Connor and Grace Tempest each have important roles to play in the war - he as a pirate warrior at the heart of the fight; she as a powerful healer working with the war-wounded. As the twins face their greatest challenges to date, old allies and foes return to play their part in the ultimate battle of Pirate versus Vampirate.
In this - the conclusion of this sequence of VAMPIRATES novels, the stakes are higher than ever. Relationships will change. An army of the dead will return to fight. There will be new threats and new alliances and characters will die before the ending which will see Grace and Connor poised to start momentous new journeys. In the words of Obsidian Darke, "So it ends, so it begins."
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Vampirates 6: Immortal War
By Somper, Justin
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2012 Somper, Justin
All right reserved.
FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO
The Vampirate captain stepped into the room, dressed in his familiar garb of mask, gloves, and cape. He bowed to Mosh Zu, who acknowledged him politely.
The two of them turned toward the doorway, waiting for the others to arrive.
Now an identically dressed figure arrived at the threshold and strode over to greet them.
“Cardinal East,” Mosh Zu proclaimed, before he and the first captain bowed at the new arrival, who tilted his head reciprocally.
Mosh Zu’s assistant, Olivier, moved from the center of the room over to the doorway as a third, then fourth, figure arrived. They nodded perfunctorily at Olivier, then joined Mosh Zu and the others.
“Welcome, Cardinals South and West,” Mosh Zu said. “Now that all four of you are assembled, it is time for the ceremony to begin. Cardinals, please take your positions.”
At these words, the four captains moved to stand on the points of the mosaic compass on the floor—North, East, South, and West, in accordance with their title. Mosh Zu remained inside the circle. He was surrounded by the four Vampirate captains. They each raised their arms and joined their gloved hands, forming an unbroken circle. Their four capes began to billow. As they did so, they sparked with light, as if the joining of their hands had created a power surge. The light crackled for a moment, then diminished to a flicker. The capes continued to move but more gently now, like sails in the breeze.
“I shall not waste any time,” Mosh Zu said. “It is rare for you to come together, but I had to call you here tonight.” He paused. “A prophecy has been revealed to me, one I must share with you. If I have interpreted it correctly, this prophecy has the power to change everything.”
“What is the prophecy?” The captains spoke as one, their voices rolling over one another like soft waves, in a strange whisper.
“A time of war is coming to the oceans,” Mosh Zu announced.
“War?” answered the captains, their voices once more united in that strange, watery whisper. “War between us and the pirates?”
“No,” Mosh Zu said. “War within our own realm. Our precious union will splinter and the greatest threat will come from within.”
“What is this threat?” asked the captains. “Give it a name!”
“I do not know its name,” Mosh Zu said. “But the chief warmonger belongs to one of your crews. Be alert to him or her.”
“When will this war commence?” the captains asked Mosh Zu.
“Soon, I think,” Mosh Zu replied.
“Soon?” There was a note of scorn in the captains’ whisper. “Soon is an unhelpful term for immortals like us.”
“Agreed,” Mosh Zu answered. “But it is time to make plans.”
“What more does your prophecy tell us?” asked the captains.
“Our hope rests with twin children, who have yet to be born.”
“What are their names?” inquired the captains.
“Their names are not yet clear to me,” Mosh Zu said. “But they are the children of this warmonger and their powers will be unprecedented. Their role in the future of our realm will be great, and, when war comes, they and they alone will have the power to deliver our victory.”
“We must find these twins, these children of the warmonger,” the captains said. “We must search for them across the oceans.”
“I repeat,” said Mosh Zu. “They have yet to be born. When the time is right, they will seek us out. That will be the sign that war is imminent.”
There was silence for a moment; then the captains spoke once more. “Is this the end of your prophecy?”
“There is one more thing,” Mosh Zu said. “In order to bring about peace, one of the twins must enter the void. I saw darkness surround one twin, and auguries that signified death.”
“The death of mortals or our immortal death?” pressed the captains.
“I cannot be sure,” Mosh Zu said. “But my sense was that though the child will be born of a Vampirate and will therefore be immortal, he or she will have to journey to the realm of the mortal dead in order to achieve peace. That is as much as I could ascertain.”
“We thank you,” the captains said, their whisper more haunting than ever. “We will take our leave now and ponder these portents.”
At these words, their capes began to undulate more strongly and to spark with light once again. A mist began to circle around them. Soon it had completely surrounded them and it was no longer possible to discern their outlines.
As the mist receded, Mosh Zu found himself alone in the center of the mosaic compass.
The Four Cardinals had taken their leave. They would not meet again for a very long time.
The ancient offices of Mizzen, Mainbrace, Windvane, and Splice, “lawyers to the pirate community, by appointment to the Pirate Federation, since 2015,” were at the top of a cliff and took the form of the upper three decks of a pirate galleon, which had been braced directly onto the rock itself. The impression was of a ship sailing—indeed flying—right off the peak into the bay far below. The main conference room of the famous maritime firm of solicitors had once been a pirate captain’s cabin and possessed floor-to-ceiling windows. Once these windows had looked out onto a seeming infinity of ocean; now they afforded a queasily vertiginous view down the cliffs.
It was before these windows that old Mr. Mizzen currently stood, his back turned—though with no intention of rudeness—to the other inhabitants of the room. Mr. Mizzen’s still-keen aquamarine eyes traveled from the similarly colored waters of the bay below up to the ticking clock on the conference-room wall. There was reassurance to be found in the tick and the tock, but also a warning. Old Mr. Mizzen was under no illusion—the clock was always ticking. Whether fate decreed that one was gently eased out of this life by natural means or snatched from it in the cruelest terms possible—as Molucco Wrathe had been—it was advisable to make the necessary preparations for that final voyage.
A not entirely discreet cough sounded close by Mr. Mizzen’s right ear. A sudden arctic chill caused the profusion of white hairs protruding from said ear to stand on end. Turning away from the window, Mr. Mizzen saw that he had been joined by Trofie Wrathe. The glamorously intimidating deputy captain of The Typhon was dressed from head to toe in black. A lace veil—patterned with skulls—covered her face, while her legendary golden hand was, for the moment at least, encased in a long black glove, as was her other, regular, hand. It was not uncommon for visitors to wear black to attend these offices—but though de rigeur for funerals, it was not required for the reading of a will. Even through her veil, Trofie Wrathe’s penetrating stare caused Mr. Mizzen’s old eyes to smart a little. She raised an eyebrow inquisitively before asking in her distinctive accent, “Must we wait any longer?”
“I’m afraid we must, Madam Wrathe. It is a matter of some importance that we do not begin the reading of your brother-in-law’s will until all the beneficiaries have arrived.”
“Whom exactly are we waiting for?” she asked. “Don’t they know that time is short? There’s a war on, in case you’d forgotten!”
Mr. Mizzen heard her words but chose, as he sometimes did, to feign deafness. Instead, he surveyed the others, who were also waiting in the room, with varying degrees of irritation, for the formalities to begin.
In the front row, on either side of the chair temporarily vacated by Trofie, sat her husband Captain Barbarro Wrathe and her teenage son Moonshine. Barbarro looked solemn. He was the last Wrathe brother standing—the Vampirates having claimed his younger brother Porfirio’s life before finally closing in on Molucco.
Moonshine Wrathe had yet to prove himself worthy of the family name. Still, Mr. Mizzen noted there had been some improvements since last they’d met at his uncle’s funeral. Moonshine’s skin was now clear and his hair tied back from his face. His locks were as long and black as his father’s but without the lightning strike of silver shooting through them. He was neither handsome nor otherwise, and it was hard to believe the young pirate was heir to such fame and fortune as came with the Wrathe name.
On the other side of Barbarro—separated by another empty chair—sat Matilda Kettle, owner of the eponymous tavern, which had been drawing in the pirate hordes for as long as anyone could remember. Once, “Ma” Kettle’s beauty had been the feverish talk of the oceans. She was still attractive, granted Mr. Mizzen, but tick-tock… He smiled ruefully. No, he thought, it was not the tick and the tock that had stolen away Ma Kettle’s looks. Molucco’s exit had done that. It was no secret that Ma Kettle had been close to the rebellious captain for many a year, and Wrathe’s sudden death seemed—if a maritime metaphor might be forgiven under the circumstances—to have taken all the wind from her sails.
Where once she might have worn a fur stole or a feather boa, now Ma Kettle sported something equally colorful but rather more unusual. Wrapped about her sinewy neck was Scrimshaw, the dead captain’s beloved pet snake. Ma had taken the snake into her keeping since the captain’s demise. The reptile’s glassy eyes were like two mirrors, reflecting the woman’s lost expression back at her.
Mr. Mizzen’s own eyes migrated to Matilda Kettle’s traveling companion—a decidedly exotic creature who went by the name of Sugar Pie. Some kind of barmaid-cum-burlesque artist, according to the notes young Mr. Splice had prepared for him. Faced with the general mood, Mr. Mizzen found Sugar Pie to be a veritable oasis in the desert. True, her face was solemn—her eyes darting frequently to her aged companion—but a dazzlingly pure light seemed to emanate from those eyes. It seemed to Mr. Mizzen as much a cause for hope and celebration as sunlight.
To Sugar Pie’s side was another empty chair. Seeing this, Mr. Mizzen was brought back to the matter at hand. His smile faded. He glanced again at Trofie Wrathe, who was still pacing back and forth. Catching his glance, her eyebrow lifted inquiringly once again. Tick-tock, he heard, tick-tock. Perhaps he would have to start after all.
Just then, there was the sound of footsteps out in the corridor. Trofie stopped pacing and turned toward the door. Mr. Mizzen’s eyes traveled in the same direction as the door opened and the young and breathless Mr. Splice entered the room, nodding reassuringly at his superior while holding open the door and addressing someone in the vestibule.
“Please, come this way. The others are waiting in here.”
All eyes turned toward the open doorway.
A figure stepped into the room, then paused, turning to face the others.
“I’m so sorry we kept you waiting,” said Catherine Morgan, Molucco’s deputy captain, most often known as Cutlass Cate. Her trademark russet hair brought to mind a dramatic sunset.
“It’s good to see you again, Cate,” boomed Barbarro Wrathe, rising to greet her. Taking her arm, his fingers briefly brushed the black armband she had sported for the past several months. She was a woman in mourning, too, but not, primarily, for Captain Molucco Wrathe.
Releasing Cate’s hand, Barbarro indicated the vacant chair between himself and Ma Kettle. Nodding and smiling politely at the others, Cate took her seat, as Trofie sighed with relief. But, as the captain’s wife adjusted her skirt, she had a sudden realization. Cate had said, “Sorry we kept you waiting…”
As she thought this, a young man strode through the door. A man of equal years to her own son but whose journey had been charted across far different waters. It was Connor Tempest—the shipwreck victim who had become a pirate but, more than that, the closest thing Molucco had had to a son. Their relationship, like so many of Molucco’s, had hit the rocks and ended when Molucco burned Connor’s articles. Yet here he was, as dependable as the tide, come to take his seat beside the others. Smiling minimally, Trofie turned to face the front.
“Connor.” It was Ma Kettle who spoke first. “Of course. We should have guessed you’d be here.”
Connor looked awkward as he stepped into the room, hovering before the others as if recognizing that he was the last and least welcome guest.
“Mister Tempest,” said Mr. Mizzen, lifting his eyes from Mr. Splice’s excellent notes. “I believe there is a spare chair for you, to the right of Miss, er, Pie. Please sit down and we will commence our business.”
“About time,” hissed Trofie to her husband.
Yes, thought old Mr. Mizzen, once more attuned to the merciless rhythm of the tick and the tock. When all is said and done, it’s always about time.
“I, Molucco Osborne Mortimer Wrathe, being of sound mind and disposition…”
A cackle from Ma Kettle caused Mr. Mizzen to pause and glance up from the scroll of paper in his hands. “Sound mind and disposition! That doesn’t sound like the man I knew these past forty years.”
Mr. Mizzen smiled indulgently then began again. “I, Molucco Osborne…”
“Wait!” Trofie Wrathe raised her right hand and, as Mr. Mizzen glanced up once more, she removed her black glove. The solicitor found himself momentarily dazzled by the sight of her burnished gold fingers and shimmering ruby fingernails. Seizing her advantage, Trofie spoke. “I’m sure no one would mind if you skipped some of the unnecessary formalities and cut to the chase.” A row of shocked faces turned toward her, but Trofie was unabashed. “As I said before, there is a war on.”
“War or no war,” answered Mr. Mizzen, “certain ceremonies must be observed.”
Now Barbarro entered the fray. “My wife has a point,” he said. “We are somewhat late beginning and several of us are due at the Pirate Academy for a Council of War this evening.” Barbarro glanced carefully at Cate, then back to Mr. Mizzen. “I think we all want to ensure that we leave here in good sailing time.”
“Very well,” said Mr. Mizzen with a sigh. “I shall, as you say, cut to the chase.” He observed his audience through his spectacles with cool detachment. “Who gets what. Of course, that’s what you all came to find out.”
There was a moment or two of uncomfortable silence while Mr. Mizzen glanced down the scroll and then began to read once more.
“To my dear Ma Kettle, the most beautiful and exciting siren I ever had the good fortune to know across the Seven Seas. A goddess, who has been more of a comfort and balm to me over the years than she will ever know. To you, I leave the sum of five million…”
“Five million!” Trofie exclaimed loudly. To her exasperation, Barbarro was beaming broadly, as was Sugar Pie. Ma herself was speechless, her moist eyes trained on Mr. Mizzen as he continued.
“It was,” he read, “my hope that we would spend this money and our twilight years together but, if circumstances have decreed otherwise, then I see no reason why you, darling Ma, should not enjoy such comfort and pleasure as I can offer you. It is my one regret that I cannot be here to toast our future in oyster champagne.”
“Mine too,” said Ma, gratefully accepting the handkerchief proffered by Sugar Pie.
Mr. Mizzen reddened as he continued. “The very best of my days and nights—ahem—were those I spent with you. Remember to spend this money as recklessly as you know I would!”
This last sentiment prompted a throaty chuckle from Ma. She nodded, smiling. Sugar Pie reached out and clasped Ma’s hand in her own. “I knew he’d take care of you,” she said.
“He always did,” answered Ma, with a squeeze of her hand. “In his way.”
Mr. Mizzen’s tone now grew more businesslike. “Molucco did not specify whom he wished to look after his beloved pet, Scrimshaw, after his demise, but it seems, Madam Kettle, that you have taken this upon yourself?”
“Oh, yes,” said Ma with a nod. “Scrimshaw will always have a home at the tavern.” Her free hand stroked the snake’s scales tenderly. “We have a connection, me and Scrim. I, too, have shed many a skin in my time.”
“Well,” said Mr. Mizzen. “Molucco set aside a further ten thousand to cover Scrimshaw’s rather particular gastronomic tastes.”
“Ten thousand?” Trofie mouthed to Moonshine. “For pet food!” Moonshine grinned at his mother’s disbelief, then glanced over at Ma, who was nodding once more.
“Scrim shall never go short of honeyed dates or rosewater-dipped pistachios as long as he’s in my care,” she assured Mr. Mizzen.
The solicitor scanned Molucco’s will once more, then resumed reading with renewed vigor. Barbarro wondered whether he was imagining it or if Mr. Mizzen was actually trying to impersonate his dear departed brother.
“My ship, The Diablo, has been my home for many years—one of the few constants in my life. I have thought long and hard as to who should be the heir to my ship and I have decided to entrust it to my nephew, Moonshine Wrathe.”
All three attendant Wrathes listened carefully as Mr. Mizzen forged on. “Moonshine, I hope this ship is the making of you as a pirate captain. If rigging and cannon and old deck boards could talk, this old galleon would have plenty of tales to tell under my captaincy and—I’ve no doubt—under yours, too! Take good care of her, my boy. I trust you will make me proud.”
“Thanks, Uncle Luck,” said Moonshine breezily. “Though I’d have preferred a ship that wasn’t in Vampirate hands…”
“Presumably,” Trofie interrupted, lifting her veil as she addressed Mr. Mizzen, “the ship comes with a significant financial bequest?” Her ice-blue eyes bore into the lawyer’s.
“No doubt all will be revealed as we proceed,” said Mr. Mizzen firmly, turning from her. He was enjoying himself now, back in his stride.
“To Cate Morgan, who has served with me in varying capacities for the majority of her maritime career and proved herself to be one of the finest piratical minds of her generation. To Cate, I leave five million…”
“Another five million…?” Trofie’s golden hand gripped her husband’s arm. “Are you doing the math here? I don’t like the way this is stacking up…”
“To Cate,” Mr. Mizzen resumed more loudly, “I leave five million, but with a small condition attached. I have gifted The Diablo to my nephew Moonshine, and it is my hope that this ship will be the making of him—but timber and sailcloth alone cannot accomplish a task of this magnitude. Cate, I had the great privilege to know you as my deputy aboard The Diablo. Now I ask you to resume that position, as deputy to Moonshine, for a period of three years. That should be sufficient to give him the support and grounding he needs. I hope you might stay on for longer than that, but, even if you choose not to, at the end of the three years, my gift of five million will be yours.”
Barbarro laughed. “I’m sorry, Cate,” he said. “I’m not laughing at you. Just thinking how my brother was an inveterate deal-maker to the very end.”
“And beyond,” Cate said. She could feel both Trofie’s and Moonshine’s eyes upon her. No doubt, they were trying to read her thoughts and emotions. She studiously avoided glancing their way, looking instead directly at Mr. Mizzen.
“May I take some time to consider this proposition?” she asked.
Mr. Mizzen nodded. “Captain Wrathe allowed for that. He knew that you would want to weigh the pros and cons.”
“Pros and cons!” snapped Trofie with irritation. She felt her husband’s warning touch. It drew out some of her sting. “Well, really! He’s given her a fortune and all she has to do is mentor our son.” Barbarro was silent but reflected that, in Molucco’s position, he might have upped the ante still further to sweeten the deal.
“To my dear brother Barbarro,” Mr. Mizzen continued, “I leave you… nothing.”
Nothing. The word seemed to ricochet around the conference room. The tension and surprise were almost audible.
“I leave you nothing,” repeated Mr. Mizzen, “because you are as wealthy as me in your own right, and there are others who will benefit far more from a leg up. I trust you will not think ill of me on this account. Brother Barbarro, it was one of the deepest sadnesses of my life to lose our brother Porfirio. And one of the greatest joys to be reunited with you in the twilight of my days. We wasted so much time. I learned the lesson, but a little late, that blood is thicker than all the oceans.”
As Mr. Mizzen paused to draw breath, Trofie inquired, “Is there a personal message to me?”
“Only this,” said Mr. Mizzen pointedly, as he cleared his throat and found his place once more. “My precious family, my dear, dear friends, if you have been doing your sums—and knowing certain amongst you, no doubt you have—you will know that there is still the whale’s share of my fortune to apportion. My accountants can confirm the total sum, though I estimate it to be in the region of…”
“Twenty-eight million!” Trofie finished the sentence for him.
“Twenty-eight million, eight hundred thousand,” corrected Mr. Mizzen with a smile. “And I am passing on this wealth, which I have built over many years and all seven of the oceans, to my friend, Connor Tempest.”
All eyes turned to Connor. Both Moonshine’s and Barbarro’s faces registered surprise. Trofie looked in urgent need of medical help. Ma Kettle was smiling, as was Sugar Pie. Cate’s expression was harder to decipher. As for Connor himself, he had no idea how to respond to what he had just been told. When he’d been asked to come to this office, he had expected to leave with a token gift—if that. His last meetings with Molucco had been awkward, and the captain had left him in no doubt that any relationship they had once enjoyed was now over. Yet, according to Mr. Mizzen, he was about to inherit nearly thirty million. The figure was so far beyond his reality that his brain was simply numb.
“Connor,” read Mr. Mizzen, “I’m sure this comes as a surprise to you. To be honest, it’s something of a surprise to me. You came into my life by chance and soon became a valued member of my crew. But, more than that, my lad, you became the son I never had. Because of the deep affection I felt for you, you had the power very few others ever possessed—the power to hurt me. And you did. When you asked to be released from my command, you might as well have run your rapier through my heart. I responded, as I often did, with anger. I burned your articles and vowed to eradicate every trace of you from my life.” Mr. Mizzen paused and took a sip of water, gratified to know all eyes were fixed on him.
“I couldn’t cut you out of my life, Connor, any more than I could cut you out of my heart. I know why you did what you did. I saw your confusion and guilt—more clearly, I daresay, than you did yourself. So now, I reach out from my grave and ask to shake your hand…”
“I’ve heard enough,” Trofie barked, rising to her feet, eyes flashing fire. “This will is a travesty—the rantings of a sick, deluded man who, in his decrepitude, became vulnerable to the worst kind of strumpets and con men and…”
As she sought out the next insult, Mr. Mizzen cut her off. “I can assure you, Madam Wrathe, that your brother-in-law was of sound mind and disposition when, in my presence and that of Messrs Mainbrace, Windvane, and Splice, he signed this last and final testament.”
“Spare me,” snorted Trofie derisively. “My husband and I will challenge this farce in every court on the land and oceans.”
“No.” It was Barbarro who spoke, rising to stand alongside his wife. “No, we will not. It was my brother’s fortune to distribute as he thought fit. He has made his choices and, though we may not agree with all of them, we must respect them.” He extended his hand toward Mr. Mizzen. “Thank you, sir. And now, we really must get going. We have a war to win—and a ship to reclaim.” Barbarro looked at Moonshine, who obediently rose to his feet.
Trofie stood, still shaking her head in disbelief. Barbarro grabbed hold tightly of his wife’s hand and escorted her briskly toward the door. “Come, min elskling. We must make haste for Pirate Academy.”
Moonshine hesitated, grinning at the others. Then he, too, headed for the door, pausing before Connor for a moment.
“Well, old sport, looks like you scooped the jackpot today.” Moonshine grinned. “Congratulations, Connor. Mazel tov! For a shipwrecked slumdog, you’ve made out like a bandit.”
He paused to give Sugar Pie a wink, then, smirking, strode off after his parents.
Three ships coursed through the dark ocean, like a school of killer whales on the hunt. The Blood Captain was a nose ahead, flanked on its port side by The Redeemer and, on starboard, by The Diablo. The three Vampirate vessels were closing in on a pirate galleon.
Sidorio stood at the helm of his ship, hands on hips, surveying the figures racing back and forth across the target deck. Mortal eyes would have required night-vision goggles and an optical zoom to zero in on the scene. Sidorio’s visual acuity was such that he could see far across the ocean, his ocean, with crystal clarity.
“Can’t you get us there any faster?” he asked the man at his side.
His question was met by a shake of the head. “Regretfully, no, Captain. We’re making good speed but ours is a large ship. Besides, you wanted The Redeemer and The Diablo to keep pace with us.”
The mention of the other two ships made Sidorio instantly nostalgic for their captains—Stukeley and Johnny Desperado. One of the few drawbacks of the ultra-rapid expansion of the Vampirate fleet was having to release his trusted deputies and bring up others from the ranks—like this babbo at his side.
Well, thought Sidorio, Stukeley and Johnny might have their own ships now, but they remained his joint deputies within the empire.
Turning away from the imbecile at the wheel, Sidorio’s fiery eyes sought out Stukeley, standing poised at the helm of The Redeemer. The always reliable Stukeley turned and saluted his commander in chief, awaiting instructions.
Smiling with satisfaction, Sidorio turned to his other side and found the reciprocal gaze of Johnny Desperado, captain of The Diablo. He, too, was ready to do his master’s bidding.
“Follow me!” Sidorio commanded.
“What?” The man at his side jumped nervously and glanced at him in confusion.
“Not you, Lieutenant Jewell!” Sidorio said, venting his impatience.
“Sorry, Captain!” Lt. Jewell lifted one hand from the wheel to make a salute. With only one of his shaky hands on the wheel, the vast ship began to reel. They were never going to catch the pirate ship at this rate!
Sidorio pushed the trembling lieutenant away from the wheel and took over. Immediately, the ship steadied itself, like a wanton horse brought under control by an expert rider. The captain turned and shouted over his shoulder. “Is there anyone here capable of steering while I attend to business?”
“Yes, Captain!” A young-looking Vampirate—all ripped muscle and attitude—eagerly strode across the deck.
“What’s your name?” Sidorio inquired.
“Caleb McDade,” the Vampirate replied, saluting him. “At your service!”
Sidorio smiled at the young man’s eagerness. “You’ve just been promoted, Caleb McDade,” he said. “Take over from me.”
As he stepped aside, Sidorio bashed into the lately demoted Lt. Jewell. The captain surveyed the useless excuse for a Vampirate.
“With regret,” Sidorio said, “you’re fired!”
He lifted the bewildered lieutenant up by his armpits and stepped toward the very edge of the ship. Sidorio released his hands, and Lt. Jewell made a hasty descent into the briny waters below.
At the wheel, Caleb McDade grinned from ear to ear.
“I see we share a sense of humor,” Sidorio said. “Righto, time I was going. Keep your eyes on the ocean and your hands on the wheel, capisci?”
Sidorio felt satisfied that this one was up to the job.
He glanced back to Stukeley, on board The Redeemer, then to Johnny, at the helm of The Diablo. “On the count of three!” he said. “One… Two… Three.”
He propelled himself up into the air, flying high above the deck and next the dark, churning ocean itself. It was as if he were drawing the target ship effortlessly toward him, like a kite. Glancing swiftly to either side, he spied Stukeley and Johnny soaring through the night air in the same direction.
Sidorio let out a satisfied roar. Game on!
On the deck of the pirate ship, Captain Jack Fallico was held fast in the clutches of Mimma and Holly, two of the feistiest Vampirates on Lola Lockwood-Sidorio’s crew. Captain Fallico was the only pirate left standing. The others lay scattered across the deck like so much flotsam and jetsam, their prostrate bodies silvery-gray in the meager light of the ship’s lanterns. Lola’s crew—dark-cloaked shadows—was busy at work, harvesting the blood of the newly dead.
The pirate captain had put up a fight for a time, lashing and spitting at his captors. Now, at last, he seemed reconciled to his fate. His eyes gave a final flash of fire at the deliverer of his doom. Lady Lola Lockwood-Sidorio.
“If you’re going to kill me, just kill me,” said the pirate captain bravely.
Lola arched an eyebrow, giving nothing away. Feeling pleasantly giddy, she sniffed the air. The aroma of different blood types commingling on the deck was utterly intoxicating. She was already contemplating the intriguing blends she could create from tonight’s harvest.
“Look here,” Captain Fallico snarled, “I’ve had enough of this! You’ve massacred my crew and taken my ship. You’re obviously going to kill me, too, so stop playing games and just get on with it, you vile, bloated vampire!”
“Bloated?” Lady Lola stepped closer to her prey, the heels of her thigh-high sharkskin boots drumming on the bloodstained deck. “Bloated? How dare you! I’m not bloated, you mortal fool. I’m eight and a half months pregnant!” She lifted her cloak and proudly displayed her belly, snug under her maternity suit. Rubbing it proudly, she stepped forward and seized Captain Fallico’s rapier from where it had fallen onto the deck in front of him.
“Live by the sword…” Lola began.
“Captain!” exclaimed Mimma.
Seeing the look in her deputy’s eyes, Lola paused. Killing a captain was a moment to savor—like uncorking a bottle long stored in the cellar and breathing in its heady perfume. Mimma must have good reason to interrupt her at a moment like this.
Behind her, Lola now heard the whistling of air, followed by a thud.
Turning, she saw her husband land on the deck, a few meters from her. Her face froze in dismay as Stukeley and Johnny dropped down on either side of him.
Rapier still poised, Lola frowned at Sidorio. “What are you doing here?” she asked, no trace of warmth in her cut-glass voice.
Sidorio’s jaw hung open. “What are you doing here? It’s almost your due date. You’re supposed to be taking it easy.” His eyes glanced protectively at his wife’s bulge.
Lola rolled her eyes. “Must we have this conversation again? There are two types of pregnant women,” she declared. “Those who lie around for months reading magazines and demanding foot rubs, and the other category, to which I belong, who continue to attend to business.”
With that, she turned away, lifted her sword, and skewered Captain Fallico.
As he fell meatily to the deck, Holly swiftly plugged in her draining apparatus and began bottling his blood. It was the last of a good haul. From the edges of the deck, others of Lola’s crew now came forward, stepping over their victims. Each carried the standard-issue black case, which now held half a dozen bottles of recently harvested pirate.
“Good work, ladies!” Lola said, standing proudly before her crew as Holly snapped shut her case and strode into position beside her. “Holly, Camille… next job for you. You know that quaint tradition the pirates have of putting a Nocturnal on each of their ships?”
The girls nodded.
“Doubtless, he or she will be hiding belowdecks,” Lola said. “Find them and bring them up to me.”
“Dead or undead?” Camille inquired.
Lola laughed lightly. “Undead, if you please. We’re going to play a little game with the opposition.” Her eyes searched the crowd. “Jessamy, Nathalie—fetch the package from The Vagabond, if you please. The rest of you can start clearing up the deck.”
At her words her crew sprang into action. Jack Fallico’s husk of a body was the first to hit the water.
“What’s going on?” Sidorio asked.
“I’ll explain later,” Lola said, hurling a set of keys toward him. As he caught them in his thick palm, she continued. “A gift to you, husband. Another ship for your burgeoning collection. Number one hundred and one, if I’m not mistaken? It was supposed to be a surprise but you’ve rather blown that.”
“Thank you,” Sidorio said, cradling the keys in his hand. He stepped forward to kiss his wife, but, at the last moment, Lola twisted her face and Sidorio found his lips thudding against her taut cheek, smooth and cold as marble.
Stukeley, Mimma, and Johnny averted their eyes. Even so, Sidorio flushed with embarrassment.
“Are you angry with me, wife?” he inquired, a dangerous edge to his voice.
Lola sighed, her breath sending a sharp spiral of smoke through the black air. “I’m furious with you,” she said. “I’m having a baby, Sid, not a lobotomy. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of business both before and after the birth.”
“Births,” Sidorio corrected her. “You’re having two babies, Lola. Our twins. The heirs to our immortal empire.”
“Yes, yes,” Lola said briskly. “Please be assured I know there are two budding Sidorios in my belly. I’m the one who gets kicked and nipped at all hours of the day and night. It seems big feet and sharp teeth run in the family.”
Sidorio smiled and extended his hand to his wife’s neck. It was as elegant as a swan’s, deceptively fragile-looking. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I acted rashly. I know I’m overprotective sometimes, but I just care about you so much.” His voice became husky. “I almost lost you once before. I can’t imagine how I’d go on if something happened to you.”
Lola’s dark eyes met her husband’s. “If something happened to me—or to your precious twins?”
The brutal barb did not throw Sidorio off track. “You know how much these children mean to me,” he said. “But you’ll never know how much you mean to me, because my love for you is a thing which defies all measure.”
At these words, Lola at last softened. “That’s very sweet,” she said, running a fingertip along the flat of Captain Fallico’s sword and bringing the bloodstained tip to her mouth. She tasted it, then nodded approvingly. The blood was surprisingly complex. She’d enjoy a glass of that later. Full of health-giving nutrients for the twins.
“Are you truly sorry, Sid?” Lola asked. “Do you promise to mend your ways?”
Sidorio nodded. “I only wish there was some way I could prove it to you.”
“Actions speak louder than words,” Lola announced decisively. She reached out and took back the ring of keys. They glimmered in the moonlight as she extended them toward the girl by her side. “Mimma, you’ve shown excellent leadership qualities of late. I think it’s high time you commanded a ship of your own.”
“Wow!” Mimma said, clearly taken by surprise. She gripped the keys tightly.
Stukeley swept her up in his arms and kissed her. “Congratulations, Captain!”
“Gee, thanks,” Mimma said, beaming broadly. “Look, here come the others!”
The captains and their deputies turned. The rank-and-file members of Lola’s crew were busy tossing dead pirates into the ocean and swabbing the deck. Through the melee strode Holly and Camille, strong-arming a terrified-looking Nocturnal. Further in the distance, Jessamy and Nathalie were also making their approach, carrying over their shoulders what looked very much like a body bag.
Holly and Camille came to a standstill, presenting the ashen-faced Nocturnal to their leader. Lola stepped forward to make a cursory examination of the man.
“You’re a poor excuse for a Vampirate,” she declared.
“I’m not a Vampirate,” he rasped. “I’m a Nocturnal. I serve Obsidian Darke and the—”
“Enough!” Lola raised a gloved hand and slapped him viciously. “You are a traitor to your kind!”
“Shall we finish him off?” Holly inquired hopefully.
Lola paused as Nathalie and Jessamy deposited the hefty package they had been carrying onto the deck.
“No,” Lola said. “No, we’ll take the little traitor with us. I’m sure we can think of some ways to bring him back to the right, true path. Take him away to The Vagabond!”
Holly and Camille dragged the helpless Nocturnal away.
Now Lola turned her attention to the body bag lying before her. It was black, with a long gold zipper glinting in the moonlight.
“Open it!” she commanded.
Jessamy crouched down and released the zipper. The others all leaned forward to see who—or what—was inside. As the mutilated body was revealed, there were gasps.
“Who was that?” Johnny inquired.
Lola smiled. “Don’t count him out just yet, Cowboy. He’s in a bad way, but I’m sure the Nocturnals can patch him up with their healing magic.”
“What’s all this about?” Stukeley asked.
Ignoring him, Lola addressed Nathalie and Jessamy once more. “Throw this one over the side to join the others.”
The two Vampirates swiftly embarked on the task.
“Jacqui!” Lola called across the deck. “Do you have the flares?”
“Yes, Captain!” Jacqueline raced forward, flares and matches in hand.
“The girl who played with fire!” Lola giggled as Jacqueline lit the flares. There was a whooshing noise, then a pop, and suddenly the whole deck was suffused with red light.
“Time to make ourselves scarce,” Lola said, taking her husband’s arm. “You may take me home now. I think I shall have a little nap. And perhaps a foot rub wouldn’t be so bad.”
Sidorio drew his disarmingly beautiful, unboundingly vicious wife close in to his side and escorted her swiftly across the deck. It was almost deserted now as the others, having executed their business, had returned to The Vagabond.
Holly came marching across the deck to rejoin Mimma and Sidorio’s two deputies. She and Mimma exchanged a high five, as Stukeley inquired, “Do either of you know exactly what Captain Lockwood is up to this time?”
He was met by two shaking heads.
“But I got myself a ship,” Mimma said, smiling and twirling the keys around her finger.
Johnny brought his own arm around Holly’s waist. “I reckon this calls for a drink.”
Holly glanced at her antique fob watch. “It’s still happy hour at the Blood Tavern.”
“Sugar,” said Johnny, grinning and rolling his eyes, “since they franchised that joint, every hour is happy hour!”
“Well, either way, we’d better make ourselves scarce,” Stukeley said. “Here comes one of those Alliance ambulance vessels.”
“They must have seen the flares,” Johnny said, his eyes sparkling. “This is all kinda crazy… but fun!”
Mimma turned to Stukeley. “Can you give me a quick lesson in how to steer this behemoth?” she asked.
Stukeley nodded, stretching out his hand. Giggling, the four young Vampirates raced hand in hand toward the steering column, their feet slip-sliding on the newly swabbed deck.
Connor felt a knot in his chest as he saw the iconic stone arch that marked the entry point to the Pirate Academy harbor. His mind had been so busy since the will reading, he’d failed to perform the one task he needed to complete. Soon they would be heading into a Council of War with the pirate captains and there would no longer be an opportunity.
Cate was on his side of the boat, expertly steering the vessel toward the center of the arch. On either side, flaming torches hungrily licked the ancient stones and illuminated the engraved words of the school’s famous maxim:
PLENTY AND SATIETY,
PLEASURE AND EASE,
LIBERTY AND POWER.
“Cate!” Connor said, immediately aware that the tone of his voice was all wrong. Too loud. Too urgent. He’d rehearsed this scene so many times in his head but now he knew he was going to mess it up.
Her face met his instantly, unnerved by his expression and sudden awkwardness. “What’s up, Connor?”
“There’s something I need to tell you.” He frowned. “Before we arrive at the jetty.”
Cate smiled at that. “You’d better be quick about it, then. We’ve got about five minutes’ sailing time, max.”
Five minutes! He should have stepped up to the plate when he’d had the chance. He’d let Cate down—and not just Cate. He reached his hand into his pocket, his fingers searching for the tiny but potent object inside.
“Connor!” He could hear the impatience now in her voice.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s about Bart.”
“What about Bart?” Cate asked, her tone of voice at once profoundly different.
This was too big, too important a conversation to cram into a few minutes, but now that he had started, Connor had no option but to forge ahead. “When he came to find me on The Blood Captain he told me something. Something important…” Here, at last, were the right words. Suddenly he found himself distracted by the sight of figures clustering on the jetty and the trail of torches lighting the path up the hill.
“Connor, what exactly are you trying to tell me?” Cate’s voice drew him back to her eyes. In them, he saw a depth of emotion he had never seen before. Not even when she had heard the news of Bart’s death—the confirmation of her worst fear.
Connor looked straight into Cate’s eyes. “Bart was going to ask you to marry him,” he said. “When he came back. He was going to give you this.” Connor drew his fingers from his pocket but kept his eyes fixed on Cate. “It was his grandmother’s ring.”
He lifted out the tiny circle of metal and passed it to Cate. Instinctively, she reached out her finger. Connor had been expecting to place the ring in her palm and, taken by surprise, he let the metal band fall to the deck boards below. He dropped down onto the floor, searching in the darkness for the tiny band. This was going from bad to worse. If he had lost the ring, he’d never forgive himself.
Above him, Cate stood stock-still. “He was going to ask me to marry him,” she rasped. “After all this time.”
“He always loved you,” Connor said, still desperately trying to recover the ring. “He wanted to spend the rest of his life with you.” There it was! He reached out with relief and grabbed the tiny ring between his thumb and forefinger. Rising to his feet, he saw that they were now only meters from their mooring. Grace was standing on the jetty. She smiled to see him and raised her hand.
He lifted his own hand and nodded, then swiftly turned and placed the ring carefully in the center of Cate’s palm. Her fingers closed tightly around it. Besides that small movement, she remained as still as a statue, her shock of red hair buffeted in the harbor breeze.
“I’m really sorry not to have told you before,” Connor said. “I know how important this is to you. And it was to Bart, too. I’ve been trying to work out the right moment to tell you but I’ve completely messed this up. I’m so—”
“It doesn’t matter,” Cate said, cutting him silent with a voice as brisk and efficient as her sword. “Connor, we haven’t really talked about Bart’s death. About our loss, yes, but not how it happened… who was responsible.” Her eyes met his, imploringly. “Connor, I need to know. Give me a name.”
He shook his head. “What good would it do?” He could hear voices nearby now. Grace and Jasmine talking. The thought of them discussing him together was distracting.
“I need a name, Connor,” Cate insisted, commanding his attention. “It’s not much to ask, under the circumstances.”
He turned away for a moment, unable to bear the emptiness in her eyes. As he turned, he caught sight of Jasmine. She smiled at him and stepped forward to help moor the boat. Smiling back weakly, Connor turned again to Cate. “Let’s talk later,” he said. “After the Council.”
Cate’s eyes held his. “A name, Connor. That’s all I’m asking for.” She was standing at the end of the boat now. There was no way down onto the jetty without stepping past her. Sighing, Connor lowered his eyes and gave her her answer.
Cate’s expression didn’t change. She simply nodded, then turned and stepped down onto the jetty. He saw that her fist, which enclosed Bart’s ring, was still tightly clenched. Connor heard her saying hello to Jasmine and Grace, her voice now normal or some valiant imitation of it.
Now he, too, stepped down onto the jetty, greeting first his sister, then Jasmine. As Grace fell into step with Cate, Jasmine held back for a moment, looping her arm through his.
“Did you do it?” she asked, gently.
“Yes.” Connor sighed. “But I made a complete fist of it.”
Jasmine squeezed his arm. “It was never going to be easy. But you’ve told her now. And she has the ring.”
Connor could hear Cate’s voice inside his head. I need a name. Well, now she had one. But he feared it would do her no good.
Lorcan Furey—once a midshipman, next a lieutenant, now a commander—stood on the deck of The Nocturne as the ship made its final approach toward the Pirate Academy harbor. Not so long ago, the sight of a Vampirate ship approaching pirate territory would have been the cause of deep concern and evasive action. In the past six months, however, everything had changed. This time, they were coming in peace and partnership for a Council of War. It still seemed incredible to Lorcan that he found himself in a state of war and yet on the same side as the pirates.
“We’re almost there,” Lorcan said, turning toward Obsidian Darke. The commander in chief of the Nocturnals stood a few meters away, across the lighted deck, talking with several other of the ship’s officers. At Lorcan’s words, Darke glanced up and nodded. As he turned back to his conversation, Lorcan took the opportunity to appraise his leader.
The once nameless Vampirate captain had undergone a profound transformation to become Obsidian Darke. In many ways, his own metamorphosis encapsulated that of the Vampirates as a whole. Gone were the mask and cape that had kept his face and body hidden all these years. Now, his face was visible to all, its rugged features made still stronger by the moonlight and its complementary shadows. In place of his gloves and cape, Darke now wore close-fitting body armor. In a similar way, The Nocturne, which had formerly steered a discreet course across the ocean, now sailed proudly alongside pirate galleons. For so long, the captain had spoken in a mysterious, watery whisper. Now, his voice was loud and, when occasion called for it, gruff. He had found his voice in more ways than one. The partnership with the Pirate Federation was an equal one, and though the pirate side of the Alliance was far more numerous in terms of ships, Darke still stood shoulder to shoulder with his opposite number, Ahab Black, the commanding officer of the Pirate Federation.
As The Nocturne slowed and cruised into its dock, Lorcan lingered at the deck rail, watching the pirate ships alongside them. It was a peaceful night—or at least it had that veneer. The sky was velvet black, punctured by diamond stars. It took him back to nights when he had stood on this same deck and held Grace in his arms. Such times seemed a world away now. Lorcan rarely got the chance to visit Grace at Sanctuary, and, when he did, he often found that she was engrossed in her work or exhausted after an intense healing session. But tonight she would be at the Council of War and he would be able to snatch some precious time with her.
As he gazed out into the night, Lorcan thought back to special moments when they had simply wandered on deck, holding hands and naming constellations. It seemed hard to believe there had ever been times of such innocence; harder still, to have faith that they might return in this time of war.
“Commander Furey!” Darke’s voice drew him away from his fantasies. “Come, we are about to disembark!”
Lorcan took his place among Darke and his comrades as they walked across the gangplank and onto the dock. The first to greet them on shore was Ahab Black—not the most engaging or likable of men but a steadfast leader. He was followed by Barbarro and Trofie Wrathe and their son, Moonshine.
Lorcan now greeted each of the pirate elite in turn. He was filled with respect for all of them and grateful for the chance this war had delivered, to get to know them. He shook hands with René Grammont and exchanged a salute with Pavel Platonov. He bowed before Lisabeth Quivers and Kirstin Larsen. Commander Lorcan Furey was on a cordial basis with each and every one of them, but at the end of the line were the pirates whom he called his real friends: Captain Li and the key members of her crew, Cate Morgan, Jasmine Peacock, and Connor Tempest.
“Good evening, Commander Furey.” Cheng Li took his hand but also proffered her cheek. Perhaps it was only his imagination but, as his lips brushed her skin, she seemed to shiver, though she did not recoil. Lorcan thought once more of Grace, remembering that she had once said his lips were often as cold as ice.
As Cheng Li moved on to greet Lorcan’s colleagues, Cate stepped forward and clasped him firmly by the hand. Lorcan and Cate had become close comrades since they had been thrown together to plot a groundbreaking combat strategy for the Alliance. Lorcan knew that Cate was not given to physical demonstrations of affection. At first he had thought this might express her unease at being in such close and prolonged proximity to a vampire, but he had come to realize that it was simply her nature. Since Bart Pearce had been killed, Lorcan had watched Cate withdraw further into herself, like a flower bud closing to protect itself against a rainstorm. She still executed her responsibilities in an exemplary fashion; if anything, she seemed more obsessive about her work than before. But it was clear to Lorcan that a certain light was missing from Cate’s eyes; that though she strived for victory in the war, she had given up any hope of a happy future for herself.
He saw something of the same haunted look in the face of Jasmine Peacock, who now stepped forward. Jasmine had also lost her boyfriend to the war. Jacoby Blunt had been a young man of immense promise, cut down in his prime. So many good, brave men and women lost already. As Jasmine moved along the reception line, Lorcan shook his head. How many more would be lost before this war was won?
Connor Tempest stepped forward and reached out his hand. Lorcan smiled at his girlfriend’s brother. “Good to see you again, Connor,” he said.
“You, too.” Connor returned an amiable smile.
Theirs was the friendship Lorcan had had to work hardest at—partly because it mattered to him the most. He knew how difficult it had been for Connor to discover that he was Sidorio’s son. The fact that he was a dhampir was a closely guarded secret. Neither Cate nor Jasmine knew, though they lived and worked alongside Connor. Lorcan had never spoken directly to Connor about his secret but he had sent word via Grace that he was always there if Connor needed someone to talk to. So far, his offer had not been taken up. Though brother and sister, Connor and Grace were profoundly different.
“Come, my friends and allies!” Ahab Black’s voice now boomed across the grass. “The meeting chamber awaits us. We have a brief ceremony to conclude before we can begin, so we must make a start.”
The assembled military leaders followed him as he strode back toward Pirate Academy. As Lorcan brought up the rear, he watched the Nocturnals following the pirates and marveled at just how much had changed. The pirates were voluntarily welcoming the Nocturnals into the heart of their world. Would the Nocturnals so easily do the same?
As they approached the Rotunda, the single most important building in the Pirate Academy complex, Connor couldn’t help remembering the first time he had walked this path. It had been morning then and sunlight had danced on the waters of the fountain. Now the same fountain was bathed in moonlight, while flaming torches lit the way up the hill from the harbor below.
The first time Connor had visited the Rotunda, Commodore John Kuo had been his guide. Now Kuo was gone—one of the many pirates slaughtered by Lola and the Vampirates—and much had changed for Connor, even in such a relatively short space of time. He had earned his pirating stripes. He’d made his first kill. He’d discovered that he was a dhampir and that his biological father was none other than Sidorio, self-styled King of the Vampirates. Now he had also found out he was Molucco’s main heir and rich beyond his wildest dreams. Yet, on some level, Connor still felt like the same naive kid who had listened with undisguised awe as Cheng Li had explained how the vast, carved wooden doors to the Rotunda had been plundered by one of the academy’s founding captains, during a daring raid in Rajasthan.
As his palm made contact with the ancient Indian wood, Connor remembered what Cheng Li had said that first time: Whenever I see these doors, I feel as if I am coming home. He doubted he’d ever share her feelings about the academy. His own history with this place was rather more ambivalent. Nonetheless, each trip back to the academy seemed to mark a staging post on his own personal journey.
Now, following Cate, Grace, and Jasmine inside the Rotunda, he saw that the vast circular room was packed. The dome of the building was punctuated by glass portholes in varying shades of blue. Moonlight filtered through them, sending shafts of light down upon all those gathered beneath. It was as if they were convening at the bottom of the ocean.
There was amphitheater seating all around the room, save for the center, where a raised platform had been set up. Around the platform itself was a ring of seats, soon to be filled by the great and the good of the pirate world. As Connor walked along the plush blue carpet toward the front, he saw that two glass cases, each containing a sword, were resting on the central table. Glancing up to the ceiling of the Rotunda, he felt a shiver of electricity race up his spine.
High above the platform, suspended by thin steel wires, were glass cases just like those on the table below. Each of the cases contained a sword that had once belonged to one of the most celebrated pirate captains of all time. Most of those pirates were dead now, but somehow their swords kept their presence within the room, a sign of the power they once wielded and the rich history that bound together all those gathered here now.
“Come on, Connor.” He felt Jasmine’s hand on his arm. “It’s time to take our seats.”
Drawing his eyes away from the glass cases, he followed Jasmine along the row. Cate was already sitting down, her eyes fixed ahead, staring at the two swords on the central table. Scanning the crowd, Connor noticed Grace taking her seat a couple of rows in front of him, alongside Lorcan Furey and Obsidian Darke. It was a sign of the strength of the new alliance between the Pirate Federation and the Nocturnals that key Nocturnal personnel were attending tonight’s Council of War.
Connor noticed there were four empty seats next to Barbarro Wrathe. They were not for Trofie and Moonshine, as they both now sat down at the end of Connor’s own row. Moonshine grinned at Connor. Connor nodded, then turned toward the stage. Commodore Ahab Black, chief officer of the Pirate Federation, had just taken to the platform and a hush had descended upon all those in attendance. Yet still, four empty chairs remained on the dais.
“Where’s Captain Fallico?” Jasmine whispered in Connor’s ear. “It’s unlike him to be late. Especially for such an important event.”
Connor shook his head, distracted from Jasmine’s words by her perfume. Shaking her head softly, she leaned away again as Commodore Black began to speak.
“You have been called here for a Council of War, but before we begin, we have an important ceremony to conduct. Some of you may feel that a war such as we are currently engaged in allows us no time for this. But, ladies and gentleman, pirates and Nocturnals, it is my belief that, in the current climate, a ceremony such as this is more important than ever.” His expression somber, he stepped forward to the table and stretched out his hands to indicate the two glass cases.
“Here lie two swords belonging to pirates who have given their lives in the current conflict. This sword was wielded by John Kuo, one of the most famous names of his generation, the former headmaster of this academy and a pirate who shaped the Pirate Federation into what it is today.” Black lifted his eyes to address the congregation directly. “Commodore Kuo’s famous Toledo blade has hung in a case here in the Rotunda for many years, brought down for the commodore himself to use on special days. He last used it when Cheng Li became a captain, in the Captains’ Race that formed part of the celebrations. John was the firm favorite to win that race.” Black shook his head sadly. “But events proved otherwise. That day, Commodore Kuo lost not only the race but also his life. His sword was stolen by his killers, and it is only thanks to a young pirate who has already made quite a name for himself—Connor Tempest—that the Toledo Blade was recovered and will tonight be returned to its rightful place, in the firmament of weapons above our heads.”
Commodore Black paused to glance up above, then brought his eyes down once more. “It will not surprise you that we come together to honor the achievements of a pirate like John Kuo, whose deeds are legendary in our world. But, perhaps you are surprised that we would even add this other sword to the cases above. This sword did not belong to a famous captain or, in fact, any kind of captain. This sword belonged to a foot soldier in our navy—one Bartholomew Pearce, a loyal member of Captain Molucco Wrathe’s crew aboard The Diablo.” Black turned to face Barbarro. “At this point, I should like to acknowledge Captain Barbarro Wrathe and his brothers, Porfirio and Molucco, both of whom were victims of the Vampirates. Tonight, we have set chairs for these two former comrades, just as we have for John Kuo, in order to help us more strongly feel their presence and their power.”
Connor leaned over to Jasmine. “So maybe the fourth empty chair is for Bart,” he whispered.
“No,” Jasmine said. “They only put out chairs for the captains. Jack Fallico should be sitting right there. Which begs the question, where is he?”
Black’s monotone voice boomed out once more. “We have lost some of the leading lights of our generation in this conflict,” he said, “but we have also lost great pirates of the future. Pirates like Bart Pearce, whose best days doubtless lay ahead of him.”
Connor glanced to his side and saw that Cate’s face was pale and contorted. She was struggling not to cry. Instinctively, he reached out for her hand and took it, then turned his eyes to the front as Black warmed to his theme. “War is the great leveler,” he said. “It is indiscriminate, taking away our leaders and our foot soldiers. Tonight, we honor just two of those we have lost but, as their swords are raised aloft to join those above, I want you to think of the many others who have given their lives to this war. A war we are endeavoring to bring to an end. These swords, which once belonged to John Kuo and Bartholomew Pearce, serve as constant reminders to us all of the battles we have endured and, more important, of the battles that lie ahead.”
Black gave a nod to indicate he had come to the end of his speech, and from each side of the platform stepped forward a somber-looking academy student. They joined Commodore Black at the table and waited as he clipped the sword cases to the steel wires that would support them up above. Then each of the students took the steel wire in his hand and pulled at it, working in perfect unison, so that the swords began to rise together.
As the swords made their slow journey upward, the academy orchestra played the Federation anthem. The crowd rose to its feet and began to sing. Connor, like most of the others, was transfixed by the two swords floating up through the watery blue light. Turning to look at Cate, he saw tears rolling down her face. Suddenly she stood up and slipped past him, then stumbled away down the row.
Connor moved to follow her, but Jasmine held him back. “Let her go,” she said.
The music died away. Connor turned back and saw that the swords had reached their final resting place.
Out on the hillside, overlooking the harbor, Cate sat on a bench, sobbing for Bart. Why now? She had been stoic from the time she had been brought the news of his death to the moment earlier that evening when Connor had revealed the name of Bart’s killer. Somehow, seeing Bart’s sword in that case had made her realize the finality of his death. She knew that Connor had buried their comrade-in-arms at sea. But the glass case that held Bart’s sword might as well have been his coffin.
She was momentarily interrupted from these thoughts by a figure arriving at her side and hovering, gawkily, above her. It was Moonshine Wrathe.
Cate looked up at him through her tears.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“They say misery loves company,” answered Moonshine. “And, right now, you look decidedly miserable.”
“I just miss him,” Cate said to Moonshine. “It’s as simple and complicated and painful and irreversible as that.” She slumped back on the secluded bench. The night air was scented with oleander, and sweet pomegranates hung ripe and low just above their heads. Moonshine stretched out on the seat. “You know, my Uncle Luck had a maxim. A pirate’s life—”
“Should be short but merry.” Cate cut him off. “Yes, Bart was wont to say that, too. It’s a downright stupid maxim, if you ask me.”
Moonshine smiled. “I’d have to agree with you. The merry part is fine, but let’s marry that with a long life, please… Though of course I wouldn’t want to be an immortal like them.” Shuddering, he pointed at a couple of figures making their way up from the dockside toward the hall. “What’s with their long faces? Sheesh—they don’t look like they’d be any fun at a party.”
Cate gave a hollow laugh. “I’m not really in the party spirit myself right now,” she said.
“You know what? Maybe that’s exactly what we should do!” Moonshine said, his eyes bright. “Put a hefty chunk of your inheritance behind the bar at Ma Kettle’s, send out invitations far and wide and have ourselves a party—nothing better than getting filthy drunk with your buccaneer mates!”
Cate shook her head. “Do you really think that would make me feel better?”
Moonshine grinned. “How would I know? We’re little more than strangers. Besides, I’m not old enough to consume hard liquor. Prescription drugs, on the other hand…”
Cate rolled her eyes. “In any case, I don’t get the inheritance unless I agree to be your deputy.” Her eyes met his. “And there’s no chance of that happening anytime soon.”
Moonshine shrugged. “Hey-ho. No party for you then, CC. Just the almost-widow’s armband for another few months and, I fear, more of those lines across your forehead. Of course, Uncle Luck’s bequest could also buy you some timely Botox. I’m sure my mother could recommend someone.”
Cate shook her head. “You’re really not a very nice person, Moonshine, are you?”
“No, I’m not.” A sliver of starlight broke through the branches overhead and bisected his face. “But let’s face facts: There are more than enough nice people in this world,” he said. “You’ve got nice Connor Tempest and nice Jasmine Peacock and oh, that lovely Lorcan Furey, and… well, the list goes on. Nice, nice, nice. What the world needs right now is characters, more like Uncle Luck. He wasn’t always nice but he’ll be remembered as a legend.”
Cate nodded. “And you’re planning to step into his shoes, are you?”
Moonshine shrugged. In his hand was a pomegranate, which he’d just grabbed from the branches above them. He sliced it in two with his pocketknife and began intently removing the seeds—every last one of them. Cate watched him with renewed interest.
“Do you have OCD?” she asked.
“I have pretty much everything.” Moonshine continued worrying away at the fruit. “You name it. Lots and lots of baggage, all personally monogrammed of course!”
“Poor little rich boy,” Cate said. “Where did it all go so wrong for you?”
“Oh, Cate,” Moonshine said. “Dear, sweet Cate! I know that it’s easy to romanticize being born into fabulous wealth, but I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t stop you from having this big gaping hole of empty inside.”
Cate snorted. “Try being born into abject poverty. When I was a kid, the big gaping hole was the one inside my stomach.”
Moonshine offered her the deseeded half of pomegranate and got to work on the other half. “Well, now you need never go hungry again,” he said. “Not with the money Uncle Luck has left you.” He flicked away another seed with evident disgust.
“You really expect me to come and be your deputy?” Cate said, shaking her head. “For three years?”
Fireflies seemed to dance in Moonshine’s eyes. “Can you imagine anything worse?” he asked.
Cate laughed at that. “I really don’t get you,” she said.
“Of course you don’t get me,” Moonshine said. “I’m far too much of a riddle for the likes of you to unpick. I’ve confounded some of the finest psychiatric minds on each of the seven oceans. Their voyages to the bottom of my psyche have cost my parents a pretty penny, but let’s face it, Trofie and Pops have got plenty to spare.” He looked at her strangely. “You’re smiling at me,” he said. “Please don’t do that. It’s unnerving.”
Cate shrugged. “I know one thing, Mr. Nasty,” she said. “You followed me out here, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, to make sure I was okay.”
“Oh nooo,” Moonshine said, seemingly horrified at the thought. “You couldn’t be more wrong. I came out here to bug the hell out of you. I saw you were vulnerable, Cate, and I closed in for the kill. That’s the kind of guy I am.”
Cate couldn’t help but notice that, however harsh his words, Moonshine was now smiling broadly back at her.
“Come on,” said Moonshine. “Better get back inside. I’ve got a plan I want to put to the Council and I think you should hear it.”
Cate raised an eyebrow at him questioningly, but he just tapped his lips and beckoned her to follow him. Shrugging, she did as he requested. It sounded as if things were about to get interesting.
Even before they set foot inside the hall, Cate and Moonshine could hear raised voices. The two Nocturnals they had seen earlier were exiting as they came to the doors.
“What’s going on?” Cate asked.
“The Evening Star has fallen to the enemy,” said the first of the messengers.
“What of Captain Fallico and the crew?” inquired Cate.
“Dead,” confirmed the second messenger. “Only the onboard Nocturnal survived, and he has been taken to Sanctuary. His wounds were very severe, though. He may not endure the night. The Federation is discussing a counterattack right now.”
“No time like the present, then!” Moonshine said, gathering himself. Cate looked at him questioningly as he pushed open the doors and stalked to the front of the Rotunda, leaving Cate trailing in his wake.
There were shouts from different factions within the room: some calling for retaliation against the Vampirates; others expressing fear that the enemy was gaining significant ground.
Ahab Black was trying to restore order to the proceedings. He seemed almost relieved when Moonshine leaped onto the stage and raised his own hand to quiet the baying crowd.
“I have a proposal, if I may beg your attention,” Moonshine said, standing firm under the gaze of so many experienced captains.
The roomful of pirates and Nocturnals looked at the teenager with interest and waited for him to go on.
“You may have heard that I’ve lately been promoted to the rank of captain. My uncle, Molucco, bequeathed me The Diablo, but it is currently in the possession of the Vampirates. So I’m a captain with no ship. The Wrathe family, as you are all aware, has had its fair share of wounds at the hands of our common enemy. I have lost both my uncles. I have lost the ship I would have captained. My parents’ ship has been targeted and my mother personally assaulted.
“But this war isn’t just about my family. It’s about all of us, all of our families. Many pirates have lost their lives.” His bright eyes surveyed the crowd as he added, “And many Nocturnals, too. But I can assure each and every one of you that many more lives will be destroyed if the Vampirate threat is allowed to forge ahead unchallenged. We must stand united and be brave enough to take the fight to the enemy.
“And that’s why I’m standing here. I’m rather hoping to persuade my fellow captains to help me recapture my uncle’s old ship. As a symbolic first attack.”
“You plan to recapture The Diablo from the Vampirates?” said Lisabeth Quivers, her interest piqued.
“That is what I would like to propose, yes.”
There were gasps around the room. Commodore Black spoke first. “Do you think you’re ready for such a mission?” he inquired.
Moonshine nodded. “I do. Though I would like to consult with Commodore Li and Commander Furey, among others, about the detail.”
At the sound of her name, Cheng Li turned to study the young man in front of her. He was a teenager on the precipice of manhood. His face, long hidden under an unruly fringe, now boldly proclaimed his lineage. His strong features made her think of both Barbarro and Molucco, though Moonshine’s face was rather more angular than those of his father and late uncle. This might be on account of his youth or perhaps the genetic gifts of his boundlessly beautiful mother. But the lad had the Wrathe eyes; of that there could be no doubt. It was as if they were precious booty shared out among the key members of the clan. And, right now, Moonshine’s eyes were wide and bright. He caught her gaze and walked directly over to her.
“Commodore Li,” he said, stretching out a hand. “Will you help me?”
Cheng Li’s intense almond-shaped eyes calmly appraised Moonshine Wrathe, the newest captain in the Federation. “I’ll hear you out,” she said coolly. “What exactly do you propose?”
Moonshine spoke out. “I’d like to put a team together to take back The Diablo and I want you… all of you on it.” He spread his arms wide to include the rest of Cheng Li’s crew, who sat around her: Connor, Cate, Jasmine—even Bo Yin.
His words and ambitions were swiftly digested by all those assembled. Each began considering the key challenges posed by his proposal.
“Do we know where The Diablo is right now?” Cheng Li asked.
Jasmine nodded. “Affirmative, Captain Li. We have their route mapped on the diorama on board The Tiger.”
“Okay,” Cheng Li said, “but we’ll need to corroborate when we last received digits on the vessel from the tracking teams.”
“The location of The Diablo was last confirmed at twenty-two hundred hours last night,” Bo Yin announced confidently from the audience.
“Thank you, Bo,” said Cheng Li, as the young pirate sat back down.
Connor spoke up with a question. “The Diablo was taken by Johnny Desperado, aka the Cowboy, wasn’t it? Sidorio’s joint second-in-command?”
Lorcan spoke up now. “That’s right, Deputy Tempest,” he said, his face grim. “Desperado masterminded the assassination of Molucco Wrathe and has now taken the ship as his own.”
“So,” Connor said, “The Diablo is right at the heart of the Vampirate fleet?”
“Yes,” answered Cheng Li. “Both symbolically and in practice. According to our latest information, the four key Vampirate vessels—The Blood Captain, The Vagabond, The Redeemer, and The Diablo—are all sailing in close formation.”
Commodore Black nodded ruminatively. “It will be hard to take out The Diablo so long as they remain so close.” The other captains nearby nodded in agreement.
Lorcan rose to speak. “It’s not unheard of for the Cowboy to break away from the others and head off on a jaunt,” he said. “Captain Li, I’m sure tracking can supply you with the data to back that up. Can I propose you sit tight and wait for Johnny to next go rogue? It’s only a matter of time before he does.”
Moonshine spoke again now, his eyes bright. “If we do succeed in taking The Diablo back, it will be a major morale boost for the Alliance.”
All those around him nodded. Cate looked thoughtfully at the young pirate. He was certainly full of surprises.
“We will succeed,” said Cheng Li, resolute. “For all those reasons, and more besides.”
“So are you in?” Moonshine said, his bright eyes circling the room. “It sounds like you’re in!”
There was a moment’s pause as Cheng Li glanced around at her young comrades. They each nodded. “If this Council of War ratifies our plan, then yes, Captain Wrathe, you have yourself a deal,” she said.
Commodore Black put his hand on Moonshine’s shoulder but addressed Cheng Li directly. “Commodore Li, I charge you with making this proposal a reality. As for everyone else, we have some attack strategy to work on ourselves. Time for a quick break, then key personnel should rendezvous in the bunker at twenty-three hundred hours.”
As the ceremony audience began to break up, Moonshine smiled gratefully. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you all.” His eyes settled on Cate. She nodded formally, then glanced down to write something in her notepad.
As he stepped down from the stage, Jasmine caught Moonshine’s attention. “I have a question, Captain Wrathe.”
Moonshine smiled. “Shoot,” he said.
“Why us? Surely there are plenty of other pirates you could employ—from The Typhon, for instance?”
Barbarro looked up at this. He had come over to shake his son’s hand, but he, too, was intrigued by Moonshine’s decision.
“Fair point, Deputy Peacock,” Moonshine said, nodding, “but consider my position. I’m a young buccaneer trying hard to stand on my own two feet. I’ve been given something of a break and I intend to capitalize on it. It wouldn’t say much about my leadership potential if I simply asked Mom and Dad to sort it all out for me, now would it?”
Excerpted from Vampirates 6: Immortal War by Somper, Justin Copyright © 2012 by Somper, Justin. Excerpted by permission.
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