at all about letting it be a buccaneer haven, so long as the Company profited by it. He knew that he had very little to fear in going there, and yet. . .
He was being stupid, he chided himself. His concerns were little more than superstition, and there was no point to irritate the men by needlessly dragging out their voyage. They possessed, after all, the right to vote him off as captain if they grew displeased.
He decided to trust to his luck. Ever since that fateful night in Paris, it had mostly borne him well: he’d survived going from a medical student to a fugitive, to a half-trained ship’s surgeon, to being captured by buccaneers and becoming their surgeon—only to eventually be elevated to the rank of captain. All with life and limb intact. It was not a career path he would have chosen, perhaps, but it had not treated him so poorly.
‘Fine,’ he told Peters. ‘We’ll make for Tortuga.’
A day later, the Madame Royale had docked in Cayona—Tortuga’s only port—and Jean-Charles took a carriage to the governor’s mansion to meet d’Ogeron. He’d received a formal invitation only a few hours after mooring, in which the governor had even shown interest in purchasing his cargo—an arrangement which Jean-Charles soon learned was standard here.
A servant greeted Jean-Charles at the door and escorted him into the governor’s drawing room. He did not have to wait long until Bertrand d’Ogeron presented himself.
Jean-Charles’s heart nearly leapt out of his chest.
The man had grown fatter in the twenty years since they had met in Paris, and older, but for all of that it took Jean-Charles no time at all to recognize him as the brother of the dead duellist.
Their eyes met, and there was a brief pause. Though Jean-Charles had changed a great deal during his time in the New World—he was scarred and tanned now, and had grown a beard that the sun had long-since bleached—he was sure d’Ogeron recognized him.
But the governor just smiled; an expression of gentle puzzlement.
‘Are you all right, Captain?’ he asked, probably in reaction to Jean-Charles’s expression. ‘Is something not to your liking? If so, please tell, so I can better do my duty as your host.’
‘No,’ Jean-Charles said hoarsely. ‘I’m quite all right.’
‘Well then,’ d’Ogeron said, waving a hand that was rich with golden rings. ‘I would be most pleased to have you join me for dinner before we discuss business. Are you hungry?’
Forcing his body not to tremble, Jean-Charles shook his head. All was well, he told himself. The man did not know him. ‘I just ate,’ he said, and tried to smile apologetically.
‘Some brandy then.’ D’Ogeron waved at a servant. ‘Please sit, and we shall discuss your… merchandize.’
When Jean-Charles had gone, Bertrand d’Ogeron stood a long time in the window, watching his carriage recede into the night. Finally, when the man was far out of sight, he turned and called his valet.
‘Did you get his hair?’ he asked.
‘Yes, sir! I plucked it from his hat, just as you said.’ The man held up a small tuft of hairs.
‘It will have to do,’ d’Ogeron said. He wished there had been a way to contrive to get some of the man’s blood as well—but there was nothing for it. ‘Fetch his cup before those idiots in the kitchen have time to clean it out.’
The valet bowed and hurried off. D’Ogeron went up to his study.
In his three years as a representative of the French West India Company here on Tortuga, d’Ogeron had amassed quite a collection of interesting items. There were few valuables that passed through the New World without sooner or later falling into the hands of the buccaneers, and thanks to his role, he had first pickings at almost everything those buccaneers plundered. He had taken a special interest in some of the more unusual pieces, and had paid good money for them.
Slipping a key from around his neck, d’Ogeron slid it into the lock of the ornately bejewelled silver box which he kept inside his strongbox. Inside it was a smaller case, plated with gold. He slid it open, revealing a small book, bound in aged leather. Its pages were brown and fragile, but still highly legible.
D’Ogeron smiled wickedly. After twenty odd years, he would have his revenge.
The Madame Royale stayed in Tortuga just long enough to unload her plunder and collect the governor’s payment for it, plus a night ashore for the men to spend their shares. By the time the officers had herded the forty-odd buccaneers back aboard, it was already afternoon.
A few hours after they set off, the sky began to darken. They were out of sight of Tortuga by now—a good way out from any nearby settlement. Nor was there a ship in sight, except the one that appeared on the horizon just after sunset.
She was a white-sailed thing with twin masts, not any more ferocious than the Madame Royale. Doubting that she would risk engagement, Jean-Charles ignored her.
He had other things to consider. He’d left Tortuga without going to meet d’Ogeron again. Almost he had gone back—a wild instinct urging him to throw himself at the man’s knees and apologize—but he’d decided against it. Nothing good could come of listening to thoughts of honour over sense.
As the moon rose, the other ship caught his eye again, her sails luminous in the silver light. Even her hull seemed to glow. Now that she had come closer—a lot closer, he realized—he could see that it, too, had been painted white, or at least some very pale shade of green. It was an unusual choice; a day of sailing would leave it filthy in a way that would be all the more apparent against the light colour. Yet this ship’s hull appeared pristine.
He put his spyglass to his eye and stared at the ship. He had meant to look at for her guns, and then at any flags she bore, but what drew his attention instead was the ship’s wake. Or, rather, the absence of one.
As it drifted through the water, the white ship disturbed the waves not at all.
His hand trembling, Jean-Charles lowered the spyglass. His left hand began to sting, and he glanced down at it. He had earlier noticed a rash there, but dismissed it. By the moonlight, however, it was a disturbing splotch of darkly miscoloured skin. It had swollen slightly, and was throbbing, as if the white ship’s mere proximity had agitated it.
The other buccaneers were beginning to take notice of the ship now. It was nearing them at an unusual speed, and they began to shout and curse. A few men spotted the way she didn’t touch the water and announced it to the rest, which caused their din to rise until they were near-panic.
‘Enough!’ Jean-Charles screamed, swinging around. The crew fell silent. They stared at him.
After a slight hesitation, his instincts kicked in.
‘Full sail!’ he ordered. ‘I want every inch of canvas on this ship unfurled!’ He gave further orders that made plain his intent to flee. The buccaneers did not object. Their superstitious hearts were in accord with his: they’d rather turn and run than fight a ship that had no wake.
As the sails were unfurled, he swung the Madame Royale around once to set off a volley of cannon shot against the white ship, which was already in range of her heaviest guns. Several cannon balls struck her side, and simply passed right through her. Somewhere on the other side of her hull, he heard them splash into the sea.
If there were any who still doubted that they were dealing with the supernatural, those doubts were now extinguished. The buccaneers fell into a fervour, working harder and with more discipline than they ever had before.
Despite their efforts, the white ship continued to gain on them. Her crew made no attempt to fire back at the Madame Royale, nor did they pay the slightest heed to the whims of the wind, but made a perfect straight line toward their prey. Already, they were near enough that Jean-Charles could make out their faces. All heads, whether on a man working or simply waiting by her railing, were turned to stare at him.
They were the faces of the dead, half-decayed and horrible to see. In places, all flesh had sloughed off the skull beneath; in others, it hung in strips off of the bone. What tufts of hair they had danced around their heads like underwater seaweed. As they drew nearer, Jean-Charles saw that their eyes were nothing but hollow sockets, which nevertheless managed to stare straight at him.
If only we could keep away until dawn, Jean-Charles thought. He wasn’t sure why he thought they would be safe then. Perhaps it was because the ship had only appeared at sunset. Perhaps because it gleamed as if it was moonlight made physical. Probably, it was just his desperate mind, reduced to childhood instinct, that wanted to believe the sun would drive away the horrors of the night.
But there were hours left until the sun rose, and the white ship was already gliding up beside the Madame Royale. The ship of the dead bore no name that he could see, nor the colours of any nation.
Only one thing identified its origins: standing on the waist opposite Jean-Charles was the man he’d killed in Paris all those years ago; the d’Ogeron brother whose first name Jean-Charles would never know.
He appeared exactly like he had then: the same clothes, the same pale skin and harsh grey eyes. He’d never even put his waistcoat back on after stripping it for the duel.
As Jean-Charles watched, however, the image changed. The clothes rotted to rags and fell away, revealing dark bone and decayed flesh beneath. The man’s face, too, slipped off, lips grinning malice even as they turned to slimy mulch and dribbled down his chest.
The undead crew had hooks on rusty chains and used them now to grapple with the Madame Royale. Rather than pass through the ship as Jean-Charles dared to hope, the hooks found her spars and rails, and soon the dead were clambering across the water.
A few buccaneers—too few—rushed forward to dislodge the hooks. Jean-Charles heard more of them leap into the water on the other side of the Madame Royale, electing to swim and drown rather than fall to the rusted cutlasses of the undead.
Perhaps someone had thought to lower the boats, and they might escape that way. Jean-Charles couldn’t bring himself to look. He couldn’t bring himself to move an inch, frozen as he was with terror. He could only stare at the man he’d killed—the first to throw a grapple—now closing the distance between them.
The dark spot on Jean-Charles’s palm burned stronger with each foot of chain the dead man crossed in his approach.
Only when his skeletal feet touched the deck did Jean-Charles finally turn and flee. In his blind panic, he could think only to make for his cabin, hoping to barricade it until sunrise.
He shouldered the door open and staggered inside, turning to slam it shut—but the undead d’Ogeron stuck the blade of his rapier into the gap before he could. It snapped, but was enough to stop the door from closing. He elbowed it open, advancing on Jean-Charles even as the living man retreated to the far wall of the cabin.
Outside, the screams of his buccaneers rose and were silenced. The stench of fresh blood filled the air.
Pinned by d’Ogeron, Jean-Charles pulled his pistol from his belt and fired it wildly. His hands trembled so badly that the shot went wide by several feet, boring into the cabin ceiling.
He dropped the spent pistol and pulled out his cutlass. D’Ogeron’s skull seemed to grin.
‘Is this what you want?’ Jean-Charles said, mustering as much courage into his voice as he could. ‘Another duel? Come on then!’
To his surprise, d’Ogeron made a salute with his broken sword, the same motion he had used to initiate their last duel. Jean-Charles did not match it. The laws of courtesy were neither for the dead nor buccaneers.
An animal howl rising in his throat, he ran at d’Ogeron, burying his weapon deep into the man’s chest.
D’Ogeron did not so much as flinch. Instead, he completed the introduction, swinging the stump of his sword in a half-circle; it was meant to be the first touch of the blades. Jean-Charles stumbled back, avoiding it even as he dragged free his own sword.
All along the cabin walls, the rest of the undead crew had gathered, standing back to watch the duel, and to cut off any hope of escape. Several of his own buccaneers were among them, their mouths slack, their eyes rolled back in their skulls. Their bloody wounds displayed the gruesome ways that they had died; Peters, for one, was near-unrecognizable with half his skull somehow smashed in.
D’Ogeron advanced, swinging his rapier. Jean-Charles avoided it easily, keeping away. He thought he could continue to avoid its diminished length easily enough—but to what end? He couldn’t flee, and his own attacks seemed useless against the dead man. Nor could he hope to continue this duel until the sun rose—even if that dispelled the dead. Sooner or later, his body would give, and he’d be too exhausted to resist the man.
And if he died—what then? Would he, too, be reanimated; forced to serve aboard the white ship of the damned?
He struck out again, this time aiming his swing for d’Ogeron’s neck. The decades-old bone was easy enough to cut through, and with a single motion, he managed to cleave the head off cleanly.
The undead man paused for a moment, turning his body to “stare” at Jean-Charles. Then he continued his mechanical attacks, swinging again and again at the living man, apparently having no need for sight.
In avoiding him, Jean-Charles backed into the rows of dead spectators. Their slimy, skeletal hands closed around his arms and shoved him back into the centre of the room. He nearly stumbled straight onto d’Ogeron’s stump of a blade, and had to throw himself flat to the ground to avoid it.
He dropped his cutlass as he fell, and rolled away in the instant before d’Ogeron’s blade dug into the wooden floorboards where he had lain.
Even with fear and desperation to fuel his limbs, Jean-Charles was beginning to feel fatigue creep over him. He couldn’t continue this much longer.
The dark spot on his palm shot agonies through his arm when he pushed himself off of the floor. A mad thought struck him, and, not stopping to think, he dove for his cutlass, barely avoiding another swing from d’Ogeron.
He grasped the hilt and brought the sword up in an awkward swing, slamming the edge back down on his own wrist. Pain unlike any he’d previously felt shot through him, but he ignored it, dragging the blade out. It had caught in the bone, and as he yanked at it, he nearly fainted from the agony.
D’Ogeron was maybe three or four steps away; time enough for one more hack.
Jean-Charles didn’t hesitate. He swung again, hearing wood and bone alike splinter beneath the steel, feeling his own flesh sliced asunder.
His hand fell away from his wrist and his vision went dark.
When he opened his eyes again, he was lying in a puddle of his own blood. It was lukewarm. His body was ice-cold and shivering.
I’m in shock, he thought, and tried to rise. He only managed to turn his head. Morning sunlight was filtering in through the open cabin door.
He had escaped, it seemed, though he might die of shock and blood-loss yet.
Mustering his last vestiges of strength, he managed to push himself onto his feet and stagger outside. His stump was still leaking blood; he was surprised he had so much inside himself.
He had to cauterize it fast; could only pray that it was not too late already.
He found a lantern, still weakly burning, and pressed his stump against the hot glass. There was pain, but he could barely register it.
When the task was done, he collapsed again, and all was dark.
When he awoke the next time, it was because the sun had set. He managed to sit up, every inch of him hurting, and stare around at the blood-soaked deck.
His eyes caught a flash of white across the water. The moon, he thought, please be the moon. But the moon was in the east, and this white speck was to the north. Slowly, Jean-Charles raised his remaining hand. There was a black spot on the flesh of the palm, throbbing in the moonlight.