A/N: Quite the delayed update on my part, but the excuse nowadays seems to be a global pandemic, so I'll go with that.
I also want to reiterate just how grateful I am to you readers. I can't say how many I have, how many look forward to updates, and how many have been here from the start, but I am so thankful for each and every one of you. I provide a story, but it isn't really complete until it finds people like you all to read it.
So, thank you.
And on to the chapter!
-City of Fair Winds-
"Make way for Mr. Ellison!"
Connor was on the deck when he heard the announcement. He sprang forward, his heart making a similar leap in his chest. When Mr. Buchanan had arrived hours earlier and demanded an immediate meeting with his midshipmen, Connor had had no time to ponder Ellison's whereabouts. All Mr. Buchanan had revealed was that he had left Ellison behind to work out logistics with Jarvis's crew, and Connor had felt ill, then agitated, and he remained so until he heard her name carried across the deck.
He approached her, breathless, his large, clunking feet plodding against the wood, and despite his concerns, the first thing to pop out of his mouth was "Where the hell have you been, Ellison?"
She regarded him slowly, almost as if she were under the effects of laudanum. A lethargic lift of the eyelids, a red, wateriness covering her sunken eyes, a greyness in the angles of her face.
"Working," was the only response she could summon. Her voice was feeble, bearing the vagueness of near noncompliance. "Did Mr. Buchanan not tell you?"
Connor was tempted to snort. Mr. Buchanan had told them a lot of things—a lot of unpleasant things—and Connor was not swayed to recall them, however inevitable they now were.
"Aye, he told us he put you on assignment with one of Jarvis's men."
"Then you know."
He hissed into silence, hating himself for even saying the name, for bringing the man who owned the name back into existence. His tongue swelled up, cleaving to the inside of his mouth, stoppering speech and air. He wanted to vomit.
"How did Mr. Platt take the news?" Ellison asked. Her manner, as usual, was innocuous, if somewhat stupid. To him the answer was obvious and he shook his head, pushing red fringe over his eyes as he looked away from her. Charlie was on the quarterdeck, on watch. They exchanged glances.
"How do you think?" he retorted.
She stewed a moment in silence, fidgeting lightly beside him.
"I will make note to speak to him later, then," she replied. She did not look at him. Her attentions had wandered, drifting to her hands, which she wrung. Connor wondered over her sudden and odd preoccupation, and it occurred to him that Jarvis might have already come across her.
"Does Mr. Jarvis know—"
"Did Mr. Buchanan tell you anything else?" she interrupted, facing him suddenly. She had asked the question unusually loudly, as if it had been building up inside of her to the point of bursting. Connor raised his eyebrows. Mr. Buchanan had been very clear and very explicit about what to expect, but there was a sheen in her eyes that made her look teary and desperate—like a girl. "About Jarvis's men, I mean," she clarified.
"No," he drawled out slowly. His eyes narrowed as he stepped closer. "Is there something else?"
Her eyes lost focus, her stare trained on some markless spot on the wooden floor.
"Well," she began, leading into the revelation. "It's not so much something else as someone else."
Connor sat across from Charlie, his head bowed. They squatted in a shadowed corner of the ship's hold, safely shielded behind a wall of crates, a lone lantern placed on the floor in the middle of their circle. Save for the omnipresent creaking of the ship and chittering of rats, they held counsel in silence. Platt frowned deeply, the grooves formed on his face as dark as scars, hand scrubbing through his blond hair as if he had lice.
"All this bloody time?" Platt groaned.
It hadn't been Connor's place to tell Charlie that Ellison had located her long lost stablehand and that said stablehand was Colin Jarvis's second in command, but he felt compelled to share the information given what he and Platt were planning.
"It wasn't by design," said Connor, as if the fact were an excuse. "Jarvis's reassignment was sudden. You know that."
"It's a fucking joke is what it is," Charlie grunted. He paused, gnashing his teeth in angry, parboiled thought. "But it doesn't change anything," he added.
Connor's eyebrows shot up.
"Shouldn't it?" he contended. "Jarvis will name Hanley his second if we go through with this."
Platt sent him a look as sharp as a knifepoint jabbed between the ribs.
"We will go through with this, O'Hannigan," Charlie corrected, acid belying every word. "And even if that's true, I'm not forsaking my one chance just to protect Ellison's servant. And you are out of your God damn mind if you bloody think I should."
It was Connor's turn to swear. He kneaded the flesh beneath his eyes.
"I am merely suggesting that we keep that in mind," he stated. "Ellison doesn't know what we're planning."
"Good." Charlie sucked at his teeth and stood up, dusting his trousers. He glared down at O'Hannigan, the flame of the lantern reflected like a whip in his eyes. "Keep it that way. The less he knows, the better."
He left with a final order for O'Hannigan to debrief Varley on their next move, to which Connor nodded and murmured an "Aye-aye."
After Platt's departure, Connor stayed a few minutes longer in the hold, alone with the dying light. The instant Mr. Buchanan had told them that Jarvis would be returning and would be on their ship, Connor had felt like he had been struck by lightning—a pain that had started at the crown of his head and had scattered down through every blood vessel like a hail of broken glass. He hadn't said anything at the time—his body had tensed up too much to allow for a syllable of speech—but Platt had been untamable. He swore every curse known in the English language, exuded the melting glow of rage, spat protests at their commander. Mr. Buchanan had kept his poise and his patience, long enough for Charlie to finally calm down.
When he did, Buchanan had made his recommendation plain:
"You know the laws of this institution. Violence of any kind, assault of any kind, dueling of any kind, are strictly prohibited—and punishable—on this ship. Do you understand?"
Nobody said anything directly afterward. Connor had been clenching and unclenching his hands, gritting his teeth, his mind swarming. When he had forced himself to look about the room, Platt was glaring at his cousin and commander.
"Aye-aye, sir," he had muttered, before storming out of the cabin.
Varley and O'Hannigan had lingered, the former looking from the exit to Buchanan.
"Can't you do anything about it, sir?" Nathaniel had said. "Doesn't the mandate still hold that they aren't allowed to serve on the same ship?"
"I can't take all the sailors and leave behind Mr. Jarvis under that rule—which wasn't even written down," Mr. Buchanan had reasoned. "It was merely an understanding between our captain and the captain of the Justinian. I wish I could. But I cannot. I must put the needs of the navy and our country before anything else."
Their commander's blue eyes settled on them each, pausing long enough for Connor to bristle.
"Tell me you understand what I mean when I say that nothing happens on this ship."
O'Hannigan exchanged looks with Varley. Their agreement came in unison:
Jeanine poked absently at her square plate of stew, summoning an evasive hunger. She could not remember the last time she had put food in her mouth—a fact Varley had reminded her of when he had run into her exiting Mr. Buchanan's cabin. Her fellow midshipman had remarked that she looked "like death itself."
"Get some grog and meat in you, won't you?" he had said.
His request was reasonable—if not overdue—and so Jeanine had gone to the galley for a meal and brought it back to the midshipmen's berth to eat alone. After reporting to Mr. Buchanan the latest developments in the preparations for Jarvis and his men, Jeanine was told he had scheduled her for the morning watch.
"In the meantime," he had said in farewell, "you should get some rest."
The meeting itself had been bland and mechanical. She had given her report and Buchanan had replied with a vapid, "Well done, Ellison," before dismissing her.
She should not have expected anything else. Her last meeting with Mr. Buchanan had been an emasculating, humiliating affair. He was gracious not to have resurrected it, yet even as her feet had pivoted to exit his cabin, her mind congealed, fixed in place, yielded to a yearning she couldn't identify.
With a toss of her head, Jeanine shook the thoughts away, though she was conscious of the quickening of her heartbeat, knocking against her breastbone, and the blush that followed after.
Her head jerked up at the name, her solitude ruined as she beheld Charles Platt enter the berth. She had already been picking at her food, but she stabbed at the oozy morsels of meat even more at his arrival.
"Mr. Platt," said she. "The watch has changed?"
He raised an eyebrow at her as he took the seat opposite at the table.
"Didn't you hear the bells?"
She said nothing, eyeing him under a false sense of calm while her ears heated.
"You look bloody ill, you know that, aye?" He stared at her, and for the first time since she met him, Jeanine was unable to read the expression on Charlie's face, perhaps because, for the first time, there was neither frown nor furrow to betray him.
"So Mr. Varley has told me, thank you," she returned. "But I am well, in case that is what you are trying to get out of me."
Platt smirked, chuckling as he shifted in his seat.
"I figured we owe each other a talk, aye?" he resumed, his laughter tapering. "Considering the changes come upon this ship."
Jeanine blinked once in surprise. She had expected discussion of the topic to be as painful as a molar extraction, avoided until the last possible minute. But Charlie appeared calm, his manners untense, his usual aura of barbs and thorns smoothed down to something not unlike pleasantness—and if not that, maturity.
"I had meant to speak to you after I had eaten," replied Jeanine.
"Aye, well, I don't have time to wait for you, so I sought you out."
She arched an eyebrow. The fork she was using to probe her untouched meal dropped.
"Why don't you have time to wait for me?"
At last, the Charlie she knew resurfaced, coming back with a squint and frown.
"Because I still have a job to do, that's why," he retorted. He beat a fist against the table—not loudly, just a tap—but enough for Jeanine to understand she had grazed a nerve. She knew well to steer their conversation back on track, to extinguish whatever fuse she had lit.
"And you are amenable to these changes?" she questioned.
Platt scoffed, tossing his head, sending a cynical laugh toward the ceiling.
"Shit, Ellison," he said, recovering. "Amenable? I'll be damned if I'm bloody amenable to these developments. But I have no choice, do I? Our captain gave his orders. Nothing happens on this ship." He punctuated the last three words with sound, tapping his middle finger thrice atop the table as if he were counting time like a metronome.
Jeanine, though altogether trusting of her brothers on board, had sense enough to suspect the integrity of Charlie's statements.
"You told me yourself if you ever saw Mr. Jarvis again, you would kill him."
The blond midshipman's face darkened. He stood in a rush, as if he were about to storm off, but he held his ground and turned to her, eyes burning.
"Can you not bloody speak his name in front of me?" he ranted. "I think we both know who is at the center of our conversation. Let's forgo the damned specificity."
Jeanine looked down as she nodded, hoping her silence in response to such an outburst would be contagious and calm him down. It did, and after a breath, Charlie sat back down and ran a hand through his hair, a cleansing gesture.
"And aye," he allowed, his voice at a normal pitch. "I did say that. Obviously, I had a lot on my mind when I bloody said it. I won't deny that that played a part."
"I don't find you as someone who reneges so easily."
The words slipped past her lips before she could check them, and as easily as Charlie quelled his rage, he succumbed right back to it.
"Christ, Ellison!" He banged his fist on the table. Their eyes met, and she felt the intensity of his stare, his anger, as if it were fire, a torch inches from her face. "I'm not going back on my word, aye? There's a time and place for everything. But as it is, if I do anything on this ship, I lose my job—or worse. I hate the man with every shred of my being, but I…" He paused, his fury waning, softening like melting wax. He sat back down. "I still want a future," he concluded.
Jeanine reflected, using the minute that passed to assess her comrade's sincerity, as loathsome as it was to admit. She should have trusted him, but the way Platt had been hurt by Jarvis had been twofold. He had sabotaged his relationship with Miss Rhian O'Hannigan and also humiliated him in front of his peers. Jarvis's design had been to annihilate. Charlie had every right to demand the same, however wrong it was.
"Well," she began. She offered a slight smile. "I am glad to hear you've changed your mind—or at least prioritized something greater than revenge. You will be better for it."
Platt looked at her, his eyes unusually scrutinizing. She stared back in wide-eyed acceptance. He sputtered a laugh.
"You're daft, Ellison. The entire journey home will test me." He sighed. "I almost wish you weren't leaving. I could use all the help I can get."
She appreciated the sentiment. The smile she returned was genuine.
"As this is it out of your hands, so is that out of mine. But if it is any consolation, I wish the same."
Charlie stood, his mood much the same as when he entered the berth, unhurried, unburdened, light.
"Well, I should let you eat lest you faint a third time and cause a bloody uproar on this ship. I'll see you in the morrow, aye?"
At eight bells, Midshipman Charles Platt approached the starboard rail, waiting for Midshipman O'Hannigan to join him. Night had settled over Buenos Aires, the air bearing a cool dampness unusual for winter, as if the port city existed within the dark hollow of a cave. Platt looked upward. Purple-grey clouds glided slowly across the ink-dark sky, and his seaman's intuition portended rain or fog.
Connor surfaced from underhatches, tipping his hat as he came up to Midshipman Varley, who commanded the watch. Subtly, Varley returned the nod.
"Did you get it?" Platt asked as the Irishman came near.
"Aye," O'Hannigan answered. The pause following bit into Charlie's thin skin of patience. Before he could grumble an exasperated "Well?", Connor obliged him.
"They are staying at an inn, not far from El Clavado." He supplied the name.
"Aye, good. Should be easy to find then." Platt put his hat on his head and made way off the ship. "Ellison had no suspicions?" he asked over his shoulder.
As much as Charlie wanted to disregard Ellison's feelings and situation amid his own plot for revenge, he still knew his comrade's aptitude for detecting the hidden or the implicit—and for meddling, moreover. Under no circumstances would he have Ellison discover his intent. Discretion was imperative.
"No," said Connor.
"Do you doubt me?"
Platt was tempted to roll his eyes. He and O'Hannigan may have been able to settle their differences, but he was frequently reminded that he and the Irishman still had combative tendencies.
"I don't," he replied. "I doubt Ellison."
They said nothing for the rest of the walk, which gave Charlie time to consider the course of events he would be perpetrating. His mind had been made up long ago, and his courage, his resolve, remained firm, glowing hot in his chest like reignited embers, dangerous in the fire they could unleash. When he had proposed the plan to O'Hannigan, he hadn't expected the Irishman to agree so readily, despite his earlier pledge to assist when called upon; but Connor had remained devoted to his cause—excepting his concerns about Ellison's stablehand.
Charlie shook the doubts away. He focused on himself, every step his body took, the feel of the cobblestone path hard underneath his feet, the muscles in his hands tightening, the ticking of his blood as it beat in his veins, tapped against his temples, reminders with each breath that he was alive, and he was finally taking action against the demon that breathed in their midst.
When they sighted the inn where Jarvis and his men were staying, Platt's pace quickened. His eyesight sharpened. It was not anger that overtook him as he barreled through the door. It was a type of madness, a fever, that made him feel impervious and impenetrable—not human, but a weapon, forged from material stronger than flesh and bone, cold and precise as a steel bullet.
Jarvis sat leisurely by the fire in the main room, his men surrounding in various states of repose and merrymaking. Instinct took over, and before anyone knew what he was doing, Charlie had seized Jarvis by the collar and had dragged him to the fire burning in the hearth, banging his head once on the brick mantle.
Hands grabbed Charlie from behind, clapping on his shoulders, and he shrugged them off. He trusted O'Hannigan would intervene. That he was not touched again confirmed it.
"The bloody hell is the meaning of all of this?"
It was the same voice that had cried in protest.
"The lot of you shut up and stand aside!" O'Hannigan barked back.
"We're all on the same side here!"
"I said shut up!"
Amid the tussle, Jarvis grinned, devilish and snide, despite being inches away from catching fire. For a moment, the display sent a tremor, a crack in Charlie's nerve, but he held fast, his fingers curling deeper into Jarvis's jacket collar.
"Well, Mr. Platt," Colin said. "Ever the dramatic one. This is quite the entrance."
"Shut up," Charlie sniped. He shook him. "I will not waste any more breath or time or my precious eyesight on your deplorable, despicable, evil form." He rattled him again, brick smacking against the back of Jarvis's head. "At dawn you will answer for your crimes. At dawn you will pay for your sins. At dawn, I will end you." He slammed him one more time against the mantle, which only elicited a haunting, absurd laugh. Charlie paused, collecting his breath.
"Name your second," Platt demanded.
He released Jarvis afterward, already feeling poisoned by the contact.
Jarvis recovered smoothly, coming to his full height, his amber eyes squinting, calculating, like a serpent's.
"Very well." Colin's stare shifted, drifting to whatever scene unfolded behind Charlie. "I take it Mr. O'Hannigan is your second. Mistake you've made there. He'll stab you in the back when you're not looking."
Platt did not so much as flinch. He knew O'Hannigan stood a few paces behind him, watching Jarvis as carefully as he did.
"Name your second," Platt repeated, ignoring the comment.
Jarvis stepped backward. He rubbed the back of his neck and examined his fingers as he withdrew his hand, checking for blood. There was none.
"Jack," he called.
A young man stepped forward, and Platt recognized the voice as the one that had uttered the protests. He must have also been the one to grab him by the shoulders to pull him off.
Jarvis's stare returned to Platt as he addressed the sailor.
"You will confer with Mr. O'Hannigan—the red-headed fellow there—on the details of the arrangement. You will be as accommodating as possible. We've all seen how Mr. Platt behaves when he is angry. We wouldn't want him not to get what he wants."
Charlie bristled, his fingernails pecking into his palms, but he forced restraint, wrapping every sinew in his body with it until he felt solid as stone. The sailor named Jack continued his mewling protests.
"Will you be my second, Mr. Hanley?" Jarvis cut in, his voice tensing.
"Aye, of course, sir, but—"
"Then let that be the end of it, please."
Colin's eyes glimpsed at Platt once, and in their glimmer Charlie saw his old enemy, not the silver-tongued, appeasing fop displayed to the rest of the world, but the demon, the monster, amber eyes aglow with hatred to the point of appearing a wolfish yellow.
And as quickly as the stare passed, it vanished. Jarvis turned on his heel and sat back in his seat, silent, his back to Platt. Only then did Charlie realize that the sailor named Jack was staring at him, his blue eyes accusing, pitiful. The look only stoked Platt's ire. He scowled and made his exit.
"Get it done, O'Hannigan," he muttered as he passed, then he was out the door, back under the night air, feeling, for the first time in a long while, able to breathe as he was born to.
Jeanine woke in the middle of the night, though the truth was that she had barely even slept. Despite waking before dawn and enduring a series of events as emotionally undulating as a pitchy sea, she could not retire. Her brain would not rest. It felt as bright and hot as the sun, searing the insides of her skull with its energy.
Succumbed to her insomnia, she came up onto the quarterdeck. A chill breeze passed, carrying with it the damp sea air, which seemed to settle on any exposed skin like dew on grass.
"Mr. Ellison," Nathaniel greeted, slowly. He raised an eyebrow at her.
Jeanine evaded his scrutiny with a turn of her head.
"I couldn't sleep." She offered her answer before he asked the question visible on his face. She glanced up at the still rigging, seeking past the taut lines and the furled sails. The moon was dim, the stars unseen behind stretched swaths of increasing clouds.
"What say you?" Varley asked, looking up with her. "Fog or rain?"
Jeanine held out a hand, as if expecting a droplet to fall from the heavens into her palm. She rubbed her fingers together.
"Fog," she answered.
"Aye, I think so, too. Why couldn't you sleep?"
She checked the impulse to shrug, knowing that doing so would minimize what her body was telling her to pay attention to. The roots of her anxiety ran deep, threaded into her as intricately as the web of her veins and arteries.
"A lot has happened in the past day," said she. "And a lot more will happen tomorrow."
"What do you mean?" Varley asked—demanded, more like. His stridence was unexpected, and Jeanine's gaze narrowed.
"I was referring to the transition of Mr. Jarvis and his men to our ship," she clarified. She took a step forward, recognizing, perhaps for the first time, that she matched Varley in height and could stare him square in the eye. "Is that not ordeal enough?"
"O-Of course it is." Nathaniel tamed his stammer with cynicism. He scoffed. "Look, no one is happy about it. We all have to suffer it. But thinking about it consistently? Giving it the power to rob you of your peace of mind? Seems odd to me, Ellison. You didn't even know the bastard."
"Perhaps not," Jeanine acknowledged, looking away. "But Platt and O'Hannigan did tell me stories."
"I hope you believe every word of them, because they only begin to scratch the surface of what Jarvis is capable of doing. It's an evil man we're taking on this ship, Ellison. I pray someone does something about it before he steps one foot on the deck."
Varley left, deciding for himself that the conversation was over. Jeanine would have commented on the rudeness but soon realized the watch was switching. Mr. Varley had left to flip the hourglass, to issue the order for the bells to sound. Soon, Mr. Buchanan would be up to take position by the wheel.
Although Varley had departed, his wish remained in Jeanine's mind. Disguised as prayer, it was still a threat, tar-black in purpose. She pinched the skin between her eyebrows, winching her eyes shut, feeling ill and tainted. All day she had heard some variant of the same dark song—from O'Hannigan, from Platt, and now, from Varley—and it told the story of vengeance.
"Offering to take my watch for me, Mr. Ellison?"
Jeanine started at Buchanan's greeting, her shoulders jerking. Her eyes landed on him, and his expression softened, mild surprise overtaking his misplaced, midnight humor.
"You should be asleep," Harvey reconsidered.
I can't, Jeanine wanted to say. The words gathered in the breath she held in her mouth, like salt on the tongue, but they were never spoken.
"How do you think tomorrow will transpire?" she asked instead. She swallowed, letting her truth go unsaid.
A second passed, followed by another, and although Jeanie faced away from Mr. Buchanan, she sensed he was looking at her, perhaps confused, likely annoyed. She peeked at him over her shoulder.
"Luckily, without trouble," he said, oddly cavalier over the subject. He shrugged limply. "Though, I suspect you mean to ask me a different question. Do you?"
His perception was uncannily precise, or she, again, was finding herself disarmed in his confidence. She hesitated to look at him directly, her guard weakening.
"I am…" Harvey stepped closer, and the movement distracted her. She glanced at him on reflex and opened her mouth. "…worried about Mr. Platt," she confessed.
Her commander's expression stilled, a groove forming between his eyebrows. Under the gloom of the cloudy night, his face took on the shade of the elusive moon—wan and ashen.
"I think he may be planning something in response to Mr. Jarvis coming onto the ship," Jeanine explained, vexed by Harvey's silence. "I heard him say out of his own mouth he would kill Mr. Jarvis if given the opportunity. I believe him."
"A dire accusation, Ellison," Buchanan replied. His voice deepened, the new dimension of tone carrying the effect of an echo, lingering in her ears. He folded his hands behind his back and averted his gaze, surveying the deck.
"I know," Jeanine said. "But I cannot shake the feeling. I can't—"
"Ellison," Harvey interrupted. How perfectly he balanced concern and command in his tone, and Jeanine found comfort in hearing her name spoken. He set a hand on her shoulder, and for a second, she relaxed at the weight of his touch. "Whatever your concerns about Mr. Platt, they are not for you to worry about. They are mine."
"But what if they are planning something? What if—"
"Then I shall deal with it then. But as it is, you have a feeling, and a feeling is not evidence. A feeling is not confirmation."
He interjected a third time.
"I believe your energy would be best spent elsewhere, Ellison," he offered. He removed his hand, but Jeanine still felt the pressure of it on her, like an anchor that kept her tethered. "Take a walk. Clear your head. Put these thoughts aside."
His dismissiveness, though gentle, disturbed her. Buchanan had consistently been attentive to her needs and intuition, yet now, they were not worth the investigation. She lifted her gaze, wondering what had changed to make him disbelieve her.
The face that looked back at her seemed a mask, stoic and cold. She had worn one herself long enough to know the difference, to perfect the art of hiding.
She blinked and lowered her head, touched a knuckle to her brow.
"Aye, sir," she mumbled before leaving the deck.
She had only made it down the steps from the quarterdeck before she paused and turned her gaze dockside, the lamplight of the streets blurring in a gathering mist. Before she had parted ways with Jack, she had set up lodgings for Jarvis and his men in town, not far from El Clavado. She had mentioned it in a conversation with Connor, who had asked about her work.
Without a second thought, she spun around and raced back up the steps, greeting Mr. Buchanan again by the wheel. He met her with a cocked eyebrow.
"You are right, sir," she ceded. "I think a short walk on land might ease my worries."
His confusion faded to amusement. He stifled a chuckle.
"I had meant a simple turn about the deck, Mr. Ellison," said he.
Jeanine firmed her stance, stiffening her shoulders.
"The solidness of land is more what I desire. There is certainty to be had in surer footing, sir," she rejoined.
Buchanan eyed her, his stare sharpening, and Jeanine was ungrateful for being the object of his study. She was having a hard enough time as it was acting in the moment. But he approached, posture erect, hands hidden, folded behind him. Once he glanced left, then right, testing their perception of privacy.
When he was within earshot—and only her earshot—he spoke.
"You can tell me the truth, Ellison," he began. His voice had dropped to a whisper. The corners of his eyes wrinkled a degree, his lips curving just as slightly. "If you want to see Mr. Hanley for the night, I understand."
It took every nerve in her body not to gasp. Her face flushed with such an infernal hotness she felt it throb in her throat, in her ears, and the shock threatened to melt her brain. Her stepsister would have rightly punched Mr. Buchanan for the impertinence, but all she could do was stammer.
"That's not… I'm not…"
Harvey smiled and retreated.
"Stay close to the pier, Mr. Ellison," he said, granting her leave. "And be back before your watch."
Jeanine left in such a hurry, she couldn't remember how she got off the ship and onto land. She rubbed her cheek furiously as she entered town, thinking to temper the blush but only succeeding in making it worse.
Still, her objective had been to secure permission to go on land, and she received it. The night was dark and growing murkier as the fog continued to settle, the air cold and damp and thick. As scandalous as Mr. Buchanan's suggestion, which she refused to accept as serious inquiry, he was not altogether incorrect.
If her commander required evidence of foul plans afoot, she would give it to him.
She would go and question Jack.
He sat alone in an armchair by the fire in the main room, almost as if he were expecting her. The inn was quiet, most of its occupants asleep. Some maids were up, preparing for the day, washing and carrying linens, sweeping the floor. Jeanine's entrance was not questioned, and as the coolness of the night melted off her, she approached Jack.
He startled when she whispered his name, blue eyes stricken in the firelight. Clearly, she had disrupted private musings, but he blinked and stood, and in an afterthought, remembered to salute her.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. She bade him sit back down while she sought a chair for her own repose.
"I need to ask you some questions. First of which is why you are awake."
Jack looked down, resting his elbows on his knees, swaying slightly.
"Can't bloody sleep," he murmured.
"Why is that?"
His curtness clued her in to hidden anxieties, and that he refused to elaborate confirmed they were worries he did not want to share with her—and she wanted to know why.
"Where is Mr. Jarvis?" she asked, changing tack.
"Whatever plagues you and keeps you from slumber must be apprehensions your own leader must share. Seems strange you would be the one sleepless while he rests."
He frowned at her and looked away. Sighing seemed to return him back to a more pleasant version of himself and he returned her stare. In his gaze, she noticed the undercurrent of pain, spattered in the light reflected in his eyes.
"Tell me what is going on, Jack. Your face alone tells me something is not right."
"I can't say," he replied, and his enforced silence only served to gut him more. He lowered his head, wincing.
"I just can't!"
He stood, pacing in the fashion of the tormented, sweat beginning to bead against his temples, signs of the caught criminal, the abetted. But his frustrations made Jeanine bolder, confirming her suspicions.
"Did a Midshipman Charles Platt and Midshipman Connor O'Hannigan come by here earlier?" she questioned.
The names stopped Jack in his tracks, and he spun to look at her. The movement was as damning as any spoken affirmation. Her heart burned in her chest, aflame with fear.
Jack opened his mouth.
"I can't say," he repeated.
Jeanine stood in the face of his stubbornness, but she was not angry. Her mind raced, trying to figure out how to unravel the mystery with what little information she had, and to put a stop to the events that were rapidly transpiring.
"Where are they meeting, Jack?" she demanded.
"I can't tell you that."
"You must. My friends' lives are at stake. I will not let them throw away their futures in a pursuit of senseless revenge!"
She surprised herself with her fervor, realizing in the wake of her words how loudly she had spoken. The fire in the hearth crackled behind her, its warmth on her neck.
"We're bound by a code, Jeanie," said Jack, softly. "Dueling is a gentleman's affair. You wouldn't understand."
She flinched at his presumption, which seemed to be one her peers all shared, and she was tired of being denied the opportunity to even make an attempt.
"It is a stupid arrangement," she countered. "How can you willingly risk your lives for something as meaningless as revenge?"
"It's not meaningless! I'm not in agreement, but I understand the rules. And I will honor them. I can't tell you anything else."
The way he looked at her, hurt expressed in every feature of his face despite the words he was speaking, resurfaced the day she confronted him two years ago about his elopement. Then, he had been equally unyielding, convinced in his righteousness, the correctness of his chosen path. Even now, he believed the same. Even as she pled with him, even as she begged him to see reason.
Nothing had changed.
"So you will honor your word to Mr. Jarvis, but you had no qualms breaking the vow you made to Sophia?" she challenged. "Why are you protecting him?"
Jack stared at her, unmoving, frozen, save for a tremble that twitched his lower lip and the glisten of water in his blue eyes. Jeanine collected her breath, blinked the sting out of her eyes. She would not shed another tear for his failures. She had learned her lesson. Effort begat effort, but Jack was unwilling to make the same exertions.
He sat back down and put his face in his hands.
"I'm sorry, Jeanie," he murmured through his fingers. "I'm sorry, but you have to go."
"I will not leave until—"
He interrupted her by standing, his face wet, his cheeks bitten with color, as if he had been slapped. But he reached for her, set his hands on her shoulders, his clutch firm but not overpowering. He patted her gently on the cheek, thumb on her chin, gentle even in the face of her insult.
"You must go, Jeanie," whispered Jack.
He said the words like a warning, and discouraged, disheartened, and disappointed a second time, she knew better than to stay.
Jeanie returned to the ship with an hour to spare before her watch began, but she did not retire. She stopped in the midshipmen's berth, looking at her sleeping comrades—Platt, O'Hannigan, and Varley—listening to the gentle sway and shuffle of their hammocks, their slow, slumbering breaths, the creaking of the deck, as if they were songs she would never hear again.
Jeanine turned at the interruption, her gaze veering south as her powder monkey, Denny Moore, approached her from the shadows.
"Denny," she greeted. She stepped out of the berth to meet him, not wanting to disturb the sleep of her friends. "What is it?"
"Shouldn't you be asleep, sir?" asked the boy. Before Jeanine could begrudge why everyone was asking her that question, Denny added: "You look like you could use some sleep."
"You know there are changes coming on this ship, Denny," she replied.
The boy nodded.
"Well, those changes make me worry. So I cannot sleep."
"Why are ye worried, sir?"
"Because change… is scary," she admitted.
"Do ye mean Mr. Jarvis, sir?"
Her eyes widened at the mention.
"You know of Mr. Jarvis, Denny?"
"Aye. I were one o' the ship's boys on the Justinian. He weren't kind to me and some o' them other boys."
"I know him, too," Jeanine said. "He wasn't very kind to me, either."
"But Mr. Platt and Mr. O'Hannigan are gonna do something 'bout it, sir," replied the boy brightly.
Jeanine twitched as if her spine had been pricked by a needle. She approached the boy, body hunching to meet him at eye level.
"How do you know that?"
Her powder monkey did not look at her directly, his stare downcast.
"Heard them talking in the hold," he murmured. "One o' the other ship's boys an' me were down there, catching rats—for sport, like, and we heard 'em talking."
"What did they say, Denny? It is important you tell me everything you know."
The boy looked at her then, and even in the dimness, his eyes were wide, transparent in their innocence.
"Just that they'd make it right what he did." He shrugged. "I didn't hear nothin' else. Sorry, sir."
Jeanie, encouraged by the boy's confirmation, hurried abovedecks, nearly forgetting to salute Buchanan when she approached him again.
"I know they are planning something," she announced, without further explanation.
Mr. Buchanan took his time to respond, opting to look at her sternly before he cast a glance over his shoulder, at the coxswain. He distanced himself from the other sailor, and Jeanine followed him to a remote corner on the deck.
"I urge you to apply a bit more discretion," Buchanan said. "Running up here and blathering vague news on plots and plans doesn't exactly quell rumor. It feeds it."
"But it is not rumor," Jeanine insisted. "It is true. My powder monkey heard Mr. Platt and Mr. O'Hannigan conspiring in the hold. They do intend to do something about Mr. Jarvis before he and his men board the ship."
"Do you know where and when, then?" asked Harvey.
"Then I cannot do anything with this information."
"But you can, sir," pressed Jeanie. "You have the power to confront them about it. To order them not to do it—better yet, order them to stay on the ship."
"Under what pretense? Should I interrogate them about it, they will deny it. And to order them here for no reason other than a suspicion that they will cause harm would be a poor use of my authority."
"But it is not a suspicion! Please, sir."
"Ellison, your concern is admirable, but without concrete facts, I am dissuaded to take further action. I will hear no more of this."
She uttered one syllable of protest but was silenced with Harvey's dismissal. Her breath choked up in her, suffocating in the face of denial—from Jack, from her commander. How was it that during the moment she needed to be heard the most, she was silenced the hardest?
She retreated back belowdecks, fueled by her indignation, even more restless than she had been at the start of the night. Her anxiety boiled within her, to the point where she felt an ache in her stomach, a faintness in her head. In the midshipmen's berth, she sat at the empty mess table and drank a draught of laudanum to calm the physical pain.
She didn't know how long she stewed in that suspended state of stress. Her only clue as to the time was when the bells sounded to switch the watch, and she leapt to action, hoping to catch Mr. Buchanan on his way to his cabin, one last effort to convince him to do what was right.
She was too quick, and met him before he was even ten feet away from the helm. His expression upon seeing her was not welcoming.
"Ever punctual, Mr. Ellison," he said dryly. The compliment was underhanded.
"Sir," she greeted. Her failure to say anything subsequent allowed him to pass, and her eyes followed him until they spotted the flash of Mr. O'Hannigan's red hair on the top deck. She bucked forward but stopped, waiting to see where her friend was headed. Mr. Platt appeared from below shortly after, and both made for the gangway.
"Sir, why are Mr. O'Hannigan and Mr. Platt leaving the ship?" Jeanine asked, thankful Mr. Buchanan was still within hearing distance.
"I tasked them with securing the pick-up of some cargo this morning," he replied readily. He turned to look at her. "Or is that strange? To ask my junior officers to, God forbid, do work?"
She frowned at his sarcasm, which she found childish for the man they called captain.
She said nothing afterward.
Once the watches changed, the activity on the deck quieted again. Dawn was still a few hours away, and Jeanine assumed her post, riddled with worry though she was. It was not until they had rung the bell four times did her fortunes begin to change.
The sound was distant at first, a lone cry in the night, like a seagull's caw, but through the dawning fog, the voice became clearer.
"A message for a Mr. Ellison!" it said.
"Have the messenger come aboard the ship," Jeanie commanded, making her way down from the quarterdeck. She was handed a folded piece of paper, and she opened it on the spot.
The text was brief, unsigned, but she knew the handwriting.
There, on the paper, was not the apology or regrets one would have expected, but a mere two sets of details: a time and a place.
Her Rose Boy had come through.
Lieutenant Harvey Buchanan had only just settled into his hammock when an erratic pounding assaulted his cabin doors. He swore under his breath, picturing with confidence the assailant, and forced himself up.
Before he could even utter an exasperated, "What is it now, Ellison?" she besieged him with words.
"I know where they are, sir!"
Harvey grimaced, his mind slow to register her meaning while his ears tamed the volume at which they were said. That his short slumber was furthermore abbreviated did not help his recovering cognition.
"Good God, Ellison," he groaned, rubbing palm against his forehead.
"I know where they are meeting," she said, impervious to his mood. She shoved a paper into his hands, her fingers chill and clammy. "This is Jack's handwriting," she explained as he read. "This must be where they are dueling, I know it."
Harvey scanned the scant script repeatedly, the same nausea and disbelief he felt reading Ellison's own confession spilling into his gut. His attentions snapped to her after he memorized the details.
"But the time," he said, controlling the waver in his voice. "That is now."
They exchanged glances, fear in her eyes, and beneath that, a desperation that invaded him like static shock.
"We must go, sir," she said. She extended a hand, and Buchanan thought she wanted him to grab it. His fingers were ready for her, but she snatched the paper instead. "We must hurry."
She pivoted before he could answer, fleeing for the ladder to the nearest hatchway, quick as a sprite.
"Ellison!" Harvey shouted after her. He cursed again. "Ellison!" he repeated. He ran after her, chasing her up the ladder. "Ellison, you are on watch! You cannot abandon your post!"
She did not even trouble herself to look back at him.
Fog greeted Buchanan as he emerged from the hatchway, and he unleashed another oath, frustrated with the obstruction, surrendered to his temper. His blood beat hot, aching his temples with each thump. He did his best to keep a careful eye on Ellison despite the fog, and he ordered the first sailor he ran into to rouse Mr. Varley to assume the watch, due to "extenuating circumstances."
As soon as the sailor bellowed, "Aye-aye, sir!" Harvey switched focus. He ran to the gangway and descended, certain Ellison had already reached land.
The fog had swallowed the port by then, and the sense of sight was becoming unreliable, but Buchanan ran, trusting in his sense of direction. Still, he called Ellison's name, and his hearing sharpened, listening for the sound of her footsteps, even her breath, which became easier the more distance they placed between them and the bells and bustle of the docks.
The morning was coming into its quiet, but the fog continued to thicken, a whiteness tainted rose with the breaching dawn. Occasionally, Harvey stumbled into a pocket of cleaner air, his eyesight taking advantage of the clarity, and in the brief second he was allowed, he would regain his bearings, sometimes catching sight of Ellison a few paces in front of him, before resuming pursuit.
In one such moment, he saw her veer sharp to her right, and Harvey followed. She shouted names, her voice tearing through the veil: "Mr. Platt! Mr. O'Hannigan! Jack!"
The ground softened with each step until he slid into sand, land giving way. Buchanan stumbled forward, losing his footing as he skidded down the sandy decline.
His knee burned by the time he slowed to a stop.
He peered into the haze, breathing heavily. All signs of Ellison had vanished—the sound of her footsteps, her cries into the dawn, the shadow of her figure. He stooped in silence, listening, until a spark flared in the air.
And a shot rang out.
A/N: Can't say I'm very much sorry for cutting it off here. I'm sure it raises lots of questions and speculation, and I would love to hear your thoughts! Things get a bit intense in the next bit, particularly regarding a certain commander, but that is the only clue I shall give you.
Thank you, as always, for reading. :)