The Last Great House of Isla Tortuga

Originally Published in Dreaming Again (HarperCollins, 2008)

She enters my name as Tobias Truman. I watch her ink the delicate curve of the capitals, the ostrich-feather quill dancing as she writes. My name is entered below Mr. Drummond’s, his below the Captain; two of the three marked with the swooping X that denotes status as paying guest, a true patron of the house rather than tagalong visitor.

The Madam ends with a final flourish that leaves the quill poised above a well of ink. Her needle-sharp eyes study me, peering through the thick veil of her lashes. I fidget beneath her gaze until she smiles and turns towards the Captain with a raised eyebrow.

‘And the boy?’

The Captain spins on his unsteady legs, stares at me through the haze of rum and ruin that accompanies him whenever we put ashore. He considers the question for a few moments, mocking finger to his pursed lips, the barest hint of a smile visible through the tangled mane of his beard.

“The boy? What do you say, Benjamin? Should we give the boy his first tumble?’

Mr. Drummond scowls. He is a bookish man, despite his first-mate’s bluster. Short and straight as a ramrod, still every bit a schoolmaster despite his years at sea. He gives the Captain a short nod, neat and efficient.

‘Aye,’ he says. ‘Let the lad sample the wares, if he’s fool enough to agree.’

I am. Fool enough to agree, fool enough to seek this out, fool enough to abandon my London name and London comforts for the Black Swallow and a cabin boy’s berth. Fool enough to risk my secrets, just to see the last of the Old Houses in action.

I’m fool enough, and I tell them so.

‘Please, Captain.’

There is a pause then, an empty lull that I’ve learned to recognize as the first sign of a coming storm. I can feel a thrill of fear run down my back, the hair on my neck standing to attention. The Captain’s smile grows slowly; like the shoals of a hidden reef coming into view too late.

Mr. Drummond’s face a grim mask, concealing the clumsy knot of desire and loathing. Taciturn, is Mr. Drummond, and a pederast at the best of times. He has sought to take my innocence for the last year, despite the Captain’s orders to the contrary.

The Madam waits patiently, the nib of her pen paused above the ledger. A bead of ink swells on the tip. I may not have the Madam’s experience, but I have always been a quick study. I understand my place in this struggle, my role as a sharp knife used to tease the flesh of Ben Drummond’s throat.

The Mate has thought our struggle beneath the Captain’s notice. Ben Drummond has rarely needed to practice such subtlety; the buggery of cabin boys is common enough, even aboard respectable vessels. Had I set sail on another ship, under the command of any other captain, the question of my first tumble would have been decided long since and its tragic consequences already played out, for better or for worse.

I have been lucky with the Black Swallow, with her crew and her captain. Luckier than I deserve, fool that I am, so far from home in my thirteenth year. I force myself to affect excitement, an eagerness to see what lies beyond the velvet curtains. My stomach churns, a queasy roil worse than the sickness that plagued my first day on open water.

The Captain shifts his gaze between Mr. Drummond and me, leering as he fishes coins from their hiding place beneath his shirt.

‘For the boy,’ he says, dropping a tarnished gold disk onto the Madam’s creaking table. The Madam palms the coin, adds a flourishing X beside my name. Mr. Drummond’s eyes draw deep into his skull.

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘For the boy. May the whores treat him gentle on this special night.’

There is laughter then, laughter from both men; Mr. Drummond’s heaving cackle joining with the Captain’s booming roar. A cold chill settles into my gut as the tension between them eases, the same chill I get when the Swallow is becalmed and laying fallow in the water.

There are times when it’s better to weather the storm and see where it takes you, but I have heard the stories about the Old Houses and I know them better than any man aboard the Swallow. I have connived my way here, using Mr. Drummond’s hunger as best I can, but I find myself suddenly afraid of what lies beyond.

The Captain claps my shoulder, pushing me towards the tattered velvet curtain. I draw a deep breath and step across the threshold, into the House of Pale Flowers, last of the great, old houses of Isla Tortuga, ready to find the twice-born whore who will transform Toby Truman forever.

The Madam leads us along the cobwebbed hall, along the floorboards that have been worn smooth with the rolling gait of a hundred thousand sailors, past the walls lined with the yellowed skulls of the dead. The Captain walks beside her, exaggerating his drunken stumble. Occasionally he reaches out, rubbing the cranium of an old friend, staining his fingers with bitter oil and dust. Mr. Drummond walks by my side, a quick march with a stiff back, eyes focused on the door at the far end, gazing down the impossible length of the hallway.

It’s the noise that surprises me as we walk, the raucous roar of a drunken crowd dancing and singing to the quick beat of a rolling shanty. Something about the noise seems strangely inappropriate, given the stories that surround the Old Houses; every tale tells of the silent ladies, unable to utter a single word on pain of death, quiet as the graves they were rescued from, even in the throes of passion. It seems sacrilege to engage in such revels in their presence, an insult to their sacrifices, even if their customers have never put much faith in God or the church.

It was different once, if you believe the stories. They say the Old Houses were sacred places, the home of lost secrets and forbidden loves, everything a pirate needed to warm his waterlogged heart.

‘You’ve picked a good night,’ the Madam says, pausing before the oak door that ends the hallway. ‘There is only a small crowd; if you’ll amuse yourselves in the parlour for a time, our girls will be with you shortly.’

Then she pushes the door open and the roar of the parlour is doubled; it hits us like a cannon’s retort, impossibly loud and stung with a sudden flash of heat. The parlour stinks of pipe smoke and hot blood, the broken voices of sea-faring men singing along with an off-key piano.

I once heard a crewman call this place the last great house of ill-repute, his voice full of quiet reverence, but I see little to revere in the human flotsam that litters this room. They fill the overstuffed divans and driftwood tables, with grey-fleshed girls limping on twisted legs or serving drinks with an arm that has been broken and poorly set before healing.

A dead girl emerges from the throng, ready to lead us to the table. Her left eye is missing; the flesh around the empty cavity an angry and puckered scar. She holds forward three fingers, then waves her hand to indicate we should follow. As she turns, I can see the clumsy stitching that has repaired a wound to the back of her skull. It looks deep; like the aftermath of an axe-blow or the crushing weight of an iron belaying pin. The stitches hold the black flesh closed, barely concealing the rot at the seam.

Mr. Drummond strides past me, following her as she cuts through the crowd of flesh. I hesitate for a moment, hands on my ears, trying not to breath in the scent of unwashed sailors and death. The weight of the Captain’s arm settles across my shoulders, his thin lips drawing close to my ears.

‘Relax,’ he says. ‘They use the broken girls as waitresses; the pretty ones are kept for the back rooms.’

I nod. The Captain offers me a wide grin, his first genuine smile of the evening.

‘Come,’ he says, breath hot against the side of my face. ‘First we’ll drink, then we’ll make merry. You’ll forget that they’re dead soon enough.’

He guides me into the throng with a steady hand. We move carefully through the press of bodies, pausing so the captain can greet old friends he finds among the crowd. Mr. Drummond has ordered by the time we reach the table, the waitress depositing three copper mugs filled with the Captain’s favoured concoction of rum and gunpowder.

‘To your health,’ the Captain says. He throws his head back and takes a long draught.

Mr. Drummond doesn’t drink at first, simply sits with his back to the wall, eyes darting as he sweeps the crowd for familiar faces. He is a cautious man, hiding his nerves behind a scowl, always searching for those that would do him harm.

The Captain deposits me in a seat by the wall, the seat closest to Ben Drummond and his eyes of cold flint. Deposited me here with a quick wink and a leer of pure joy, a leer that assures me I have little choice in my position. His game continues, until he says otherwise. It’s closer to Mr. Drummond than I’ve been in a year, closer than I’d want to be under normal circumstances.

I stoop in my seat, a clammy sense of fear in the pit of my stomach.

Mr. Drummond leans his skinny weight onto the scarred driftwood of the tabletop. He steeples his fingers, holding them before his mouth, a lingering gesture from his days as a man of learning.

‘Relax,’ he says, soft enough that the Captain can barely hear. ‘You’ve got nothing to fear from me, not here.’

I nod, once, but it does little to quell the nerves. There have been incidences aplenty aboard the Swallow, despite the Captain’s close watch, too many close calls for me to take Mr. Drummond at his word. He makes a rough gurgle in the depths of his throat, a sound that’s almost a sigh, and he turns his cold eyes towards me.

‘Relax, Toby Truman,’ he says. ‘There are darker pleasures in this world than you can offer, and plenty here to satiate even my appetites. The Old Houses are dangerous enough without worrying about me. Save your trembling for something that deserves it.’

There are stories aplenty about Ben Drummond, tales as dark and unfriendly as any you’ve heard over a midsummer campfire. They say he tutored a governor’s child once, before his appetites forced him to take to the sea. They say he’s been banished from ship after ship, cast off for deeds that even a buccaneer crew could not sanction. They say a great deal, these stories I’ve heard, and they imply much that is worse.

But the stories of the Old Houses are darker still, and the stories about the Pale Flower are often darkest of them all, so I choose to believe him, just this once. I let myself relax, let myself lean back into the rickety comfort of my chair and sip my drink while the Captain’s order fills the table with rum and brandy and a pipes filled with opium and fine tobacco.

The Captain breathes a white plume into the air, exhaling smoke like a contented dragon as we watch the crowd thin and disappear into the back rooms of the bordello. He has his boot propped on the driftwood table, a wooden cup dangling lazily from his fingers.

I take my time and study the crowd, watching even the bravest sailor flinch when he’s forced to address one of the silent waitresses. They are mangled creatures, the victims of violent deaths, brought back with hurried stitching and missing parts. Mournful, misshapen creatures; women who have been destroyed by their deal with the black spirits that sponsor the Old Houses.

There are few men who are truly comfortable here, though the Old Houses have been pirate dens since the first buccaneer set foot upon the shore. They flinch and they look away, unwilling to deal with the walking dead regardless of their anxious glances towards the curtains and the whore’s boudoirs. They are men who are plagued by fear, drinking and dancing only to escape the inevitable. It isn’t long before I wonder why they’ve come.

Only the Captain seems truly at home. He revels in the promise of debauchery, in the willing violation of the natural order that the Pale Flower represents.

Mr. Drummond does not revel, though he hides it well. His face is old leather, stretched across the skull, perfect for hiding the minutia of expression. He drinks cautiously, refusing the Captain’s offer to share a pipe, stays alert to the impending possibilities of the evening. His drinks are pushed to my corner of the table, pushed across with quiet gestures he believes the Captain does not notice.

‘Drink,’ Mr. Drummond tells me. ‘It will help with your nerves.’

I drink a little, choking on the angry tang of rum. I keep my eyes on the serving girls, on their horrific wounds and scars, on the heavy curtains that occasionally part and allow one of the throng access to the back rooms and the ladies who dwell there. On the grimace of fear and confusion that flashes across each patron’s face, as though unsure exactly why they’re taking the next step.

‘Captain,’ I say. ‘They look afraid.’

The Captain is drunk now, truly drunk rather than some feigned act. He roars with laughter.

‘Of course they’re afraid,’ the Captain says, his roar cutting through the crowd like a shark’s fin. ‘They don’t know the secret. There is an art to loving an Old House harlot. Don’t you agree, Mr. Drummond?’

Mr. Drummond gives a short, crowing laugh.

‘He doesn’t believe me,’ the Captain says.

‘It would appear not, Captain.’

The Captain’s lip curls into a sly smile, his eyes shining through the smoke haze.

‘That’s Ben’s choice,’ he says. ‘His to make, despite the danger.’

‘Danger, Captain?’ Mr. Drummond says.

‘Danger,’ the Captain says. ‘Though not the type you’d think. True, there is always danger when sleeping with a woman, no matter who she may be. But the ladies of the Old Houses are different, they get beneath your skin. The memory of them gnaws at you during the lonely nights at sea, nibbling away your soul until there’s nothing left. Therein lies the art; learning to love them while the opportunity presents itself, then letting the memory go before it destroys you.’

Mr. Drummond scowls, thick brows meeting above his hooked nose.

‘Love, Captain?’ he says. “Love is the stuff of poetry and children’s tales, not the base currency of the Old Houses. Where does one find love here, among the dead?’

The Captain smiles, touches a finger to the side of his nose.

‘Love is inescapable, Mr. Drummond, even in the Old Houses. For we are creatures married to the sea, unfit for loving ordinary women. The ladies are dead and reborn, unfit for loving an ordinary man. We are all outcasts in the eyes of god, so we love each other as best we can. It may not be the love of your poems and fairy tales, I’ll grant you that, but what they offer us is true enough for my purposes.’

‘You’re a romantic.’

‘Who isn’t, these days? We all bear the mark of romance, though we hide it like the first signs of plague.’ The Captain peers at us from beneath the brim of his hat. ‘Take note, young Toby, Mr. Drummond may doubt me, but he hasn’t yet said that I’m wrong.’

Mr. Drummond snorts, taking a long draught from his cup. He places it, empty, on the table.

“Misguided,’ he says. ‘But not wrong. It was different, once, before the Frenchman and his army of street-whores.’

He stands and inclines his head, calling our attention to the curtain leading into the rear rooms. The Madam is waiting there. I can make out a cluster of girls behind her, pale and regal, resplendent in shimmering gowns and their necklaces of silver and gold. Overdressed for harlots, but the Old Houses have always known that women and wealth go hand in hand when it comes to raising a pirate’s ardour.

‘It’s time,’ Mr. Drummond says. For the first time I can hear a slight current of fear below the croak of his voice. His left hand, his whipping hand, flexes and curls in anticipation of what’s to come. ‘My advice, boy, should you want to take it; get what you need, leave everything else behind. Remember that you sleep with the dead tonight, and there’s precious little you can do to change that. Any feeling you see in them is just a hopeful figment, wished into being by your own desires, as ethereal and intangible as mist on the sea.’

It is the Captain who selects my partner, a dark-haired girl named Beatrice with skin as pale and clear as the china dolls I played with as a child. She leads me into a boudoir that smells of clove incense and stale sweat; a heavy fugue that hangs in the smoky air, so thick I can barely see the rafters above us.

Beatrice holds my hand between her cold fingers, leads me into the heart of the smoke where a lounge and bed lays waiting. Her cold hands guide me, seating me on the plump lounge whose leather is ripped and rent.

‘Sit,’ she says, and I am so shocked that I do so with mouth agape, like a wounded fish sucking for air upon the deck.

‘Would you care for a drink? Something to smoke? We have some fine opium, if you’d prefer it?’

Her voice is unnaturally dark and rich, a sombre funeral dirge chafing to break into a lively waltz once the audience’s back is turned. I shake my head, mute, and she arranges herself with languorous grace upon the threadbare cushions of the bed.

‘You can talk,’ I tell her, and I’m sure there’s a quaver in my voice as I do so. She nods, smiling at me, her lips drawing into a winsome curve that belies her idle authority in this exchange. I feel a sharp heat rising into my cheeks.

‘The ladies of the Old Houses do not talk,’ I tell her. ‘They are silent as the graves they were rescued from, and nearly as trustworthy when it comes to keeping a man’s secrets.’

She shrugs, a practiced gesture that sees her bosom heave with fluid grace.

‘We do note speak to men,’ she says. ‘A necessity of the

contract, but one that’s good for business.’

‘Then why speak to me?’

She shrugs again. I wince, suddenly aware of how complacent I’ve been so long at sea, so long undiscovered and surrounded by men. It is easy to hide among sailors, among men unfamiliar with women beyond a few trysts at shore, willing to see a boy simply because they cannot imagine anything but in my place.

The skin at the base of my neck itches, my face is scarlet. I am not yet ready to return home, to abandon the sea and take up the safe life my mother planned for me. The dead girl revels in my discomfort.

‘There must be some mistake,’ I tell her, doing my best to keep the nerves from my voice.

‘There must,’ Beatrice agrees. ‘Though it is strange, is it not? That a lady of the old houses can talk to a man? Break the compact without the spectre of death coming to claim her?’

‘Strange,’ I agree. Beatrice shrugs a third time, letting the slit of her robe fall open a little wider. The flesh of her chest is smooth and pale as cream, marred only by the livid scar of a bullet hole next to her left breast. I find myself tempted to reach out, to stroke the vivid knot of poorly healed skin.

‘Perhaps,’ Beatrice says. ‘Stranger things have happened, in a house such as this.’

She turns, drawing her robe closed, the legacy of her first death disappearing beneath layers of crimson silk.

I draw my feet up, hugging my knees close to my chest, feeling childish for the first time in months.

‘So,’ I say, quietly.

‘So,’ Beatrice agrees. Her voice is like liquor now, lush and harsh and heavy with promise.

‘What happens next?’

‘Traditionally, there is an exchange,’ Beatrice says. ‘We do what is necessary to sate your desires, or what we can do, to that end, in the time we have. Some men remain a work in progress.’

‘And then?’

‘And then we are done,’ she says. ‘Then you go on your way, sailing off on your ship, and the memory of our time together gnaws at you, just as your captain promised. It gnaws at your soul and nibbles at your dreams and swallows you whole in order to pay my tithe.’

‘Just like that?’

She nods, gravely, her voice devoid of mockery.

‘Just like that,’ she says. ‘It is something of a sacred duty.’

‘And what happens if you fail?’ I ask her. ‘What happens if I come here desiring nothing?’

Beatrice smiles, leaning forward as though preparing to whisper a final secret. I lean in, close enough to taste the sea-salt and pickling wine that lingers beneath the heavy scent of her perfume.

‘Everyone desires something,’ she says. ‘They don’t come here if they don’t.’

One pale hand curls around my hair, drawing me closer. She kisses me and her lips taste like gravestones, like sodden dirt mixed with warm copper, like the hunger of a starving man.

It is a good kiss, powerful, a lure to reel me into the unfamiliar territory of her bed. I know better than to follow, but it takes more strength that I have to resist.

I succumb, briefly. We do not make love, though I allow Beatrice to unravel the tattered strips of my disguise. We do not make love, but her cold hands caress my face, my ribs, the hollows of my knee. We do not make love, but her kiss is cold against my lips and filled with promises.

For a moment I allow myself to feel hopeless within her grasp, writhing and twisting like a fish on the line that knows it will be drawn up onto the deck. Then it is over, halted, nothing more than a momentary weakness. Beatrice lays my head on the pillow, gently wraps me in the cold shadow of her embrace.

We lie together, quietly, a narrow shiver running the length of my spine. She has discarded her robe, allowing me to see the puckered scar once more, a ghost pale reminder of a pistol shot to the heart. This time I do reach out, tracing the knotted flesh with my finger. It’s strangely warm, as though touched by some lingering spark of fire from the lead slug that ended her life.

‘Did you know them?’ I ask; it’s an incautious question, one that takes her off-guard. Beatrice looks down, presses her finger against the old wound, rubbing it lightly with her cold hands.

‘I knew them,’ she says, finally, her voice little more than a whisper. ‘Not well, perhaps, but well enough.’

‘Do you remember?’ I ask. ‘I mean, you hear stories, girls sold to the Old Houses before their times; still living, even if they’re told otherwise; their flesh left cold and clammy by magic, to give the illusion of the grave.’

Beatrice smiles gently. I notice, for the first time, the reddish tinge of old blood on her teeth.

‘I remember enough,’ she says. ‘It isn’t something you’d recall clearly, given the choice, but I remember enough to be sure. To know that they brought me back, called me home to uphold my side of our bargain, bound me with silence and duty in exchange for my life.’

A cold thumb presses itself against my forehead, resting in the space between my eyes.

‘Where do you hear such stories, little pirate?’

It’s my turn to shrug.

‘And why are you interested? What do you care for the poor, dead girls of Isla Tortuga?’

Beatrice studies me. There are stories about eyes and windows, so I know enough to close my own, to lock away the memories of my mother and her pale flesh, of the nightmares she offered me as bedtime stories until I was old enough to run away. Some days I can still hear her echo, all the old warnings she offered me, explaining that the world was a cold place for women and a colder place for a courtesan’s child.

With closed eyes I permit myself to remember my mother; her violet eyes, the soothing chill of her hands, the ghostly heartbeat that made a lie of her graveyard pallor.

She hated my love of the sea, my infatuation with pirates and sailors, my soul that would not be tamed by books and tutors and the fruits of her wealth.

But it was a cold hatred, the final ember of an extinguished fire, trapped beneath the eternal frost that chilled both her body and soul. I sometimes wonder if she wept when she discovered her child was a runaway. It seems unlikely.

Beatrice is staring when I open my eyes, still waiting for an answer. I look at her, catching a glimpse of ghostly memories hemmed in behind her grey pupils. I see pain and sorrow and not enough joy, the same echoes that lived in my mother’s head, buried deep beneath the sultry languor of her eternal stare. Beatrice gives me a slow smile, disarming in its honesty. We have both given something away here, letting our secrets live a little closer to the surface that we’d like.

When she speaks, her voice is little more than a whisper: ‘How long have you been at sea, Tobias Truman?’

And though it has only been a year and three months, it still feels like forever, the weight of the days bunching like a clenched fist deep in my chest. Beatrice touches a tear as it rolls down my face, holds it before me on the tip of her lily-white finger.

‘This is not an answer, little pirate?’

‘Maybe not,’ I tell her. ‘But everyone has the secrets, and the wise sell them as dearly as they can.’

I have been gathering tears for a year now, hoarding them up like my own private ocean. Beatrice takes me in her arms, cooing quietly as I scatter her bed with my gathered sorrow, a hundred tiny shards of salt-water that I dare not carry back to the sea when I leave.

Beatrice shows me to the hall when our time is done, closing her door behind me with a gentle smile and a farewell kiss. The Madam waits nearby, ready to lead me away. It’s a long hall, lined with doors, each leading to another boudoir, another pirate, another dead girl playing at life. I listen carefully as the Madam leads me past them, straining my ears to pick up every heaving breath and grunting drive as client after client expends his seed. There are no women among the voices, no matter how I strain, just masculine moans and manly groans as the moment of climax is reached.

For a moment, barely longer than the space of three breaths, I could swear I hear Mr. Drummond’s hollow cackle. The sound is followed by the familiar snap of the lash, the wet sound of flesh flaying off bone. My steps falter, causing the Madam to pause. She looks down at me, her eyebrow raised.

‘Any desire,’ she says. ‘It’s the role of the Old Houses. We try to fulfil any desire, and we take what we need in return. He cannot hurt them.’

‘He wants to,’ I tell her. ‘He wants to hear them scream.’

The Madam offers me an elegant shrug.

‘The dead do not scream,’ she says. ‘They do not speak, they do not sigh, they are silent as the grave. This is immutable, even in the face of desire.’

‘So I’ve been told,’ I tell her. ‘But they could speak, if they wanted to. They could give him what they wanted.’

The Madam regards me carefully, silent as the night. We stand there, amid the whisper of a dozen clients behind closed doors, the muted buzz of the lounge in the distance.

Eventually the Madam nods.

‘They could,’ she says, ‘but they won’t. It would be the end, the talking; no man would come here, once the secrets are revealed.’

She stares at me, her eyes ancient behind the thick layers of make-up.

“Do you understand, little pirate? Do you know what I’m saying?’

There is a flicker of breeze in the hallway, setting the candle’s dancing. I think of my mother, powdered and cold, living out her life under my father’s thumb. She wore the mask of a lady as it suited her, but there were precious few disguises that concealed her true nature.

I look the Madam in the eyes and nod.

‘Reputations must be maintained,’ I tell her.

The Madam smiles.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I suppose they must.’

Then she takes my arm and she walks, returning me to the velvet curtain and the lounge beyond.

The revel has been tempered by the passing of time, whittling away both noise and numbers until the room is near empty and the voices muted.

The Captain is waiting for me, feet on the table, broad smile clamped around an ancient pipe. I sit down at the table, taking a long swallow of the mug he pushes into my hands. It’s warm and harsh, like drinking fish scales.

‘So that’s that,’ he says. ‘Was it everything you expected, after the stories you’ve heard?’

I shrug, unsettled, wondering if I’ve left some gap in my disguise.

‘Nothing is ever what you expect of it,’ I tell him. ‘Why should this place be any different?’

The Captain nods, the feather on his hat weaving a solemn dance; he pulls his feet off the table with a single fluid gesture, climbing to his feet.

‘Mr. Drummond will not likely emerge before dawn,’ the Captain says. ‘It’s probably best that we don’t wait. We should return to the ship, let you get a good nights sleep while you can. We break port in two days, and he’s always worse after a night in Tortuga.’

I nod, getting ready to follow him. The Captain lays an arm over my shoulder as I stand.

‘Did you find what you were looking for, Tobias Truman?’

He gives me a wolfish smile, but his eyes are serious beneath the brim of his hat. I consider the question for a long moment, studying it as though he’d asked my opinion of a precious jewel. ‘Perhaps,’ I tell him. ‘But at least we can be sure that I got what I wanted.’

He nods and I savour his interest, his desire to treat me as part of his crew; I’m acutely aware, even now, that it cannot last forever. I will get older, and with age comes secrets I can no longer hide.

I do not have the stomach for a lady-pirates life, fighting to hold my place among the crew.

‘What about you, Captain, did you get what you wanted?’

The Captain smiles at me.

‘Nothing more, nothing less,’ he says. ‘Just as they promise.’

And he leads me out of the room, into the streets of Isla Tortuga, back to the ship that I can call home a little longer.

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