Chapter 1

Kingston Harbor, Jamaica. December 1695.

 

 

Nicholas Jerome has not uttered a prayer since he was twelve years old.

Not one.

He doesn’t pray when he’s in his hammock at night, inches away from the next sailor. He doesn’t pray when storms transform the sea into a mythic monster frothing at the mouth, when thunder rattles the whole ship and his soul along with it, Davy Jones whispering promises of death in his ear.

Never.

God doesn’t care about him.

No one cares about him.

He gazes up at Orion shining silver against the black sky, Poseidon’s son bleeding starlight onto the shores of Kingston Harbor.

Tonight, he breaks his vow. Tonight, for the first time in a decade, he prays. Not to God, but to the stars themselves. They’re more use to him than God, anyway.

Perhaps it’s a wish more than a prayer.

Childish.

Foolish.

But it’s all he has.

The stars keep his secrets.

“Tell me what to do,” he whispers to nothing and no one but the silent sentinels above him. “Please.”

He checks his pocket watch. The glass on the front is cracked down the middle, the old thing almost as useless as the father who gave it to him.

How long has it been since the convict laborer and the slave escaped him while he was on guard duty? How long since they knocked him to the deck and disappeared into the unforgiving night? An hour, at least. Surely. He lowers the pocket watch toward the puddle of moonlight at his feet, reading the time. 

Not even. Three-quarters.

His eyes flick toward the East India Company ship Agincourt, which sits anchored in the harbor, freshly arrived from a short voyage. He suspects he won’t be able to call the ship home for much longer. As much a home as it ever was, anyway.

A line of naval officers and East India Company sailors run past him in hot pursuit of the fugitives. He’s been relegated to waiting outside the tavern for his commanding officer, who currently stands in conference with the head of the Kingston naval fleet. He wants to be out searching. Then he can fix his mistake. Maybe. Kingston is only so big—they must be somewhere. Unless they’ve made for the mountains or Spanish Town or the wilder interior?

No. No. It hasn’t been long enough.

They might still find them.

The fury in his captain’s voice floods out beneath the door, so Jerome looks out at the ocean for solace, the dark water brimming with infinite mystery, but the sea only reminds him of the convict who just slipped through his grasp.

Danso.

Ajani Danso, and that rage in his eyes. Rage and … pity? A flash of gentleness buried beneath. One that Jerome didn’t understand.

The name sears his memory, and he swears he’ll never forget it, not until he makes this right. He remembers the gunshot the slave fired into the air, distracting him from striking Danso down. She could have aimed for him and left him dead on the deck.

And yet, she didn’t.

He can’t recall her name, but he’ll never forget that gunshot. The memory of her mercy crawls up from his fingertips to his elbows, leaving gooseflesh behind.

He’s alive because a convict and a slave decided to spare him.

Why?

He shakes his head as the conversation on the other side of the door grows louder and more urgent. The breeze catches his hair, pulling a black strand loose from the ribbon keeping it back at the base of his neck. He tucks the stray piece behind his ear, knowing he must look as presentable as possible. Even at this hour, sailors’ laughter spills out from the open windows of the newly built taverns around him, drawing Jerome’s attention away from the water. A deep, midnight darkness envelopes Kingston, an infant city replacing Port Royal as the major hub of trade in Jamaica after an earthquake devastated that notorious town. The skeletal body of a pirate hangs in a cage where the docks begin, a wooden sign attached to the front.

Pyrates Beware.                                                                                

Port Royal was once infamous for its leniency toward pirates—Kingston is far less forgiving. A wanted flyer for Henry Avery lays near Jerome’s feet, a muddy boot print smeared across the bottom.

Wanted For Pyracy. The Notorious Henry Avery.

The door of the tavern bangs open, and one of the Agincourt’s officers gestures Jerome inside, pointedly avoiding his eyes. The admiral walks past without a word, the naval medals on his coat glimmering in the starlight. Jerome’s hands are clammy; nerves and the thick, hot air coat his palms with a thin layer of sweat. His career might be over, and what will he do then? Sailing is what he knows. Sailing is what he loves. Sailing is all he has.

Without it, there’s nothing.

But he is not a coward. He is not a coward. He takes a deep breath, and the sharp, salty air calms him a fraction. Then, he steps inside.

“God damn you, Jerome!” Captain Langley’s shout echoes through the tavern, all the other officers falling silent.

Jerome walks toward his commanding officer. “Sir, I—”

Captain Langley’s hand flies through the air, slapping Jerome hard in the face.

His cheek burns with the sting, but he mustn’t reach up. It’s weak. He’s been hit before. Worse than hit. A caning when he was thirteen at the hands of a merchant captain that left scars on his back and legs, and certainly a slap or two after he first joined the East India Company at sixteen. Probably others he’s forgotten. He’s never been flogged, but that’s likely about to change.

The point is, he’s used to it.

“Explain.” A cold, hard mercilessness drips into Captain Langley’s voice. “Now.”

“You have my endless apologies, sir.” Jerome folds his hands behind his back, standing absolutely straight as a sliver of irritation slips into his tone. “I am still to blame, but Carver and Adams were drunk and of no help, which is something I feel you should know. When Danso and the slave came up behind me, I had no assistance.”

Captain Langley rolls his eyes. “None of your excuses. Do you recognize the gravity of this situation, Jerome? Not just a convict laborer, but a slave, cargo already bought and paid for. I give you one task and you can’t even manage that, can you? That'll be ten lashes, whether we find them or not. Five more if we don’t.”

Jerome swallows, mortified. He is a good sailor and a hard worker, but he cannot say those things. He cannot argue because he must obey his captain and he must not interrupt. Things will only turn worse if he does.

“Whatever you think is right, sir.”

The door comes open again, interrupting Captain Langley’s next diatribe.

“Captain.” The messenger moves a few steps back from the pair of them, likely not wanting the stink of Jerome’s failure on him. “Lieutenant James from the naval fleet said he went ‘round to the Delacroix house, and the captain is out at sea as we thought, but Mrs. Delacroix answered the door and said she hasn’t seen Danso or the slave.”

Captain Langley pauses, an idea gleaming in his eyes. “Delacroix,” he whispers. “Now there’s something.”

Delacroix. Jerome knows the name, of course. Michel Delacroix is the most powerful captain in the East India fleet sent to Jamaica no more than three years previous. He’s also the son-in-law of Jamaica’s governor, which makes him nigh untouchable. Jerome’s seen him near the harbor with his young son, though he doesn't know the boy’s name. The two were playing with wooden swords at the time, and Jerome noticed Captain Delacroix’s graceful movements, a fine swordsman even with just a toy.

“Yes, I'm going to request you be sent to Delacroix's crew.” Captain Langley draws Jerome out of his reverie. “He likes rehabilitating failures, so I've heard, and if you make another error, you won't just have to answer to him. You'll have to answer to Governor Travers himself.” He smirks, looking over at his first lieutenant in amusement before focusing back on Jerome. “I should have known better than to take on someone with a past I know very little about. Your mother was French, wasn’t she? So you’re only half English. No wonder you’re insufferable. Delacroix is more unbearable than most Frenchmen, so maybe you should have been on the Steorra from the start.”

 “My parents weren’t anyone important, sir,” Jerome responds, panic fluttering in his chest. No one can suspect his past. Not a single piece of it, or he’s ruined. Even more ruined than he is now. “I’m no one important.”

“You’re damn right you’re no one.” Captain Langley jabs his forefinger into Jerome’s chest, his breath reeking of liquor. “And you never will be.” 

Jerome supposes he’s right about that. 

Dismissed,” Captain Langley sneers. “Be on deck at dawn and we’ll see to your punishment.”

Jerome nods. “Yes, sir.”

He steps outside, willing himself calm. He will not cry. He will not be afraid. He will not be angry. All of that is useless to him. He closes his eyes, and all he can see is Danso looking at him for a split second before disappearing into the night, a multitude of emotions passing across the convict’s face in the space of a breath. Rage. Pity. Sorrow. Fear.

A spark of rebellion.

All he can hear is the slave's cry of anguish after he took her one remaining possession mere hours before she escaped: a small locket, just a glint of silver in the shadows of the hold.

Slaves are not permitted personal property.

The truth, no matter how unjust.

I will not give this to you. I’m not hurting anyone by having it.

He took it anyway, and she spit in his face.

Jerome glances up at Orion once more, his eyes caught on the belt. He read a battered copy of The Odyssey as a cabin boy on a merchant ship, the volume abandoned by one of the officers. Facing long days at sea, he read it over and over again, passing the time with long-ago stories of a brave Greek hero fighting monsters.

And then I glimpsed Orion, the huge hunter/gripping his club, studded with bronze, unbreakable/with wild beasts he had overpowered in life/on lonely mountainsides, now brought to bay/on fields of asphodel. 

Stories are slippery things. Malleable. Changeable. Both immortal and easily lost. Jerome marvels at the idea that an ancient epic poem somehow made it onto paper for a young sailor boy to read centuries later. He had liked reading about Odysseus, finding comfort in the story of a man trying to reach his home. Truthfully, he’s jealous, because he hasn’t possessed a true home for a very long time. Not since his father dragged them away from his mother’s family, leaving those early, warm memories behind. He reaches into his pocket, pulling out a brown leather bracelet made for a child. It’s the only memento he carries of a childhood he keeps hidden from the world.

A childhood rife with piracy.

Of desperate, poverty-stricken parents.

Of the father who escaped from jail, but never returned.  Of the mother he lost one day in a market, and never saw again.

She’s the only person he’s ever loved, his father included.

Maybe something happened to her.

Maybe she just left him.

Either way, he’s alone.

It’s better like that.

He contemplates the bracelet in the starlight before his eyes trail down toward his olive skin, not taken for much more than a sailor’s tan. His white father's features lighten his complexion, but his curtain of black hair comes straight from his mother. Some people glance at him twice. Some don’t. That’s the case with most of his mother’s people, moving through the world growing used to second looks, all of it depending on whether you pass beneath notice or not.

He’s never entirely safe.

His mother gave him the bracelet long ago as a reminder of his heritage, but despite her pride in it, he’s never found anything but judgment. He unfolds it, hearing his father spit the same word etched on the inside of this long-ago birthday gift, love turned to ash in his mouth.

 Romani.