The year is 1716—the Golden Age of the Pirates. An orphan who sleeps in the dusty kitchens of a quayside brothel, Merrin Smith is desperate to unravel the secrets of her past and find the truth about the events that brought her to Isla Perla as a child. Disguised as a sailor, she joins the crew of the pirate ship Riptide, helmed by the notorious Captain Erik Winters. Tenacious and rumored to be a madman, Winters is known as much for his ruthlessness as for his connection to the enigmatic and beautiful proprietress of The Goodnight Mermaid, Evangeline Dahl, who vanished from the island two summers before.This book is an epic, emotional adventure of two women—one desperate to save herself, and the other determined to be rescued—and the secret which binds them together.
About the Author
Seven Jane is an author of dark fantasy and speculative fiction. She is a member of The Author's Guild and Women's Fiction Writing Association. She lives in New York City.
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The first time I met the captain, I was drunk, filthy, and damn near destitute, clinging to the arms of a troubled woman like a piece of wreckage caught in a storm. Not unaccustomed to ferrying the sloppy weight of inebriated men, Claudette held me upright, with one arm low around my back and the other stretched firmly across my waist. She was a friend, not a lover, but her strong arms were tender around me as the two of us stumbled toward The Goodnight Mermaid, a tavern known as much for its ale as for its hospitality to women of the night — like Claudette — and the disreputable men who fancied them. The crew of the Riptide was foremost among the latter, though its captain — a man named Winters — did not waste his time on such frivolities.
"This is a fool's errand, Merrin Smith," Claudette hissed in my ear. The pretty lilt of her Caribbean accent was flat with frustration. "You've had too much wine. I think you should sleep off this compulsion before it becomes the end of you. I do not wish to see you dead." She had pleaded with me alongside every step of our slow, shuffling walk, imploring me mercilessly with her words and eyes to abandon my reckless impulse to pretend myself a man and join the Riptide's infamous crew. I trudged onward, doing my best to ignore her save for a grunt of rebuttal now and again when she became particularly insistent, or when her nails bit painfully into my skin. Luckily for me, women in Claudette's profession were more concerned with parting sailors from their coin than they were with worrying over their impulses, and thus she was as unfamiliar with begging as with suffering nonsense — men's, mine, or otherwise. And so it was not long before her pleas became bitter with irritation and then narrowed steeply into fury before ceasing entirely. By the time the tavern loomed into view, my lifelong friend had become so silent that the only noise left to accompany our walk was the labored sounds of our own breathing — mine heavy and uneven from drink, hers labored from shouldering the burden of my added weight — and the scratching of her linen skirts on the gravel beneath our feet. In truth, I would have preferred her nagging to the ghastly combination of these sounds. With every footfall, they raked like cold, deathlike fingers against my ears, growing louder and more incessant as it joined with the bothersome drumming of my own heartbeat. Together the noises swelled to form an ominous cacophony, drowning out every other sound that hung in the salty, humid air until it even filled the space between my heartbeats with dread.
I refused to acknowledge the truth of Claudette's warning, even as it echoed horribly in my chest. This compulsion would very likely be the end of me. The thought should have sobered me — it should have stopped me in my tracks — but still my feet compelled me ever forward. I had been waiting for this moment for as long as I could remember, so much so that even the threat of imminent death would not stop me. And so I marched ever forward, stopping occasionally to slow the spinning of the world around me before moving on.
The clamor pounding within my head grew as we neared The Goodnight Mermaid, bloating itself as it fed off the racket that poured forth from within the tavern walls and wafted out to us on the street. The whole of it washed over me in a drowning tide so dense and overwhelming that I nearly passed out from the sheer strain of it, and I struggled not to let my mounting terror show. If I gave Claudette even the smallest hint of hesitation, such a master negotiator was she that she might be able to dissuade me from my goal and lure me home. I'd hate her for it when I awoke tomorrow, warm and safely on land in the hammock I kept in the brothel's kitchen, but she and I both knew that she'd gladly accept my hate if it changed the course of what I intended to do.
Alive and hateful was still better than dead, I supposed. If I was sober, I would very likely agree.
When we reached the door of the tavern, I shrugged myself out of Claudette's steadying grasp and fell softly onto my arm against the frame, waiting for strength to replace the tingling sensation in my legs. I caught an expression of piteous contempt as it washed over my friend's face in the lamplight. She had little patience for drunken stupor. "It sours even the best men into scoundrels," she was fond of saying; never mind that there were piteously few decent men to begin with, particularly in a place like Isla Perla. It was also costly and muddied the mind, she'd reminded me when I'd emptied a cask of wine early that evening. The wine had given me the courage to make the trek to The Goodnight Mermaid, but had indeed taken its price in strength. After several minutes of walking, feeling was only just beginning to return to my wobbling limbs, and as my strength grew my bravery waned. I hoped, now that we'd arrived, that it had been a worthwhile trade, but I knew what Claudette would say if I shared my thoughts so I did not.
"I have to do this, Claudette," I told her finally as the feel of my boots, still awkwardly large though we'd stuffed the toe with cotton, became firm on the gravel. I drew in a deep swallow of air, wishing one could drink bravery from the wind. "It's now or never. Go."
She sucked her teeth at me. "I have never left you before," she spat. "I will not begin now."
"If someone sees you, they might recognize me, and then it would be bad for the both of us. Please, ma chère amie, you must," I pleaded, using the French words of Claudette's native tongue. With a deep sigh, I allowed my gaze to roam over the woman's beautifully tanned face, her delicate neck, and the ripeness of her figure, wishing that I were capable of loving her as I knew she did me. Like her sisters at the brothel, Claudette had no interest in romance. Nor did she keep the company of rough men or women, or abide by the compulsions that so often earned one an early grave at the bottom of an unforgiving sea. That Claudette had become my friend was a small miracle; that she had grown to love me was a mystery. She and I were brothers in arms, sisters in secret. She was the closest thing to family I had ever known, and very likely the only person alive who cared anything for my fate. It was this loyalty more than anything else that kept her by my side this evening. She had not frequented The Goodnight Mermaid much at all in the past few years, preferring to meet her clients in the parlors at The House of Swallows.
"Please, go," I repeated, pulling the brim of my hat low in an attempt to shield myself from her eyes. I tested my footing again on the loose boards of the tavern's porch, satisfied by the creaking noise of the rotted wood. I pushed myself off the doorframe and stood solidly on my own in the door.
Claudette stood still for a second longer, the tips of her fingers gently tucking away a stray lock of hair that had escaped my hat as she committed to memory her final view of me. She'd stolen the hat for my purposes from a client who had left it behind in her room when he'd sailed the week before. It was slightly too large for my head, but we'd wound a bandana around my disheveled brown hair to anchor it in place and it had done a fair enough job. The rest of my ensemble we pieced together from items harvested from other men who'd frequented the House of Sparrows over the last several weeks, as well as what we could purchase surreptitiously in the market. A pair of odd-fitting cotton breeches, a shirt with a torn sleeve, and a wide cow skin belt that carried an assortment of knives, a pistol with two bullets, and a small pouch of odds and ends, including a rusted compass and a small flask of rum. To these we'd added a cutlass Claudette had stolen from her procurer, a sweaty, beetle-eyed man called Maurice who made a habit of liberating weapons from his clientele whilst they were otherwise engaged in the arms of women and drink. Also, a brass-buttoned linen waistcoat the color of wet sand that Claudette had won in a bet and tied with a sash fashioned from one of her dresses (this had not gone over well with Mrs. Emery, the madam of the brothel who oversaw the women's wardrobes). The boots I'd pulled from a corpse with a bloody leg. The little bits of silver and gold that we'd decorated my slops with had been donated from the collections of the other women in Maurice's employ — and which could escape the notice of Mrs. Emery, who was as keen of shiny things as was an octopus. All told, it was a convincing outfit and I looked the part of a proper pirate, although I'd never been farther out to sea than to visit the merchants along the beach. Even so, the water had always called to me, beckoning me so insistently that finding my path to it was inevitable.
Claudette softened. "Adieu, ma chérie," she whispered, her voice now returned to the gentle whisper she reserved just for me. "I hope to see you again." Then her lips brushed against my cheek and she was gone.
I watched her shadow disappear into an alley between buildings and wondered if I would ever see her again. I had never been much of an optimist, but the parting was as somber in my mind as it had been on Claudette's lips. I would never see my beloved friend again, of that I could almost be certain. But it was as much for her as for me that I had made my way to the tavern, and for all of us on Isla Perla, and so I steeled myself for the task ahead, adjusted the belt's rest atop my hips, and took my first step inside The Goodnight Mermaid with the hopes of becoming a pirate.CHAPTER 2
The tavern was — as it always was — teeming with raucous sailors and their purchased women. The men drank and laughed and, on occasion, beat at each other for the sport of it while the rest of the throng gambled their fortunes on the winner, and the women clung tightly to their arms, awaiting their share. The tables and floor were littered with half-emptied bottles of liquor and scraps of forgotten food; a thin layer of sand covered every surface. The flames of uneven candles flickered above their thick pots of wax to reflect in the glass of mirrors whose gilded frames were tarnished from the salty air.
Yet even unkempt and in disarray, the tavern was a wonderful sight, warm and inviting and slightly otherworldly, a fitting starting point as it was this tavern's mistress for whom I sailed. It had once belonged to an enchanting creature by the name of Evangeline Dahl, a woman who had seemed to be sculpted from the finest treasures of the sea, with milk-white skin, tumbles of curls the color of spun gold, and eyes of chrysoprase that sparkled like waves under a brilliant sun. She had held no equal in her loveliness, or in her nature, which had been likewise as wild and unpredictable as the sea — a disposition that was requisite for survival in a place as feral as the tropical, Caribbean paradise of Isla Perla. Even in its golden age the land of pirates kept an uneasy peace, held in place largely by an abundance of riches, rum, and loose women who knew how to manage the men the rest of the world had cast away. No one quite knew when Mistress Dahl had been delivered on the beach, only that she had arrived one evening by way of a red-sailed merchant ship and had proven to be as smart as she was beautiful, possessing an uncanny intelligence that made her particularly adept at navigating the tides of trade between the pirates and merchants who visited the island. She'd been clever and fierce, and as sharp as the knives she wielded like they were simply another appendage, wearing them tucked in her bodice and lashed to her ankle, even concealed deep within the looping curls of her hair. Within a fortnight of her arrival Evangeline Dahl had established herself both as proprietress of the tavern and as a new force on Isla Perla. Within a month she had charmed the island into submission, providing new avenues to keep it bathed in wealth and seduced by its own debauchery so perfectly that almost none had been the wiser to her intent.
Those who benefited from her loved her, and those that did not watched her with envy and respect. Those who neither traded with her nor envied her still feared her, for in addition to her tribe of loyal men that kept watch over her tavern, she also held the favor of Captain Erik Winters — a man known either for his quick temper or savage nature, but very rarely had anyone lived long enough in his presence to witness both.
Though the two had kept their romance in confidence, it had nonetheless been a well-known secret on the island that Mistress Dahl and the Riptide's tenacious captain held a contentious and fervent affair. It had evolved into a sort of local legend, and over the years it had become difficult to distinguish where the truth ended and the fantasy began, which only made the tale more captivating. Rumor had it that though the two often found themselves at opposite ends of their own interests — hers the manipulation of trade and the seagoing men whose prizes sustained the island, and his the oft contrary struggle to maintain his seat of power under both her conspiring gaze and his crew's — yet they were drawn to each other as unavoidably as the sea is to the shore. Their love, it was said, was ardent and dangerous, the sort that would compel one to hold a knife to their lover's neck while kissing with such passion that the edges of their blades cut at their own throats.
This romance between Mistress Dahl and Captain Winters was the essence of Isla Perla itself. It was wild, and untamed, and unyieldingly beautiful, and I had loved them both for as long as I could remember — she the governess of the sea and him the man who sailed it. Their story was as entrenched in my spirit as was the island that had been my home, for though I could not remember when I had first arrived at Isla Perla many years before, I could, in the murky haze of my earliest memories, just recall the delicate shimmer of Mistress Dahl's golden hair as she waved at me from the stoop of her tavern. That singular memory, although treasured, was also unreliable. For one, it seemed both recent and ages ago and I could never be sure exactly when, nor if, it had really happened. And, for another, it stubbornly insisted that Winters was sitting at Evangeline's side, but so bright was the halo of her hair that it outshone everything else and so I could never quite be certain it was he.
When the news of Mistress Dahl's sudden disappearance had swept the shores of Isla Perla two summers before, none had returned to harbor more racked than Captain Winters, whose already capricious temperament had become terrifying to even the most surly of rogues. His fury was afforded a wide berth by all, even his own men, and none were immune to his ire. When he had first arrived, Winters ransacked Isla Perla searching for Evangeline. Without hesitation, he and his crew cut down everyone who had ever so much as raised their voice at the island's most beloved proprietress as they moved from the pink-sanded beach through the quayside and into the lush green wildness at the interior of the island. No evidence of her had been found on the island or in the blue waters of the neighboring seas, which in the months since Evangeline's disappearance the Riptide's murderous crew had run red with the blood of any that sailed across its path. They overtook ship after ship, merchants and Navy and pirate alike, leaving few alive in their wake. The captain's reputation, savage at the onset, had risen to the level of madman, and he'd taken to wanton marauding and plundering with a fury only a man who wished for death could have as he boiled the waters in search of his ladylove. His hunt had thus far been unsuccessful, but this was of little concern to his crew, whose interest in recovering Mistress Dahl was tempered by an appetite as sufficiently whetted by the riches of the prizes they took as by the blood they spilled to obtain them. When at long last the Riptide's hull was stuffed full and Winters and his men had finally had their fill of gold and vengeance, the ship retired once more to Isla Perla, and so it remained until now.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Isle of Gold"
Copyright © 2018 Seven Jane.
Excerpted by permission of Black Spot Books.
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