Kingston, Jamaica. April 1707.
Nicholas Jerome has not uttered a prayer since he was twenty-one years old.
He need not beg the stars any longer.
Last time he spoke to them he made a vow instead, and as Orion watched, swore one thing.
I will find you, René. I will hunt you down, however long it takes.
That vow stitched itself into the sky, eternal and unbroken.
He will find that wretched boy.
The night hangs heavy outside his office door. Dark. Moonless. Impenetrable but for pinprick dots of light. Carina shines bright just beyond his cracked open window, silver-sharp against the heavens.
Carina is Latin for keel, Arthur Seymour said once, not long after Jerome first joined Michel Delacroix’s crew. Vela means sails. Puppis is the Poop Deck. All three of those make up the larger constellation Argo Navis. Sailors since ancient times have recognized a ship pattern in this part of the sky in early spring.
Jerome tears his eyes from the heavens. He tears himself away from the memory of Arthur, who always bewildered him. That life is gone. That was before Arthur died. Before René and Frantz ran away. Before Jerome had any power at all, merely clinging to a place he was not yet bold enough to call home. Perhaps that was his mistake—daring to even think the word, let alone say it. His younger self could never have fathomed where he sits now, freshly inducted as a lieutenant in the English Royal Navy, and finally, finally set to the purpose he’s longed for since that fateful night when Danso and Abeni escaped his grasp.
Hunting down pirates.
They are to begin their work in a month’s time, with Jerome serving under Captain Bennett, and Michel in charge of the Navigator with his newly picked consort captain John Harris on the Polaris, which will sometimes sail with them and sometimes attend to merchant business Michel might not have time for if the anti-piracy work keeps them busy.
Some of Jerome’s sketches hang on the walls of this new office—Michel’s suggestion. A squat bookshelf holds several nautical texts and the gilt-edged edition of The Odyssey Michel bought him years ago. One might comment that there is more life in here than in his home, but the truth is, he is here more often. He shifts in his seat. The new naval uniform is stiff, still, given to him after he passed his lieutenant’s exam with flying colors. Jerome’s entrance into the Navy is not the usual way of things, but the colonies are different, and that has served him well. The coat is not terribly dissimilar to his East India one, with its deep blue fabric and gold buttons. The folded white cuffs are the only difference. It is currently without the markings of a captain, though he hopes that those will one day be his. A slice of candlelight gleams off the nameplate on his half-open door, left so because he is waiting for Michel to come from his own office in an hour. He turns back toward his report, tapping his quill on the desk.
“The war over the Spanish succession has added many needed sailors to the ranks of the English Navy,” he mutters aloud to himself. “But when the war comes to an inevitable … no, that’s not right. When peace is achieved, care will need to be taken once sailors are discharged, because they are likely to turn to street robbing or piracy rather than looking for other work, especially when the ranks of the merchant marine are overfull.”
His fool of a father certainly turned to true piracy after a privateer crew booted him off. Not that he will share that information with anyone other than Michel, but using his insight to hopefully achieve more funds for their endeavor cannot hurt.
Someone knocks, and though it doesn’t sound like Michel’s firm rap, perhaps he is too distracted to hear it properly.
“Come in.” He finishes off his sentence before glancing toward the door, which shuts with a quick snap. “Hello, Mic—” he says, before realizing it is not Michel at all.
His heart shudders. His blood melts. The part of his soul that is still twelve years old twists in two, and he wonders, for a moment, if he is dead. He has long supposed her dead. Even if she wasn’t, he thought her out of his life for good. She abandoned him, after all.
This cannot be. It is impossible.
“Who are you?” he asks, even though he knows. He knows that face. That long, straight black hair that is so like his own. It has been twenty years, but he knows. She is not dressed in her usual style, though it is not so odd to see her in a gown of the English variety—albeit a simple one—given how often his father forced her into them to avoid having her stand out.
“Nicholas.” Tiena Jerome remains poised to run, one hand still clutching the doorknob. That voice of hers is so familiar after all this time: deep for a woman and made of velvet. “It’s me. Your mother.”
He continues staring at her. A music box comes to life inside his head, the faint melody of the lullabies she used to sing him playing with a haunting, dissonant air.
“Daj?” He hasn’t used the common Romani word for mother since he was very young. His father always thought it would only bring trouble. “What are you doing here?”
The desk chair gives an almighty squeak when he stands up and pushes it back, laying his palms flat on his desk. Cold sweat drips down the nape of his neck, and yet it is also unbearably hot in here, isn’t it? The quill he was holding falls on top of his papers, and he’s smeared the fresh ink on his report. All this work, and he will have to redo part of it already.
His mother lets go of the doorknob, stepping fully into the room. “I came looking for you.”
He remains behind the desk, keeping the piece of furniture as a barrier between them in case she is some sort of spirit, though he supposes she would not be so solid if that were the case, and the desk would do him little good. He is not as superstitious as most sailors, but he cannot brush such things aside entirely.
He closes his eyes and opens them again, and she is still there. She is still there, standing in his office.
“How did you know I was here?” He forces the next words out, fearing he has forgotten how to speak. “How did you know I was alive?”
“I heard you were working for East India in Jamaica,” she says, and that is not so ridiculous, at least, though he does wonder how. “Once I found that out, I knew I had to come find you. It took me a while to settle some affairs and find passage.”
“I—” He cannot summon words. He cannot think.
“I looked for you for years, Nicholas.” His mother steps into his silence. “I could never find anything, no shred of where you were.”
“You left me.”
Those are the words of a twelve-year-old boy. The boy who broke down crying when he realized his mother wasn’t coming for him. The boy who forced himself to stand up straight and find work. The boy who didn’t say a prayer for a decade. No one was praying for him, in any case. Perhaps she did him a favor after all. If she hadn’t left him he might not be where he is now. After she abandoned him, he shoved his tears, that weakness, deep down where no one would ever find it.
“Nicholas,” she breathes, “I would never have left you on purpose.”
“But you did,” he protests, his irritation at her argument washing away some of the shock. He cannot give his good memories of her credence. He must not, because it doesn’t change what she did or who she is, the childhood she subjected him to. “You left me at that market in Barbados. I waited for two days. After the third morning, I knew you weren’t coming back for me.”
She shakes her head. “No. When we were separated that day, some magistrate’s men arrested me because they thought I was stealing. I was thrown in jail. They didn’t care that I had a son who would be looking for me, and when they released me I couldn’t find you anywhere. You thought I left you when I didn’t meet you at our spot didn’t you? Left you like your father left us.”
Jerome stalks toward her and then thinks better of it, both hands clenching into fists. His breath hitches. Tears sting his eyes. No. No. No. Something pushes him forward again, some part of himself he thought long gone, and he closes the gap between them. Until René and Michel, until Kingston, his mother was the only person he’d ever loved, and losing her broke his heart. Desperate for a home, he offered his heart out once more only to have his so-called brother break it a second time.
He will not take that risk again.
Tiena touches his cheek lightly with the back of her hand. There’s affection in it. A gentleness he cannot bear. He slaps it away.
He doesn’t believe her. Why ever should he? She betrayed him.
“You are a liar.”
Disgust laces Jerome’s voice. Anger curls up beneath every syllable. He has not felt this much rage since the night René and Frantz ran away, and he cannot afford to feel it now. What if someone sees her? What if someone hears? He will be ruined. Ruined.
“It hardly matters why you left me all alone. My life is better for it.” He wanted to hate her and never could, but he won’t tell her that. “If it’s money you’re after, don’t bother. You won’t be getting it from me.”
“Nicholas, please,” she begs him, and it doesn’t suit her. Even when she fought with his father she never begged. “Don’t do this. I didn’t leave you, darling. I swear it. Not on purpose. I’m so sorry you’ve spent all these years thinking so. I’ll do whatever I can to try and ease that pain if you’ll let me.”
“What have you been doing all this time, hmm?” he asks, crossing his arms over his chest and ignoring her soft words. “In the time between you finding out about my career and showing up here uninvited, I’ve gotten a new commission to hunt down”—he meets her eye, and doesn’t let go— “pirates.”
“Stop it, Nicholas.” That icy sharpness, his sharpness, edges into her tone. He has his father’s eyes, but he has always been her child, prickly personality and all, though she is more rebellious than he has ever imagined being. “Don’t play the officer with me. I didn’t raise you to be cruel, even if the world might be.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know enough,” she says. “I see you in this office. I can guess at the things you’ve done to get here.”
“Oh, having a respectable career is so terrible, is it?” he spits. “What exactly do you think you know? Please do enlighten me.”
“I’m proud of you for surviving,” she says, and those words are real, somehow. She was always independent and adaptable, so it is not impossible that she might appreciate his industriousness. “For being the sailor you always swore you would be.”
“Where’s the but, Mother?” he asks. “There’s always one with you.”
“Working for the East India Company is certainly a choice I would not have my son make,” she shoots back. “They get up to some nasty business, Nicholas. Including slavery. In more ways than one.”
Questions niggle at the back of his brain. How did she find him now, and so suddenly? There’s no point in asking because she would only lie. Despite their vastly different lives, his mother reminds him of Astra Delacroix, in some respects—they certainly both like keeping secrets.
“I’m a naval officer now, but much to your chagrin,” he says, the words slick with sarcasm, “I’m still working with East India. The Company gave me my career, and I don’t care what you think about that.”
“You should be—”
“Ashamed?” He steps closer, his face inches from hers, and he’s aiming to hurt her like she hurt him when he was just a boy. “No. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done. Of other parts of my life, well. Perhaps I am.”
Her eyes narrow. “You’re ashamed of me? Is that it? I’m your mother, Nicholas Jerome.”
“Children do not always end up like their parents.” Jerome pushes images of René out of his head. He never wanted to be like his mother, but René could and should have aspired to be like Michel. “For better or for worse.”
“I did what I could to keep food in our mouths and shelter over our heads!” Her shout reverberates off the walls, which are too thin for this sort of thing. “I loved you more than I’d loved anyone in my life, whatever you may think to the contrary.”
“I have no interest in living outside society like you, Mother,” he says, impassive in the face of her emotion. “I worked hard. I scraped by and hid the truth about you and about my father’s thieving past. I found a place, an honorable profession. We never belonged anywhere when I was a child. Now I do.”
“And your friend Commodore Delacroix”—she takes a step back— “he knows about you, does he?”
“Commodore Delacroix,” Jerome growls, because he will not stand for an insult to Michel’s character, “has done a great deal for me. More than my own father. He’s seen fit to forgive my … accident of birth.”
“He’s seen fit to forgive it.” Tiena shakes her head. “Is that how it works? You are the exception because of his affection for you? You’re different than the rest of us? What will you do when your secret gets out, I wonder? Your life is built on sand and you’re too stubborn to see it.”
Jerome has never thought to do violence against a woman. It isn’t proper. That slave—now pirate—Abeni spat in his face and he didn’t raise his hand to her. Volcanic fury rushes through his veins, and he pushes the demon inside him back down. Still, it snarls. Gnashes its teeth. Scratches and scratches and scratches.
“Get out of my office,” he snaps. “Right now.”
There’s another knock on the door, the person on the other side not waiting for a response before entering. Right. Michel is coming to meet him. He hopes it’s Michel, at least, or he will have to come up with a story quickly and hope his mother doesn’t argue. He thinks wildly that the only thing that anyone could assume is that she’s a prostitute, given that no woman of good reputation would be in his office alone at this hour. Female convicts are often transported to Jamaica for pick-pocketing and various other crimes, and sometimes for trying to stop press gangs in London. There are certainly brothels in Kingston, and sailors enough to keep them busy. Lord Travers has grumbled about how they lure men from their work, but has never done anything to put a damper on the practice. Jerome never cavorts in that manner despite some comrades trying to tempt him when he was younger, but he would rather say he was than admit that the woman with him is his mother.
Being caught with a prostitute would only be embarrassing. People finding out his mother is Romani would unravel his life.
“Commodore Delacroix,” Jerome says, his hand shaking in relief when it is, indeed, his mentor who enters. “You’re earlier than I expected.”
“Finished the report sooner than planned.”
Michel shuts the door, gazing at Tiena in confusion for a moment before a spark of realization makes his eyes pop wide. “I don’t believe we’ve met, madam.”
“My mother,” Jerome responds, before she can say anything. He can’t lie to Michel, and there’s nothing else to say. He just wants this to be over with. “An unexpected visit.”
“I didn’t—” Michel fiddles with his cravat, clearing his throat. “Are you … staying? I know Nicholas has long been separated from you.”
He doesn’t say it’s his pleasure to meet her. He doesn’t press a kiss to her hand as he usually does with women of rank. He only bows slightly, lost, it would seem, for any sort of proper greeting. Michel is usually leading the way, but tonight, Jerome must.
“She was just taking her leave.” Jerome grits his teeth even as his hands keep shaking. It would be helpful if his emotions would stop veering one way and then the next, the damned things. “She can’t stay, you see.”
His mother shuts her eyes, taking a deep breath before focusing back on Michel. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Commodore Delacroix. Please take care of my son where you can. I’m afraid you are the only one from whom he’ll accept such a thing.”
A noise of protest dies in Jerome’s throat as Michel continues studying Tiena, giving a single nod in answer. No one moves. No one but her. She dares to grasp Jerome’s hand for a fleeting moment.
He can’t tear himself away.
“Goodnight, Nicholas.” She squeezes his fingers before releasing him. “Take care of yourself, my boy.”
The words my boy melt the tiniest corner of Jerome’s heart, but it’s not enough. It could never be enough. She’s gone after that, shutting the door behind her, and he wonders if he imagined all of it. He wonders if someone put something in his tea and he’s simply hallucinated or dreamt the entire thing.
Jerome only realizes after his mother is gone that he didn’t ask her where she was living, that he doesn’t know where to look for her if he changes his mind, and the part of him that will always remain twelve years old wants to chase after her to find out. But no. No. He doesn’t need her. She left him, whatever her lies to the contrary, and she will ruin his life. Everything he’s built. He only hopes no one saw her leave his office. It’s late, at least.
“I’m sorry, Michel,” Jerome says. “I certainly did not expect her on my doorstep. I thought she was dead. Or at least not interested in seeing me again.”
“Nicholas, are you certain—”
“I’m certain,” Jerome snaps, instantly regretting it. He has not ever used such a tone with Michel, but it’s not quite gone from his tongue after fighting with his mother. “I’m sorry. My manners seem to be escaping me.”
“It’s all right. I’m sure you’re shocked.”
Michel comes over, putting a careful hand on Jerome’s back. Jerome’s father was never so gentle. Honestly, he was more inclined toward a slap or a shove than something like this.
“Don’t worry yourself over it,” Michel adds. “Sit? You’re shaking. I can pour a drink if you have something.”
Heat rushes into Jerome’s cheeks. He should be offering such things to Michel, not the other way around. “Sir, you don’t need to—”
Michel puts up a hand with an affectionate smile. “Let me, my friend.”
Jerome nods, returning to the seat behind his desk. “I have a fresh bottle of gin and some glasses over on the bookshelf. I hadn’t put them away yet.”
Michel retrieves the gin, pouring two healthy servings before taking a seat across from Jerome, a strand of fair hair fallen loose and framing his face. Michel is so tidy that even this small thing worries Jerome, but that is not so unusual now. He’s been worried about Michel every day for the past two years.
Jerome takes a long, lingering sip, entirely lost for words.
“Did your mother say how she found you?” Michel asks, easing into the conversation.
Jerome shakes his head. “No. Only that she heard of my career. She insisted she didn’t abandon me as a child, told me some story about how she was wrongfully arrested.” The gin is a pleasant burn at the back of his throat as he takes another swig. “I suspect she heard of me and wanted money. I’ve no reason to believe otherwise.”
“No,” Michel says softly. “I suppose you don’t.”
A father’s grief rests in his words, the tiniest unspoken are you sure, but that no doubt tussles with the opinion he must have of Tiena. They’ve only talked of Jerome’s parents a handful of times since Michel found out the whole truth, and Jerome wants it that way. His childhood embarrasses him, and he would rather not remind Michel of it now, when Michel is the only person he can entirely trust. His love for his mentor, his friend, scares him. Love can be exploited. Used as a weapon. René was proof enough of that. He loved that little boy as his brother, and that boy left him lying on the sand.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Michel questions, prodding just a touch. “I promise, you may confide whatever you like, and it will remain safe with me.”
Jerome stares out the window again, his eyes catching on Carina as some of the earlier panic dies down, replaced with a slow-simmering rage.
“Only to say that my mother is a liar,” he whispers, keeping his voice low so that no one walking by will hear him. “And I am certain I do not care if I ever lay eyes on her again.”