"If you insist standing in that corner and scowling, Captain," Janneke van Dijn told him sweetly, "you're not going to make any new friends."
Steve's scowl deepened before he caught it and forced the corners of his lips up. Miss van Dijn flinched at the expression. "I'm not very good at mingling with gentry," he admitted. Sam was so much better at this kind of thing, but of course a Moorish corsair had his own territory, as did a nominally English privateer.
"I can see that," Miss van Dijn told him, laughing. "Yet if you make no new friends, you'll find no new backers, and you'll have bought that fine blue doublet and all that lace for nothing. Let me introduce you to a particular friend of mine." She put her hand on Steve's forearm, forcing him to escort her across the crowded salon. Steve considered protesting that lace at least had been the profit of honourable piracy, but didn't want to alarm her.
"Really, I hate to trouble you," Steve tried, but she didn't break stride as she approached an alcove shadowed by a statue of cupid that Steve thought should have been too lewd for her Calvinist Ambassador father, but perhaps she kept a sheet over it on business days. "A hostess has so many duties."
"One of which is making sure her guests don't stand alone like sentinels in the wilds, speaking to no one," Miss van Dijn persisted. "Here are two likely heroes, such as to rescue you from your lonesome plight."
They rounded the statue and found two men breaking off from what had obviously been meant to be a discreet conversation. One was an obvious fop—albeit a handsome one—resplendent in wine-dark velvet and far more lace than anything that was not a table setting should sport, long dark hair in perfectly styled waves. His be-rosed and heeled shoes put him at eye level with Steve, which was unusual, as were his striking dark blue eyes, none of which distracted Steve from his companion.
Steve barely held his tongue while Miss Van Dijn introduced him as "my dear friend Captain Steven Rogers, of the Nomad," to first the fop, Lord Anthony Richford, and then to his companion, Comte Georges du Saut. Steve at least had the small satisfaction of this bit of English frippery getting precedence. Steve followed suit by offering Richford a respectful bow, and a slightly shallower one to Batroc.
"Careful, Stark," Batroc said in his deliberately accented English, "This is a pirate here," and then to Miss Van Dijn, "Captain Rogers and I are already acquainted, Mademoiselle."
"Oh?" Richford asked, a knowing smirk not at all hidden by his fashionably-cut whiskers.
Steve shifted, wondering how much truth was appropriate in mixed company. "We were never properly introduced, my lord," he explained to Richford. "Comte du Saut's vessel was well ablaze, and we did not have time for formalities before the powder blew." Picking up survivors would have been the next priority, but the rest of the French convoy had come up unexpectedly on their weather board, and Steve had had to make himself scarce with what he'd been able to snatch. That Batroc had been on board at all—let alone on board and in possession of a signal rocket—was greatly suspicious to Steve, but calling a man a spy in the middle of a party definitely wouldn't win him any new backers.
"Indeed," Batroc said mildly, then to Richford, "If you'll pardon me, Stark, I believe I will excuse myself from your company. We'll continue our conversation another time. Mademoiselle." He bowed to Miss Van Dijn—whose lips were pressed thin to avoid a scowl—but not to Steve.
"Are you truly a pirate, Captain?" Richford asked with open amusement.
"No indeed, my lord," Steve replied. "My letters of marque are always current to the conflict and our colours." And if Steve's didn't cover the matter at hand, Sam had a whole other set. Someone was always at war with the relevant party. "I am His Majesty's loyal subject, and no pirate."
Miss Van Dijn, who still had her hand on Steve's arm, added, "Our dear captain recently won honours for assisting His Majesty's navy out of some difficulty."
Rather, he'd been allowed to summer in England to take the Nomad out for the best breaming it'd had in years, which also rather pointedly disallowed him the season of hunting trade off the Banks of Newfoundland—not that Steve did prey on fishermen. Steve shrugged and didn't reply, but Richford pressed him.
"Oh, was this that fiasco of Buckingham's at La Rochelle? I dare say they could've used all the help they could get." He gave a half bow to Miss van Dijn, and continued before Steve could correct him. "Though truthfully, I agree with your lord father, as I think the Rochelais should be better off without our help, and it isn't our business in any case. What cares any Englishman for a passel of French rebels? Why, everyone ought to worship the way their King does, and saying some peasants ought to do otherwise sets a bad precedent in England. Zounds, we'll have Catholics in parliament at this rate."
Miss van Dijn coughed, and glanced sideways at Steve—who she knew to be an Irish Catholic—before saying with a tone of studied neutrality, "Oh, well, I cannot speak for the Ambassador, but I believe his objections are to the point that promising aid and then not providing it has caused the city to hold out longer than it would have had England withheld herself entirely, and in the intervening time, thousands have starved under siege, and they will get worse terms in the end than had they parleyed with Richelieu a year since."
Richford laughed. "As to all that," he said. "I would have said the Frenchies seem to be reducing their own numbers rather neatly, and the longer they keep at it the better. It'll save us some bother next time we need to beat them."
"Have you ever been besieged, my lord?" Steve asked, ignoring Richford's contradiction of his own argument. He could feel his shoulders tensing and forced his hands to relax out of the fists they'd tightened into.
"Oh yes," Richford waved his hand languidly, as if wafting away an unpleasant smell—though he reeked of jasmine water—and said, "I trotted around the Palatinate with Vere for a few months in '22, trying to win it back for the Winter King, you know. We got stuck in Heidelberg until the Catholics took it, and we all got ransomed. A lot of fuss, and the King's sister didn't even get her palace back in the end."
Steve would have given up on the man then, but Miss van Dijn, having promised Steve a fine fellow, pressed on, determined to find something in him. "I should say I feel badly for all those poor ladies stuck up in La Rochelle with their children, just because they're of our Protestant faith. It will not go well for them when the city falls."
From the expression on Richford's face, what he thought to answer would probably have required Steve to call him out, so Steve cut in with, "I have heard there's a man who is able to enter and leave the city at will. He brings some of them out, when he can, and takes them to join the Strangers here in London." It was certainly doing something for the artisan population in Southwark, or would be once the newcomers were fed up a bit.
"Oh, yes." Miss van Dijn brightened. "I've heard rumours of this, though no one will say for certain. Just as no one will say who this rescuer is, save that he calls his ship the Scarlet Avenger, and does something frightfully cleaver to sneak them past the circumvallation, and all those French forts."
"Oh!" said Richford, and Steve really was going to hit him, just based on his tone. "That fellow. What are they calling him? 'The Scarlet Avenger' for his ship, or 'The Masked Avenger'? I heard in a song, it was at the most diverting party at Madam..." he glanced at Miss van Dijn, "well, that is for other company, but they do make him out to be a most dashing fellow." His gaze deliberately flicked down to Steve's legs, as though hoping to find a leather-clad pirate, not an officer in breeches and boots, then sighed slightly in apparent disappointment.
"His name is not known, my lord," Steve said, as though he hadn't had feelers out for a month trying to figure out who the man was, and how the hell he was getting into the besieged city. "If he's real, I'll lift my hat to him if I see him."
"Will you indeed!" Richford replied, feigning shock. "Well, one pirate to another, I suppose." He glanced around the room until he saw Lady Romanova, and said hurriedly, "But you must excuse me. I've been meaning to catch my dear Countess there for weeks. One would think she was avoiding me."
"Sorry," Miss Van Dijn, murmured as Richford cut a retreat. "I thought he might be interested in sponsoring your next voyage; he's usually in for Projects and Schemes, and he has the money."
"It's no loss to me," Steve said, watching the countess skilfully dodge out of Richford's reach, leaving him to turn and look about the room. "How on Earth does he not lose every penny to the latest Newfoundland gold mining venture?"
"He has a lot of money," Miss van Dijn said. "His father was a shrewd man." She paused, and frowned across the room at where Richford was fussing with the lace at his cuffs. "Tony didn't used to be that silly. Richford, I mean. I knew him before he went to fight for the Winter King, when my father first introduced me at court. He was more serious, always talking about natural philosophy. I think he wanted see the New World, but the old Earl of Richford wouldn't allow his only son so far from home."
The only reply Steve could think to make was too obvious, and he let it pass. "We should have enough to refit in any case, but thank you, truly." If their luck held, at least, and he could always borrow from Sam who'd hit the Spanish treasure fleet the past fall and was still flush. "Your share is safe," he added with a smile.
"I expect continuing returns," Miss van Dijn told him, tapping his shoulder with her folded fan, "but do let me know if you have need of investors. I'll endeavour to find someone more reliable than Richford."
"I think it would not be a long search," Steve said, and led her toward the dancefloor.
Tony had tried asking around as to where one might find the notorious sometime-pirate Captain Rogers of the Nomad, and after hitting any number of brick walls, had gotten Rhodey to find out. It had taken Captain Rhodes about half an hour to turn up Rogers in a well-trafficked public house in the East End.
Pausing under the sign—a worn painting of a judge in full wig, face twisted in a gruesome smile—Tony checked the ties that held his steel mask in place, took a breath through the mouth piece, and stepped into the din.
Rogers was easy enough to spot through the press, not just because of his broad shoulders or gleaming blond queue, but by following the shape of attention in the room, the way each head tilted so that if they weren't actually looking at Rogers, they had him in their sightlines with little effort—as though every man there were pulled by a kind of sympathetic attraction.
As Tony stepped into the candlelight, the eyes shifted to him, and the timbre of conversation changed. Rogers did not move, but the lean young man next to him glanced at Tony then leaned in to say something in Rogers' ear, and Rogers pushed away from the bar just enough to clear his sword hilt. The company didn't precisely part for Tony, but no one got in his way, either.
"What are you drinking, sailor?" Tony asked when he was close enough, ignoring the Rogers' companion as he rolled his eyes.
Rogers glanced at him speculatively, taking in the mask, his tightly queued hair, and the leather jerkin and boots, so different from the frippery Tony had worn last time they'd met. There was no sign of recognition on his face, but he lifted an eyebrow, half inquiry, half amusement. "So this is the Iron Man?" he asked. "Terror of the channel, scourge of noble families, and so on."
"The same," Tony said; that was the reputation he and Rhodey had built at least, and partly true, "and you are Captain Rogers of The Nomad." He bowed slightly, and, after a moment, Rogers returned a nod. "Is there somewhere we can discuss business?"
Instead of answering, Rogers caught the eye of the blond man minding the taps, who shrugged and jerked his head towards the stairs behind him. "Tell Carter where I've gone," Rogers said to the young man, and pushed off the bar. Tony followed him.
There was a parlour just off the stairs, a cramped little room with more furniture than space, and shuttered windows. Rogers lit the candle with his taper, half lighting the room, the dimness softening his features. Now, Tony couldn't see the sun-weathering on his cheeks, or the faint lines around his eyes. It made him look too young to be a man of such a towering reputation.
"I've heard of you." Rogers had crossed to a chair, but instead of sitting, he stood in front of it, arms folded. "I thought you were a Dunkirker, raiding French shipping for the Spanish crown."
"I might have been, once," Tony lied easily. It'd taken years to root the idea that the Iron Man had no regular port of call and certainly no national loyalty. "Like you, I sail for England, now." Also untrue, but his current cover. He dropped into a facing chair, which creaked under him, and let his legs sprawl across the floor as he slouched down into it.
Rogers' shoulders tightened as he clenched his fists, but he didn't comment, just took a step closer, blocking the candle and throwing his face into shadow. "And what's that to do with me? If you think to propose a joint venture, I should tell you that I will not sail with a ship I do not know."
There was a neat bit of innuendo that could follow on that, but that was a Lord Richford turn, not one the Iron Man would employ. "No," Tony said, still looking at Rogers, or rather the amber halo the light made of hairs that'd strayed from his queue. "I had thought to hire you, and your ship, and your crew."
Even in the dim light, Tony could see Rogers' jaw clench and he heard a sharp intake of breath. "Why?" Rogers asked bluntly. "Why would one pirate hire out another?"
"But I am the King's loyal subject," Tony replied, realised it was too close to banter, and added hastily, "My own ship wants great attention before she is fit for sea again, and I have an errand that will not wait so long." When Rogers did not reply, Tony continued, "There would be little danger to your ship, or crew, though some to myself, and you'd stand to make a handsome profit off a week's light work."
Rogers snorted and turned away. In a stride he stood before the windows, and he stared at the shutters as though he could see through them to the great river below. "Then hire some lugger off the river. There's a dozen captains at the Boar's Head that would take that sort of work."
"I need a fast ship, and a captain who knows the coast of Aquitaine and will sail at night." Tony looked at the candle instead of Rogers, knowing he couldn't risk letting himself get distracted by the way his shoulders tapered to a lean waist, or his trousers clung to his muscled ass. He looked better dressed like this, in a simple jerkin and breeches than he had fancied up for the Dutch Ambassador's party. "And one large enough to carry significant cargo."
"Smuggle your own claret," Rogers snapped. He glanced over his shoulder at Tony, and Tony was glad his mask was between them, as that glare was enough to make him flinch. "I don't trust a man who hides his face; there's no way to fathom him."
"I have reason to conceal myself," Tony said evenly, "and I care not what you fathom. I'm not going to Bordeaux," he added, though he could feel Rogers sliding away, if he'd had his interest at all. "I want to go to La Rochelle."
Rogers froze for a moment, his breath catching, then he exhaled and turned to face Tony, the light catching half his face. "I apologise, sir. I had misunderstood you. La Rochelle?"
"Indeed, La Rochelle."
Now he had Rogers' interest. "No English ship has been able to break the French blockade. And if they have, the harbour is walled off with an immense stonework set on sunken hulks."
"I have passed it before," Tony said, and waited for the realisation to sink in.
It did. "Your ship," Rogers said, "the one in need of repair, is it the Scarlet Avenger?"
Rogers' face lit with a smile, the first Tony had seen, and almost beautiful enough to make Tony miss what he said next. He was glad he didn't. "But then you are that hero who has been bringing the Huguenots out! No wonder no one has been able to describe you. I thought that mask was..." He broke off, and crossed to crouch next to Tony's chair. "But how do you do it? The King has sent three fleets to relieve that city, the last not yet returned, and they have been able to do nothing."
Tony tipped his head, knowing that his smug smile wouldn't show through the mask. He waited for a moment for pure drama's sake, then announced, "I've sworn my crew to secrecy in regards to my methods, but if you're willing to transport two men and thirty stone of cargo to La Rochelle, and that and perhaps two score Rochelais back to friendly shores, I promise that you will find out."
Tony knew that no adventurer with a reputation like Steven Rogers of the Nomad would be able to resist such an offer, and that his eagerness to find out one of the biggest mysteries on the seven seas would hasten him past certain details that Tony had elided for the sake of expediency. Though what he would do when he knew them, was another question, and one that Tony would have to deal with when the time came.
Time, of course, was the problem. Neither La Rochelle nor Tony had a great deal of it left.
"It's a deal." Rogers rose and held out his hand, both shaking on the deal and pulling Tony to his feet. "When do we sail?"
"When are you able to put to sea?"
There was a midnight tide the next night, which if run right would just give Steve time to load the Iron Man's mysterious cargo, and find his crew—who largely thought they were on liberty for another three days. Accomplishing the latter in order to do the former was a night's work. Bringing the ship into dock, loading the Iron Man's crated cargo and finding a place for it that wouldn't destroy the Nomad's balance was another day's. The cargo also came with a Captain James Rhodes, an Englishman of a Moorish complexion and the broad shoulders of an officer who worked as hard as his crew.
"Boss'll be along in a bit," he said, as the first cartload arrived. "Until then, I'm here to help you sort the incredibly breakable from the merely fragile." When Steve asked again what was inside, Rhodes tapped the side of his nose and winked instead of answering.
Whatever it was, it was heavy, and a fair bit didn't fit down Nomad's hatches, even broken into smaller crates. Steve had to make do with lashing them down astern of the main, with a few balancing crates up under the jibs. He was watching Carter who was yelling at Smithson, who was hauling the hawser he'd run through a viol to aid in lifting one of the smaller, denser crates into the hatches, when a voice startled him.
"Permission to come aboard, Captain?"
It was the Iron Man, of course, standing along the larboard rail, hooded and cloaked, his head tilted to take in Steve through the slits in his steel mask. Knowing he wouldn't be heard over the din, Steve nodded and waved him up, and the Iron Man scrambled up the gangway and over the rail and up to the quarterdeck from which Steve was observing the stowage. "We'll be ready well before the tide," Steve told him.
"Pleased to hear it," the Iron Man replied mildly, as though Steve had just informed him that the night was expected to be dark.
The sun was already dipping low, and a brisk autumn wind licked along the Thames, making Steve want to pull his doublet close and shiver, but he refrained, knowing that the Iron Man was watching him. Just then, Rick came up and dropped a boat cloak around his shoulders, and vanished again. "Thank you, Jones," Steve murmured.
"Your crew appear greatly dedicated, Captain," the Iron Man commented. Steve cut a glance sideways at the smooth steel mask, but the Iron Man appeared to be watching Rhodes and Carter settle the cargo. The low light picked out the enamelled grooves that made the saturnine features of the mask, its mocking mouth and narrowed eyes. Behind the eye slits, Steve saw only shadow, but he thought he'd caught a gleam of blue the night before.
"We don't impress captives, if that's what you mean," Steve said. "I've never seen that it answered; when I was a squeaker, my captain used to take fishermen off the Grand Banks, and make them serve before the mast, but they were restless and needed minding. It was easy to recruit them to mutiny."
"You came up on a pirate ship?" the Iron Man asked.
Steve shrugged. "There were more of them when I was a boy, or more Christian pirates, I suppose, before King James pardoned us all and started paying the Navy enough to stay afloat." He himself had in fact been kidnapped off his mother's fishing boat, but he usually tried to leave that bit off the legend. It made him sound less fearsome. And of course anything involving consorting with Moors after leading a mutiny against his Christian captain, after said captain had beaten his best friend to death with a rope end was best kept entirely secret. "How did you come to it? Were you really a Dunkirker?"
"As to that," the Iron Man started, but Rick came up on the quarterdeck, and Steve held up a hand to the Iron Man and waved Rick forward.
"Captain," Rick started, then glanced at the Iron Man and stopped, before saying on Steve's nod, "I think I saw that uh... person you mentioned earlier, back at the head of the pier."
Steve hesitated. The person he'd mentioned was a lackey of Batroc, Comte du Saut's, and he really ought to either confront the man and see what he was doing, or personally watch him for the same reason. On the other hand, he didn't want the Iron Man to have the least idea that he had trouble with French agents. "Let it rest," Steve said after a moment. "We're away in an hour, and it's of no consequence now." Or, in any case, what was to be seen had already been seen, but that was twice he'd run into Richelieu's man in three days. Was he after the Nomad again? Was there even the possibility that he might know of their engagement to sail on La Rochelle, of which Richelieu was personally overseeing the destruction?
"Trouble?" the Iron Man asked.
"Nothing to speak of," Steve replied. Below them, Carter had the crew lashing down the hatch cover. They were settled for sea. Steve lifted his voice to carry over the whole deck. "Look lively, men. Secure for sail."
"You've an excellent voice for yelling orders," the Iron Man noted, and something in his tone struck Steve as familiar, but when he looked across at him, he saw again a man in a rust-coloured doublet and practical trousers, a working man, unexceptional save for his steel mask and a sash of cloth of gold. The last touch gave him the kind of rakish, piratical air that Steve had never quite been able to cultivate. Though the Iron Man had a slim figure, Steve could see the strength in it, and confidence in the way he held himself. He was, in short, exactly the sort of man who got Steve in trouble.
"It's an asset in my line of work," Steve said after too long a pause for it to sound like natural banter. "You have to be heard above the.. uh wind, and such."
Yes, trouble indeed. At least the Iron Man had the grace not to laugh at him.
The winds were fair, carrying Rogers' twin-masted flyboat to within a league of La Rochelle in a matter of days. Tony spent most of his time fussing with the components of Shellhead with Rhodey, and trying to avoid questions from Rogers and his svelte first mate, Mr. Carter.
"You adore the melodrama," Rhodey accused the third time Tony had protested that all would be revealed in its proper time. "Who, prithee, will spill your secrets between here and the lee of Île de Ré?"
"I want Rogers as committed as I can get him before I tell him what the plan entails," Tony replied, "And you're the pirate captain, so which of us is melodramatic?"
"Yes, I can see how this is my fault," Rhodey said agreeably, and handed him a freshly-greased gasket for Tony to double check. "That explains why I'm the one wearing the mask."
"Very droll," Tony snapped back. They'd assembled Shellhead from its containers before, but every time required careful checking of each join and seal, to say nothing of the components needed for the admixture of ethers. Tony knew as well as any man how treacherous the sea could be, the English Channel especially, but this adventure called for even more caution—especially after their last trip had ended so badly. "I need to take the air." He packed the gasket back in its case and pulled himself out of the hold into the main deck.
Rogers was haunting the quarterdeck as usual, arms folded and eyes narrowed over the sea. His close-cut blue doublet did wonderful things for his shoulders, and a yellow sash drew Tony's eye to his slim waist and hips. From there it was easy just to gaze down his long, muscled legs under blue breeches and high leather boots. Every time Tony looked at him, he wondered if Rogers would ever agree to sit for a portrait. Scores of broadsheets and engraving of the Nomad's adventures passed hand to hand through London, but Tony felt as though a proper Van Dyke, or perhaps something by by Frans Hals might not go amiss.
He caught Rogers' eye before ascending to the quarterdeck. He could see the shadow of the French coast through the rigging, dim now between dusk and moonrise. He hadn't realised they were so close; already passing Île de Ré and into the Pertuis d'Antioche. The outlines of the forts built to protect—and re-enforced to contain—La Rochelle's harbour broke the smooth roll of the country before them. The French navy blockaded the entrance, softly lit by lamps and watch lights. "How close can you bring us?" he asked.
The ship creaked and water rushed beneath them, but for a moment Rogers stared silently into the twilight. "Running dark before moonrise, to within cannon shot of the ships," Rogers told him, "After, with the moon waning from full, not so close as that, unless you want me to draw them out, in which case, as close as you please."
Tony considered that. It could increase his chances of detection, as it would put the French on alert, but at the same time, it would focus their attention on the Nomad not on Shellhead, and give him a clear run in. Back was another concern. "Moonrise is late enough for my purposes," Tony said. "I should like the light, after. Bring us as close as you can without being seen, and I will ready my cargo."
"Yes," Rogers said, "your cargo."
"Captain?" Carter and Jones had appeared on the quarterdeck, clearly summoned—though Tony had caught no sign from Rogers. They took positions between Tony and the way back to the main deck.
Rogers didn't look at them, but fixed his eyes on Tony's mask and smiled thinly. "The Iron Man was about to explain his plan to lift the Rochelais from under the Cardinal's nose. I believe it would be of interest to my officers as well."
Tony hadn't been, just yet, but he supposed now would do, and he didn't want to antagonise the ship's captain in front of his men. He bowed slightly to Rogers and said. "In the hour before moonrise, as we approach the French fleet, Captain Rhodes and I shall assemble a small vessel that is capable of travelling under the ocean's surface and through the breakwater enclosing the harbour, and with it we shall take grain into the city and survivors back to the Nomad. We have enough room for twenty, and if conditions are fair, may make two trips this night."
"Zounds," Jones murmured, and Carter elbowed him.
"Well," Rogers said, hesitated, then shook his head and turned to his mate. "Carter, have the master make room on the deck for Captain Rhodes' vessel, and give him any assistance required in its assembly. Jones, strike the topsails. I want jib and courses only going in, and any soul who strikes a light or makes a sound swims home."
Both touched their brows and were gone without a word.
"How many times have you succeeded in this?"
Tony hesitated. How much to tell Rogers? He still didn't feel entirely sure of him, but the man would shortly hold Tony's life in his hands. "Two nights, three voyages into the city. The second time we left it too close to dawn, and the navy shot our tail off." The Scarlet Avenger had barely limped into Plymouth with a ship full of panicked survivors. It had been fun. "It took me long enough to repair Shellhead, and there wasn't time for my ship."
Rogers nodded. They all knew that La Rochelle had until winter at the latest until it was forced to open its gates to the French forces surrounding it. "This Shellhead," Rogers said, "is it like Cornelis Drebbel's craft? The one that sailed for a time under the Thames?"
"Very like," Tony said, "though there are significant modifications on my part. Mine in fact works, to speak of one."
"And it takes two men to operate it?" Rogers asked. "Or will Captain Rhodes stay?"
"No, one need row while the other pilots," Tony explained. "Though I had another man for the rowing, and Rhodey kept the Avenger on station." Happy had been injured in that last fight too, and Pepper was keeping him at home for this one, which didn't make a contented soul of any of them.
Rogers' lips thinned and he glanced away. Tony couldn't read what he was thinking, but wondered if Rogers thought he would keep Rhodey aboard the Nomad as insurance. Or perhaps that he didn't trust Rhodey and Tony to hare off into French territory and leave Rogers and his crew in the middle of the blockade.
That did seem to be it. "Does it want more skill than a strong oarsman?" Rogers asked.
"Not especially," Tony admitted, before it occurred to him to lie.
"Then I'd rather Captain Rhodes stayed with the Nomad, and you and I entered the city together."
Tony turned away. He could hear the shouts of the French crews as the Nomad glided through the outer blockade, months of dull picket duty making them sloppy and drunken. The soldiers around Heidelberg had sounded like that, too. "You don't trust me," he said.
"I don't know you," Rogers answered, voice flat, "but chiefly, I would see La Rochelle, and this miraculous vessel of yours. I will not argue this point."
"As you like," Tony said. It didn't really matter who rowed, he told himself, nor who stayed on the ship, nor who trusted him, so long as they all kept their accords. "I must ready my ship before moonrise."
Tony had been forced to compromise between weight and strength in Shellhead's design, with tarred hide stretched over ribs of oak forming the shell of it, each section able to bolt to the next until it made a cylinder with a rounded nose and a finned rudder at the stern, like a fish tail. Oars stretched from its sides—their cogs and mechanisms made of ironwood—as well as hides that could be filled or flushed in order to raise and lower the craft. When it was assembled, a narrow hatch at the top offered the only ingress, although a mirrored tube could be extended in order to view the surface if it were nearby, and two small glass windows were set in the bow, giving the look of close-set eyes on a forward-looking fish.
They had all ten yards of it put together and over the side by the time the Nomad slid to a halt outside of range of the forts. Rogers had not budged in his intention to accompany Tony, and honestly Rhodey looked happy to stay where he was. "You just don't want to row," Tony said.
"No, I don't." Rhodey agreed, laughing, but then added more softly, "They won't leave if Captain Rogers is with you, and I'm here."
"That too," Tony said, only half his attention on Rhodey.
Carter was supervising loading cargo into Shellhead, Jones and one of the powder monkeys being the only two slim enough to pass sacks of provisions down through the hatch. As they added ballast, the little craft settled deeper into the sea, until soon only the curve of the dorsal fin and the hatch itself sat clearly above the water.
"Well, be careful," Rhodey said, and slapped Tony's shoulder.
"I always am," Tony answered, which just made Rhodey laugh again. Tony left him to stand by the larboard rail. "Come, Captain Rogers, your new command awaits."
Rogers nodded, but his attention was fixed on Shellhead's diminishing form. "Nothing for it," he murmured, and flipped over the rail and dropped down through the open hatch. Shellhead settled another hand's width. Tony followed more gingerly, sealing the hatch behind him. The interior deck was made of a spruce panel just wide enough to stand on, with a rowing bench and no other furnishings. Tony knelt in the bow while the Nomads pushed them off, then directed Steve how to fill the water ballast enough to lower them five fathoms under the sea. As they sank, the cabin darkened to near blackness. Tony could feel the rising tide already pushing them into La Rochelle's narrow harbour, but soon Rogers took the oars and they jolted forward.
He glanced back out of habit, but Steve's back was turned to him, and all he could make out was the curve of his broad shoulders as they stretched and bunched, driving Shellhead forward. Each stroke of the interior oars propelled thrice as many outside the haul, but the unexpected resistance didn't seem to trouble Rogers after the first pull. Tony traced the compass by touch alone, and adjusted the rudder via the cables in the bow. They were on their way.
"She runs well," Rogers commented. His breathing filled the small cabin, even as a regimental drum.
"Thank you," Tony answered, his attention fixed on the portholes, trying to make out the shadows of enemy ships and their anchor cables. The tide pushed them on.
"I was caught under an overturned dinghy once," Rogers commented a moment later. "I thought to stay there, in safety, or so it seemed, but after some minutes the air became close, and I couldn't breath easily."
"Ah, yes," Tony said. He couldn't help but glow with pride at his solution there. "That is the purpose of the beakers in the stern; they work to purify the ethers, for a time at least. Too long underwater, and it will begin to stale even with them."
"Mmmm," Steve hummed, sounding impressed, and that made Tony glow a little too. "You're an alchemist as well as a shipwright and a pirate, then?"
"At times," Tony admitted, and at that moment his mask felt heavier and more constricting than it commonly did. "I'm many things, each as a new day requires of me." He checked the compass again, and pressed his face to the glass. "And this day requires a sharp turn to starboard."
Steve obligingly pulled at one set of oars and backed with the other, jerking Shellhead around. "I've been meaning to ask, how does going under the surface bring us past the sea wall? I should think it goes all the way down."
"It does," Tony said. He had initially thought to find a breach in the wall, and had wasted a shameful amount of time looking for one. "But there's a gap left in the middle to allow the tide to rise and fall in the harbour. They've netted and chained the break, but not below three fathoms."
They travelled in silence for some time, but it felt comfortable to Tony, like it had been with Happy pulling those same oars. It was surprisingly easy to work with this outsider, as he hadn't with anyone besides his chosen company since Heidelberg. Too easy, perhaps? Tony wasn't sure he trusted that Captain Rogers was all he made himself out to be. Whoever he was, Tony doubted Rogers would think much of the Iron Man if he were to find out who was behind the mask. He remembered too well his scornful expression as he'd been taken in by Richford's foppish persona.
Tony sighed, and tweaked their course again. He didn't want to risk the current dashing them against Richelieu's great sea wall rather than sweeping them through the break, but he was more or less dead reckoning. Some day, he was going to work out a way to detect things ahead of him in the water, or at least affix some sort of bow light. "Get ready to to sweep the oars in," he said, and Steve grunted in agreement.
There, through the portal he could make out the shadow of the wall to starboard and long fingers of moonlight casting down through the nets that closed the tidal gap. They were closer than Tony would have liked with the tide still this low, but he hoped to still navigate under them, or even push through the bottom layers. That would risk catching the tail fin or even the hatch, and Tony had no way to untangle them if it did. He hesitated, thinking to lower the craft further, even this close to the bottom.
No time to worry now. The tide and Steve's long strokes pushed them forward, and Tony had to yell, "Oars in!" sooner than he'd expected.
Steve pulled back sharply, holding the handles to his chest and the tips of the oars close to Shellhead's hull, and they shot through the gap. The edges of the nets scraped the hull, but did not entangle them.
The water shallowed soon after, and Steve had to pause to force the water out of the bladders and bring them back up to the surface.
Tony used his reflecting tube to look about, but could not find an enemy presence in the harbour, nor a friendly one—just empty, ruined wharves, and still water.
When they opened the hatch, and he pulled himself half into the night, the city was silent. Not even the distant bark of a dog or scuttle of a dock rat broke the silence of the place. Those had all been eaten long since, of course, and the Rochelais kept to their houses. Tony had to suppress the stab of panic at the tomb-like stillness. Could he be too late? Was everyone in the city dead already? Surely they would have surrendered before it came to that, but perhaps not. He'd heard that some of the Huguenots were of Cathar stock, and if so, their ancestors had burned rather than bend to Catholic rule. At least this city was not yet burning, but was it yet alive?
"What now?" Steve asked from below. He was whispering, even though a shout wouldn't carry to the French lines. It seemed a city of whispers now.
"Now we wait." They'd come up next to one of the few intact jetties, and Tony made fast to it. "They should have a watch set." He hoped they still did.
But soon they came. First a young woman whose thinness made her already large eyes seem to fill her face, who whispered the password to Tony, then a half dozen more, then a score. None of them looked as though they'd eaten in months, and many supported each other as they picked their way down the jetty. The first woman reached down to help Tony to the dock, and her ungloved skin was rough to his touch. Inès, he thought she was called, but they never told him names. As Steve started to unload the sacks of food, she took charge, directing the others in French almost too rapid for Tony to follow.
Shellhead rose in the water, becoming less stable as it emptied, and Tony said, "Start bringing them onboard. I'll tell you when we have too many."
"The children first," Inès said, still in French, "and after we have drawn lots."
She didn't speak again, but stood across from Tony as they lowered the dozen children down into the vessel. Steve's hands were gentle around their waists as he caught each one. Some were as young as two or three, and there were a few that could have been ten. Tony had never been good at guessing ages of children, and their thinness made it more difficult. Each clutched at most a small sack of clothing or possessions; one had a rag doll and nothing else.
It took perhaps half an hour of silent work until the exchange was made. Only when they were finished and Tony started to climb back down, Inès asked, "Will you come again tonight?"
"If we can. It must be before ebb tide," Tony replied. The water around them was rising still, but had slowed as it approached slack water. "If I am not back in two hours' time, I will not return tonight."
Inès nodded sharply. "If not tonight, then not at all. Monsieur le Mayor has told us that the city will surrender tomorrow, and then the army shall surely sack it."
"I understand," Tony said, then, "Will you not come?"
"If you return, perhaps," Inès said. "Otherwise I stay with my city and my people."
"I understand," Tony repeated, though he wasn't sure he did. Had he been given the chance to escape Heidelberg unscathed, the man he'd been six years ago would have taken it in a heartbeat. "I'll take my leave swiftly to sooner return. Good luck."
By the time he had the hatch closed, Steve had settled all the passengers around the ship. It was packed, but he had room to row and Tony could navigate. He noticed that Steve had made sure to keep essential equipment clear and free to operate. The beakers hissed under the strain of all the new lungs taking breath, but the air remained good as Steve lowered Shellhead to the harbour floor and began turning her nose back toward the Nomad.
"Will we have time to return?" he asked in English.
Tony shrugged and said, "I've done two trips in a single night, if not on a near spring tide." The waters that rose and fell with quarter moons and their neap tides were calmer and could be navigated more easily than the severe tides at new and full moon. Though they didn't give as good a push in as they'd just gotten.
"We may have to wait until slack water to pass though the breakwater," Rogers said.
Tony nodded, then said, "Yes," when he remembered Steve had his back turned in the dark. "Quick turn around, and it will still be slack coming back in, but we'll get a push out, on the second trip. I hope."
Steve didn't reply but quickened his pace, building up enough speed that they shot through the gap, under the nets, and clear into the passage, against the tide or not. From there all they needed to do was follow the compass line back to the Nomad, make the exchange, and do it all again.
The moon was at its zenith next time they surfaced, only a few yards out from the ship. Carter cast a line and pulled them in when Tony caught it.
"Can you do that again? Rhodey can take over," Tony asked when they were paused in the middle of unloading to comfort a child that had begun to sob. He passed the boy off to Carter, who quickly handed him on to Jones.
Steve's face caught a shaft of moonlight through the hatch, and Tony could see that no more than a sheen of perspiration covered it. "Just the one more trip?" Steve asked lightly, and Tony grinned down at him.
"That's all I have planned."
The Iron Man talked his contact into coming on the second trip, and Steve would have cheered, but his heart ached for those they weren't able to bring. Two-score souls saved out of a city of thousands, and thousands more dead already. It never seemed enough, just as the handful of men he and Sam siphoned off the slave trade never seemed like more than spitting in the eye of the Dutch or the Algerians or the Spaniards, or more recently the English as their empires spread across the globe. Or, to look further back, what good had leading that mutiny done when Bucky was already dead? There were too many battles to fight before his time was up and God weighed his soul.
Steve had to wonder if that was why the Iron Man did what he did: some kind of atonement. Why was he not instead bringing these wonderful inventions before the King and winning himself fame and the only Earthly immortality a man could have? Why hide his face and quietly save a handful at a time, then swear them to secrecy? Motives like that would be alien to a fop like that Earl of Richford Steve had met not three nights before. Just thinking about that man still made Steve's jaw tense until it ached.
Yet there was no need to worry on such things. Between Miss Van Dijn's investments and the Iron Man's payment, the crew would be well tided over until it was time to sail for the Spanish fleet, and Steve wouldn't have to bow to more self-important lordlings.
Little Shellhead brushed into the Nomad for a second time, and Steve pulled himself out through the hatch the moment the Iron Man opened it. The breeze had stiffened, blowing two points north of east, but not hard enough to counter the current that tugged them away from shore. "Weigh anchor," he said to Carter as she pulled him over the rail. "Let the tide take us out until the passengers and the... underwater boat are secure." The night was almost gone now, and they'd have to do some smart sailing if the French fleet wasn't going to chase them past the Casquets and halfway to Dungeness. "Mr. Jones, run up French colours, if you please."
Rick saluted and dashed aft to find the false flag. Soon the blue, white and gold of His Most Catholic Majesty's Navy was unfurling from the head of the mainmast.
Carter had got all the Rochelais on board and was stowing them where she could. There wasn't really enough room for so many, but they didn't complain about being asked to stay in the hold, at least. Rhodes and the Iron Man worked feverishly to disassemble Shellhead to the point where she could be pulled aboard. The anchor rose, keckled chain sliding into the cable tier without a sound, and the Nomad glided towards the mouth of the passage.
"Up jibs and fore course," Steve told Carter softly. They'd have to beat out against this wind, cutting back and forth across the Pertuis d'Antioche until they cleared Île de Ré, which would put them too close to the French for Steve's liking, especially with dawn spreading behind La Rochelle and the moon red in the west.
"All well?" the Iron Man asked from his elbow. Steve glanced back at him, but all he saw was the gleam of moonlight on his mask.
"For now." Steve pitched his voice low to match. "If you could see to your passengers, it would free my officers to sail." He did not mention that clearing the Iron Man from the quarterdeck would free Steve's thoughts for combat as well. He kept finding his attention drawn to the Iron Man like a compass needle to a lodestone.
The crew knew Steve well enough to sail the Nomad just as he wished with hardly a word from him. He kept a hand on the tiller, and the men on the sails bore up as close to the wind as she would go. He could feel the hum of the northeaster in the sails as it ran along the yards, down the masts and through the deck. It grew rough as they came closer to the wind, and Steve nudged the tiller back until the vibration smoothed.
A French galleon hulked on their port bow, riding on its anchor, its crew quiet before dawn. The bosun would rouse them soon, if he hadn't already, and someone would see a new ship in the passage. Just shy of cannon shot, Steve nodded to Carter, and they came about. Now they set toward another flyboat, a recent Dutch build but also still and silent. Steve glanced back along the passage to the blue-grey light rising behind them. "Set main course," he said, "and ready topsails." Soon they'd need speed, and invisibility wouldn't matter.
His orders still stood, and the crew worked silently, allowing nothing but the wind in the sails and the slap of the sea on the bow. Rhodes had Shellhead pretty well stowed, and the passengers were all out of sight below deck.
Steve drew out his glass and peered at the other flyboat, searching for signs of life. There, he saw a figure on the other quarterdeck. It turned, and Steve braced for a shout of alarm, or worse still a shot to wake the whole sea, but nothing followed.
"When we're about, set topsails," he told Carter.
"Come about and set topsails, aye," she replied, and went to tell the men.
As the moon touched the western horizon, the Nomad glided past the blockade and into the channel proper.
"Everyone's settled," the Iron Man said, again having come up beside him without a sound. "They'll be no trouble, though if the cook could see to feeding them..."
"I hope you saved some of that barley," Steve said, but he didn't mean it. Three days out of London, their rations wouldn't even have to stretch to feed all the passengers and then some. "I'll see that it's done."
Beside him, the deck creaked as the Iron Man shifted. "Which brings me to another matter. What's our course?"
Steve scanned the seas automatically. They were still clear, and the coast was falling behind them. "I thought to keep this line until we were mid channel then, if the wind doesn't alter, come about and touch sight of Jersey before making for Dover. Why?"
"Could you keep to the coast of Île de Ré instead?"
They'd come far enough out to do just that, though they would need to pass over the sand shoals on a falling tide. Even so, it was doable with their shallow draught, but Steve didn't like the set of the Iron Man's shoulders.
"It'd bring us close to a lee shore, and I don't know the shoals this season," Steve hedged while he turned to face the Iron Man, who was holding himself very still. Again, Steve wished that he could see what lay under the mask.
"You could do it, then?"
"Yes," Steve admitted, "but I see no reason for the risk. Can you give me one?"
"It would double your fee to pause for half an hour at the northern tip, and allow me to go ashore." The Iron Man kept his tone level, and his hands clasped behind his back, but his head was lifted and his shoulders up as though he was expecting a fight.
"It's a sudden request," Steve said, playing for time, while his mind churned through the options. He shouldn't doubt the Iron Man, not after they'd risked so much together. Steve himself had thought that he was a hero to have saved all those people from starvation or slaughter under siege. Yet he was asking Steve to put his ship near a dangerous shore, while still surrounded by hostile ships. It came down to how much he trusted the Iron Man. "I will do as you ask," he said finally. "Mr. Jones, prepare to bring us about, put the wind on her larboard bow."
Rick only hesitated for a second before doing as Steve asked, but it was enough to show his mate's shared doubts. Steve could only pray they weren't warranted.
The low dunes of Île de Ré slid by on their starboard. Steve saw a few soldiers out from the forts, and fewer still peasants. The earlier English assault and hold on the island must have driven off most of the inhabitants. None of them seemed to take notice of a single small vessel flying local colours.
They took in sail as they neared the northwestern tip of the island, slowing enough to put the ship's boat over the side. Steve saw some sharp words between Captain Rhodes and the Iron Man, but the wind carried them away before he heard them. The argument concluded with Rhodes stalking forward and the Iron Man casting off alone and rowing for shore. Steve watched until the boat touched the sand, then ordered Carter to wear ship in a great arc that would swing them back to this point in half an hour's time, as the Iron Man had asked.
"I don't like it," Steve had said, to little effect. He was beginning to learn how infuriating the Iron Man could be on his own. With that thought in mind, Steve descended to the main deck and joined Rhodes between the bow chasers.
"Do you know why he's doing this?" Steve asked.
Rhodes nodded shortly. "I do." His expressive brown eyes cut sideways to Steve, and Steve saw that he was hoping that he wouldn't press for what that was. He wasn't a man to betray a friend's confidence. Fine, Steve would take another angle.
"You knew," Steve said, "Yet you still argued against his going."
"His gong alone," Rhodes corrected. He squinted out at the increasing expanse of water between the Nomad and the shore. "He always thinks he has to take everything on by himself, like he'd rather die than risk anyone else. It puts me at the edge of sanity sometimes. Maybe most times."
Steve hummed non-committally. Sam had said the same of him one or two times, which was a bit rich from that source. Still, he could sympathise with both points of view. He didn't want to think of what challenges might face an Englishman on a French island, even if that island was largely occupied by salt farmers. He himself had wanted to go with the Iron Man on this voyage as well, but out of loyalty more than suspicion this time. His feelings had changed after those trips into La Rochelle, in ways he had yet to fully consider. "He must be a difficult sort of friend to keep," Steve said.
Rhodes shrugged. "Loyal as the Lord when you've got him, though," he said, then looked away. "Tough, too. He'll be all right."
The Nomad turned again, starting its loop back towards the Island, and Steve startled at the call of "Sail!" from the tops.
"Where away?" he demanded. Rhodes followed as he strode for the quarterdeck. Carter already had the captain's glass out, aiming it for the far side of the island. Steve took it from her.
A French man of war was tacking up the narrow straight between Île de Ré and the mainland, perhaps a league down island. It was making way slowly and against the wind, but the second it cleared the point, it would have the wind, and Steve's choices would become scant: push back down into the blockade, or try to run past her, up wind and into the channel.
"Can To... the Iron Man see it?" Rhodes asked. If the Iron Man pushed off right now, he'd be able to make the Nomad while the French ship was still caught in the strait.
Steve studied the island. He could see the ship's boat, but not the Iron Man. He must have gone up past the boulders and out of sight. If he was all the way to the crest of the island, he'd see the danger, but if he were down slope, and he'd be left unaware. "One gun, if you please, Miss Carter," Steve said.
Less than a minute later, the bow chaster boomed across the water, surely letting half of France know where they were, but still Steve saw no sign of the Iron Man. They were close to needing to turn again, and Steve couldn't afford to stop and set anchor; it would make too much of a target of them.
Swearing under his breath, Steve turned to Carter. "You have the deck, Sharon. Wear one more time, and if you don't see the Iron Man or myself at that boat, cut us loose and sail home." Carter, of course, opened her mouth to protest, but Steve was already shucking out of his boat cloak and doublet. He ran forward, covering the deck in a handful of long paces, and leapt off the bow and into the grey water of the channel.
The Nomad would have surely overtaken him, had Carter not called the next turn to bring her into another circle.
Steve swam hard for the beach, focusing on speed, not how damn cold the water was. The channel in October was known to freeze a man in minutes, whether he could swim or not, but it was a fair morning, and the waves pushed him ashore. He arrived on shore only a little breathless, and immediately followed the single set of tracks up the beach from the ship's boat.
The trail led Steve past the tideline and around an outcrop of boulders. They lay in an even row, and Steve thought they must have been set to stop the waters from carrying away the beach, but the sea had persisted, and now there was a hollow behind them where the storms of winter had taken all but the rocks themselves.
He came around the corner abruptly, saying, "Sir, we must—" then finding himself unable to finish the thought.
Facing Steve stood the Iron Man, or at least he was dressed as the Iron Man had been dressed, in a red doublet with cloth of gold sash. His mask hung from its ties around his neck, and his hair was loose. Steve recognised Anthony Stark, Earl of Richford immediately, and felt the sand shift beneath him. Then he saw the other man, Richelieu's spy, Comte du Saut, his back to Steve but already half turned to face him.
Seeing those two together again sparked every flame of anger Steve had felt at Miss van Dijn's party—that little idiot fop had fooled him, had mocked him for days, had conspired with Batroc to betray him—and Steve had drawn his sword before he even truly knew what he was about. "Villains!" he shouted, and lunged.
Du Saut didn't draw in return, but scrambled up the boulders and out of Steve's immediate reach.
That left Richford, staring gape-mouthed until Steve's sword came within inches of his chest. Then he himself drew, parrying close to his body to knock Steve's blade away.
Steve realised he was over-extended and drew back enough to consider Richford before he attacked again. "What was the plan?" he demanded, "Bind me here and then betray me to the French? Have my crew hung as spies? Did you signal that man of war?"
Richford was faltering, frowning in confusion, and Steve pressed forward, feinting a low thrust then slashing towards Richford's side. Richford blocked, barely, and stumbled back a step. "Rogers, no," he stammered. "You don't understand."
"I was wrong to trust a man in a mask," Steve snapped back. He had a hazy thought of danger approaching, but the desire to have a boot on Richford's chest and his sword tip at this traitor's throat overwhelmed all reason. "I was wrong to think you were a hero." He kicked at Richford's knees, a pirate's move, not a gentleman's, but one that usually worked.
It didn't. Richford twisted aside. He glared at Steve, and lifted his chin. It was the same determined posture as he'd held when convinced Steve to drop him here, right into the arms of Richelieu's agent. "Listen to me, damn you," Richford snapped. He fell back again, but when Steve pressed in, Richford dove forward, nearly throwing himself on Steve's sword, and punched him in the ear. "Listen. This has nothing to do with you, or the Nomad, and we don't have time to argue about it!"
Steve'd had to take a step back to recover his balance, but Richford hadn't pressed; he stood guardedly, sword raised, with one eye on Steve and another on the pile of rocks behind him.
"Not that you would listen to one such as myself," Batroc commented, voice light with amusement, "But my Lord Richford is telling the truth. We were discussing matter of a private nature, and nothing to do with your disreputation."
Behind them, the Nomad's gun boomed again: last chance.
"I should leave you to the French," Steve said, but he was wavering. As the first rush of fury faded, he realised that more than anything, he wanted to know. If he followed through with his threat and stranded Richford or the Iron Man or whoever he was, he might never learn what had happened.
Worse still, his words made Richford's eyes widen with pain, as though he profoundly cared what Steve thought, and couldn't stand to be abandoned, and that look sent a shiver of regret through Steve.
The feeling wasn't even entirely broken by Batroc leaping off the rocks, his boots landing solidly before he bowed to both Steve and Richford, doffed his hat, and said, "I will leave you gentlemen to sort out your difficulties. I am needed elsewhere. In La Rochelle tomorrow, as it happens." Then he just walked away. Starting down the sand towards the fort at Saint-Martin, and didn't once look back.
"Odd's fish, I never could fathom that fellow," Richford commented, and for the first time Steve heard the same flippancy from the party. At the time, it had made Steve want to hit him, but now he realised that it was something Richford could turn on and off like a hose. Who was the actor here, and who the character on the stage?
"Who are you?" Steve demanded.
"It doesn't matter," Richford replied. "No one, really."
Steve snarled at the evasion, but the sense of creeping doom, the knowledge that the man of war was minutes away, stayed his hand now. The time for acting in the heat of sudden betrayal had passed, and they needed to run now. "Are you for England, or France?"
Richford paused, as if he'd never previously considered the question of patriotism. "I'm for Justice and Vengeance," he said at last. "As you are."
It wasn't an answer, and it wasn't enough, but they needed to go. "Will you promise me a better story, when we have time?" Steve asked. He didn't know why Richford's word would mean anything now, but he needed to hear it nonetheless.
"Yes," Richford said, and as one they sheathed their swords and ran for the beach.
The man of war—the Téméraire by the gilded letters on her bow—was finishing the turn that would bring it around the point, while the Nomad had sluffed so much wind that she was nearly dead in the water. Steve shoved the ship's boat down the beach with a great scrape of wood on gravel and flung himself in as it met the waves. Richford scrambled in after, and shoved him aside on the bench so that they sat hip to hip. "We row together," he said.
Steve nodded, and started a count. They almost didn't need it; they leaned forward and pulled as one, the sway of their shoulders matching as though melded. Steve's arms ached from the night's work and the swim that followed it, but desperation gave him the strength to pull smoothly toward the Nomad.
Carter had a rope down for them before they were even onside, and Steve made it fast. They could tow the boat astern. He didn't have to order more sail. The crew were putting up every scrap of canvas they could even before he was on deck. The Nomad surged under him, striking out from the island and into the wind.
It was the same course as the Téméraire was making, and she a bigger ship. Steve took his glass from Rick and saw the French crew loading the bow chasers. They weren't in range yet, and their captain knew it.
"Bear up round," Steve said. "Bring her right up to kiss the wind." They didn't have a hope of outrunning the Téméraire in a straight race, but the Nomad was a sharper sailor. If they could cut straight for the English coast, there might be some hope of shaking the French ship off in the long run.
He realised that Richford was standing beside him, his mask tied back in place. He didn't have time to deal with him now, didn't even have time to change into a dry doublet. "Mr. Jones, escort the Iron Man to the hold. He would be better off with the passengers, if it comes to action."
"Captain..." Richford started, but flinched off Steve's glare and followed Rick below.
"Miss Carter," Steve continued. "Clear for action."
"Aye, sir." Carter said, and thankfully didn't question what had occurred on shore. That would surely come later. Steve hoped that by the time she asked, he had proper answers to give her.
Astern, the Téméraire's bow chasers cracked and spat smoke, but the shot fell a dozen yards short.
"Bring that sheet in!" Steve yelled, and settled in for what would be a long race into the rising sun.
Tony sat in the hold and cursed under his breath. Several of the passengers had started at the canon fire, but none had cried out and even the children hadn't panicked. Tony had to remind himself that they'd lived in a city under siege for over two years. A little naval warfare, especially since Steve's cook had fed them, didn't amount to much in the face of that.
Nor, he assumed, did Tony ruining yet another relationship. Even though he had really liked Steve, and had thought that Steve had liked him. Tony had even been thinking of telling him the whole truth, when he got the time, and perhaps inviting him back to Richford the next time Steve had time in England. Now he'd be lucky if Steve didn't tie him to a heated shot and dump him in the channel so he could boil all the way down.
Steve's face as he'd come around the rocks, the look of confusion, and how it had transformed into rage, just the memory of it made Tony's gut clench to the point of nausea.
Or that could be the hard tack the Nomad had taken, heeling over until the deck lay at thirty degree pitch and the survivors from La Rochelle huddled together to avoid rolling into a heap against the hull. Tony ached to go up on deck, to know what was going on, but he knew that he would be a distraction, and that they were running for their lives. For all his mechanical and alchemical genius, he was not a sailor, and would likely only get in the way.
"I'm going to see if I can do anything useful," Rhodey said, walking easily across the pitched deck. "Stay down here and don't try anything you think would help."
"Yes, sir!" Tony snapped back, and Rhodey shook his head, and started up the companionway.
"You should know," Tony called after him, making him lean down to peer at Tony under the beams. "Rogers knows who I am."
"Outstanding," Rhodey muttered, and continued to the deck.
"It's as though he believes it's my fault," Tony said to the air, which earned a look from Inès.
He didn't see Rhodey again for the rest of the day, nor any of the officers, but the cook came around near noon with soup and biscuits for everyone. "We're still running?" Tony asked, but the man just shrugged.
Some hours after that, the younger mate, Jones, came in and picked though the passengers until he found Tony. "The Captain wants to see you," he said.
He led Tony up to the middeck and aft to the great cabin, which Tony had never seen. Now he had to force himself not to look around and try to put together life and peculiarities of the owner from his possessions. The room was sparse, in any case, with a hanging cot to one side, and a bench under the aft windows. Rogers was standing facing the door, backlit by the evening sun, and nodded Jones away without saying a word.
"What did you tell Batroc?" Rogers demanded before the latched even clicked.
"What business is it of yours?" Tony snapped back.
Steve took a breath, and Tony saw his jaw ripple as he ground his teeth. "I need to know," Steve said in measured words, "if it is currently safe to run my ship into an English port. This being rather more vital given the French warship not a league to our stern, that distance only maintained by the most favourable of winds."
That gave Tony pause. "I told du Saut nothing of your ship," he said. He ran the conversation back through his mind, but it was true. "And he would have no reason to pass his information past Richelieu, in any case."
"Then you're an agent of the Cardinal?" Rogers demanded. He folded his arms, and Tony had the impression that it was to keep his hand from resting on his sword hilt.
"I..." Tony stopped and tore off his mask. "You know who I am. I'm an Englishman."
"Loyal to King Charles, then?" Steve asked, mockingly. Lord that man knew how to prod at a man's weaknesses. He should have taken up law, not piracy, save that rather limited a Catholic's options.
"Says the pirate."
"Privateer," Steve corrected. "I have letters of marque. Do you?"
Of course Tony didn't. The Iron Man didn't officially exist. "Are you planning to pretend that I did not just heroically rescue a hundred people from starvation or rapine?" Tony snapped.
"Forty." Now the man was just being perverse.
"And three more trips with the Scarlet Avenger. I only hired you because my ship was fired upon while courageously saving the victims of injustice and oppression, at great risk to my life." Why Tony cared what Steve thought, he still didn't know, but making someone understand just then meant the world to him.
Steve, however, didn't give an inch. "Why?"
"Because I know what it's like to be under siege," Tony snapped back, not thinking of what he revealed. "I know what it's like to be trapped and not have any hope of escape, and to have someone else give their life so that I might have another chance, even when it's the last thing I deserved. Maybe that's what grace feels like, I don't know. What I do know is that I'm not going to forget that, and I'm not going let it be for nothing."
"So you remade yourself a hero?" Steve asked, and Tony's words must have worked, because the scorn was gone, and his expression had softened, if only slightly.
"I don't know," Tony admitted. "I didn't think of it like that, just that I could, as the Iron Man, do some good."
Steve glanced down, then unfolded his arms and clasped his hands behind his back. After a breath, he asked, "So what does Georges du Saut have to do with this?"
Tony shook his head. "That's none of your affair. Still none of your affair. I hired you to sail the boat, not nose into my business."
"Fine," Steve said. "You stay in the hold until we return to London."
"Fine," Tony replied. "I'd rather be there. My friends are all down there."
He would have turned away, and that would have been the end of it, but Steve had his hand on the hull, and his brows furrowed as he listened to the ship. "We're losing the wind," he said before Tony could ask.
"It will be the same for them, won't it?" Tony asked.
"I certainly hope so." Steve strode past Tony and out of the cabin, and Tony trailed after like an iron filing behind a magnet all the way up to the quarterdeck. No one tried to stop him.
Once on deck, even Tony could tell that the sails didn't have as much wind in them, and the deck was levelling as the Nomad slowed.
The sunset tainted the Téméraire's sails pink, and to Tony's eye she looked closer than the league Steve had claimed.
"The winds in the channel often settle around dusk," Rhodey commented, having come on deck at the same cue as Steve. He glanced up, and Tony followed his gaze past the flapping sails to the high sunlit clouds. Some kind of hawk circled high above them. "It may come around by dawn," Rhodey concluded.
Steve nodded. His lips were pressed thin in a frown. "Not to worry, gentlemen," Rogers said, and Tony realised that he already knew him well enough to see though that lie to the tension in his neck and the uneasy tap of his foot. "We have enough distance on her that any wind that comes up will run us into friendly waters before she catches us."
"Save a stiff southwester," Rhodey commented, and Steve tipped his head in acknowledgement.
"I grant that the Téméraire is likely faster with the wind."
Tony stared at the ship behind them. It had the little flyboat out manned and seriously outgunned, should it come to a fight, and Steve said she could outrun the Nomad too, if their luck was bad. "It will be dark soon," he said.
"They'll keep a watch," Steve said absently. "This isn't a home port with only a few drunkards on deck, where a score of men in a few boats might cut them out."
"They'd be watching the surface, would they not?" Tony asked.
Steve said, "Pardon?" at the same moment as Rhodey snapped, "Tony! No!"
"If Shellhead were to come along side the Téméraire," Tony pressed, "It could plant an explosive charge on the hull, and stop them from being able to out shoot us or outrun us."
"Would that work?" Steve asked, irritatingly directing the question to Rhodey.
Tony's "Of course!" and Rhodey's "It would not!" again overlapped.
Holding out a hand against Tony's explanation, Rhodey expanded, "There's no way to manipulate something outside Shellhead without surfacing, which would be seen by any competent watch, or flooding the ship, which would kill you, or you'd swim to the surface and be seen." Tony opened his mouth, but stopped on Rhodey's glare. "Unless you went over and cosied right up to the hull, and whoomph!" he threw his hands out, "Blew the whole ship and the crew up with it."
"Well," Tony said. He had not been planning to admit it, but the final stages of his strategy—specifically the areas around getting out alive—were something he had been planning to come up with on the fly. Next time, he'd design a ship with some kind of separation or compartment. He had not previously considered Shellhead's limitations in regard to combat.
Steve looked at Tony for a long moment, seeming to weigh his sincerity, then shook his head. "I have simpler ways to get my people killed," he said, "and no certainty that I'll need to." He drew out his glass and seemed to scan the Téméraire again. Then he pocketed it and lit up the shrouds to the maintop, and looked again before swinging back to the deck. It probably took him less than the time to soft boil an egg. "Mr. Jones," he was saying before his boots touched the deck, "start putting the watches to bed, beginning with yours, then Miss Carter's. They'll need the rest for tomorrow. I'll keep an eye on our friends until the moon's well up."
As the crew moved around him with some order Tony didn't understand, he decided he should probably go below and see how the Rochelais were managing. They were a from a maritime city, but going out in your father's fishing boat must feel rather different than huddling in the hold during a sea chase, even if they were accustomed to siege conditions.
But as Tony turned away, Steve touched his elbow, and asked, "Stay a moment, if you would, sir."
He couldn't think of a way to say no, not to that tone, so he turned and leaned against the stern rail. The twilight had dwindled until he could only make out the silhouette of the Téméraire's sails against the sky. "I'm sure I can think of some way to use Shellhead offensively," he said.
"Without blowing up the crew?" Steve asked. He came to stand next to the rail, a few feet to starboard, and stared in the same direction as Tony.
"One person can pilot it, if need be," Tony said, though he knew that wasn't the objection. "I've done it before."
Steve snorted. "Piloted your ship alone, or blown yourself up?"
The stood in silence, Tony thinking of those long months of captivity, Steve with his head cocked as though the wind were telling him something. At last, Steve said, "Miss van Dijn said you were at in the Palatinate with Lord Vere."
"Yes," Tony said, and tried to decide how much more to tell Rogers. He could no longer tell how close the Téméraire was in the dark. Above him, the stars began to emerge, twinkling in the thick sea air. He knew to the day how long he had gone without seeing them. "To hell with it," he muttered. For all that he was beginning to suspect that Steve had some plan in mind, this could also be his last night on Earth—before he went to Hell himself perhaps, Did he really want to spend it in a lie? "You must know the ill fate of that expedition. We were trapped in Heidelberg not a year in. We barely held the city for two months before we surrendered, and the Spanish sacked it. It had the most beautiful library I'd ever seen, but that's all gone now. All the officers were taken for ransom of course, and all but one returned to England in due course. That is, no one paid for me, or my name was not on the list."
"How could that happen?" Steve demanded. He'd shifted closer to Tony, leaning in to catch his lowered voice.
"At the time, I had no idea," Tony said, "I knew only that the rest had gone home, while I remained in the custody of a man named Juan Cuevas. He knew something of my alchemical skills, and forced me to serve him. He wanted me to turn my knowledge to weaponry, and God help me, I did. It was...a long time before I was able to escape, and it cost a better man his life to do it." Tony sighed, then gathered himself. "But I had the satisfaction of blowing Cuevas to hell before I escaped back to England."
Tony shrugged. "I was injured, and needed time to convalesce. I holed up in Richford, made a few drawings, worked out the admixture for Shellhead, tried to think how it was possible that I'd been abandoned in the Palatinate. It is not something that happened on accident. Lord Vare was told I'd been killed when the city fell."
"So you made up the Iron Man?" Steve said. "That is...not what I would have thought to do."
That had been what Rhodey'd said, when Tony had roped him into this mission. "I wanted to be able to ask questions without people knowing it was the Earl of Richford asking them. I didn't know who had suppressed my ransom and reported me dead, or if they still pursued me, so I played the fool at court, and sailed with the Scarlet Avenger when I could. Eventually my search for answers turned into something else."
"Such as La Rochelle."
"Yes," Tony said, "And other things. I found out that the Iron Man was a better person than the Earl of Richford ever could be." He thought again of the look on Steve's face when he'd discovered Tony with du Saut, and how he'd probably deserved it.
Steve was thinking of the same thing, it seemed. "Richford keeps meeting with Batroc," he noted.
"There's not so much wrong with du Saut," Tony protested.
"Other than he keeps trying to sink me."
"Setting that aside."
"Ha. As you like."
"Setting that aside," Tony said again, "he contacted me, as Richford, and let me know that he had some information that would be of value to me." Which had implied that Richelieu knew who the Iron Man was, but was too delicate to blackmail Tony, for the time being.
"In exchange for?" Tony didn't have to look at Steve to see that his shoulders had tightened, he could hear it in the guardedness of his tone.
"In exchange for information about the conditions inside La Rochelle."
"Zounds," Steve muttered. "And you gave it to him?"
"The city is to surrender tomorrow," Tony said, "Or today, rather. It's likely already fallen. I didn't see the harm." He did glance at Steve now, but couldn't make out his expression in the dark. "He offered the answer to everything I'd searched for for five years."
"And did you find it?"
Tony didn't like how tight Steve's voice sounded, but he could hardly do anything about that. "Yes," he said. He'd found it. "You'll forgive me if I don't say more."
"You don't trust me?" Steve asked.
"I don't..." Tony broke off. He had been about to echo Steve in saying that he didn't know him, but he supposed he did well enough by now. "I have to decide what to do, and I'd rather keep it to myself for a time."
"Mmmm," Steve murmured, then sighed. "I wish I could help you. It seems a difficult choice to make alone."
It was, Tony realised, but he was the only one that had both the information and the investment to truly consider it. Now that the name of the traitor—the Marquis of Hammersmith—was revealed to him, he had to tread carefully lest he give himself away and endanger everything he'd worked for as the Iron Man. At that moment, he felt a pang of loneliness as he hadn't since this adventure first began. He wished that he did have someone to listen to his doubts. No, not just someone. He wished that Steve would listen to him, that he could lay open his heart to him and be truly heard. Tony shook his head. That was no way to think, he knew. He'd be better off being glad that Steve was allowing him on deck again, not wishing for more from their relationship.
"What do you plan for the Téméraire?" Tony asked, trying to turn the conversation away from his own past miseries.
"It will depend a great deal on the wind," Steve said. He drummed his fingers on the rail, lost in thought. "If it comes up again from the northeast in the morning, then we continue as we were until we leave them behind or lose them under our forts.
"And if it's southwest?" Tony pressed.
"Mmmm," Steve said again. "Well, I'll wait and see what the morning brings, personally." He glanced up at the sails, now largely lifeless in the calm. "But we should furl those topsails. They're no good as they are, and less still damp from the night air, come morning." With that he was off into the rigging, and Tony was left to his own thoughts and the shadow in the dark behind them.
He wished he knew what Steve was about, but a day and a night without sleep was wearing him to the bone, and after checking on the Rochelais, he tucked into his bunk in the tiny cabin he shared with Rhodey, and fell into a sound sleep.
The morning brought a fresh northeasterly, just as Steve had hoped, and also the outline of a second ship astern of the Téméraire, plain now even to someone who was not looking for it. Steve smiled when he saw it, and told Rick to run up the first signal flags.
The response came back not a minute later: the password, then, Apologies. Late. Help-question?
"Tell him not with this wind, and that we'll meet him in the usual place in four days," Steve said. It was more for show for the Téméraire. Steve had seen Redwing above them the day before, even before he'd made the sails to in the west.
He saw Rhodes watching with interest from the hatch, but no sign of Richford as yet. He supposed that would come. They seemed to be a double act, those two. Ever since he'd helped Tony out of a spot of trouble, Rhodes had said when Steve had asked where they'd met, but then had declined to explain further. Steve now wondered if it had to do with Tony's escape from his Spanish captor, Cuevas. The timing would seem to fit.
Through his glass, he watched the officers of the Téméraire in heated discussion as they turned from the ship they were chasing to the rust-coloured lanteens coming up behind them. Sam had tried to convince Steve of the superiority of the rig, but Steve knew that Sam mostly liked it because nothing shouted corsair across the seven seas like the sight of those red triangular sails. Now the captain of the Téméraire was waving at his mates, his gold braid shining in the dawn.
"Watch them go," Rhodes said from his elbow, and Steve laughed. The Téméraire was indeed turning away to the south, back into the protection of Brest, leaving Steve a clear channel all the way back to London. "Is that the Redwing?" Rhodes asked.
Steve turned from the rail to look at him. Rhodes was giving him the serious look of someone making a rapid revaluation of someone's character. Behind him, Tony stood at the far rail of the quarterdeck, clearly having overheard the question, and Steve knew how telling the answer would be.
"Yes," he said. "Captain Sam Wilson's ship."
Rhodes and Tony exchanged a glance, and then Tony asked ironically, "He's a pirate, correct?"
"Yes he is," Rhodes replied.
"I believe he has letters of marque under the Algerian flag," Steve corrected. "Although King Charles does not have official relations with the Pasha at this time, so he would be treated as a pirate in any English maritime court."
He didn't say anything else, but let the others consider what he'd told them. Being a former pirate turned privateer under King Charles was nothing remarkable, especially given his service to the late Duke of Buckingham, but Steve knew that obviously consorting with notorious corsairs was something else again. There would be few in the Court of Saint James that would listen to a story of exchanged life debts and loyalty across religion and country, and fewer still that wouldn't hang him—and Carter and Jones too—the second they heard it.
"You let us see that," Tony said. "You could have kept us below decks until we were clear. But you knew he was coming, and you..." he was obviously thinking back to all the things they'd said the night before. "Is this a peace offering?"
"It's something of value," Steve said.
Rhodes shook his head and walked away forward, but Tony kept looking at him eyes wide. "You didn't have to do that," he said again.
"You didn't have to tell me about Heidelberg," Steve answered. "And I shouldn't have assumed, on Île de Ré..." he stopped, sighed, and concluded, "Consider it an apology."
"You are not a man of meagre gestures, are you?" Tony asked. The both knew that they were in sight of the crew, but Tony crossed the quarterdeck and bowed deeply, sweeping off his hat. "One outlaw to another, then."
"If you like," Steve replied. He offered a half bow in return, and then put his hand on Tony's shoulder. His thumb just brushed the edge of the lace collar where it touched Tony's neck. "Or between friends."
Steve watched Tony's face carefully, saw his eyes widen under the mask, and then his throat bob as he swallowed. "Friends," Tony echoed. "I would like that."
Keeping his tone, Steve asked Tony down to his cabin for a breakfast of cheese, bread and small beer. "You'll have to take your mask off," he said when they were alone. They sat together on the bench below the window, close, but not quite touching. "I forgot, I've never seen you eat."
"It's a hassle with the mask," Tony answered as he reached up to pull it free. "I have a straw for soup."
Steve couldn't help staring as Tony untied the cords and let the mask fall. "This is the third time I've seen your face," he said.
In the morning light of the great cabin, he saw it more clearly than he had before too: The strong cheekbones and narrow jaw, dark blue eyes that he'd found so striking the first time he'd seen Richford at Janneke van Dijn's party, the sensitive mouth framed with a rakish whiskers. He also saw the grey tint and dark lines of exhaustion in Tony's face and wished it were something he could take care of.
"Like what you see?" Tony asked. It was clearly meant to be jesting, but struck Steve as self-conscious in spite of Tony's best efforts to flirt.
"I do," Steve replied. The thought of several days before recrossed his mind. "You're exactly the sort of man who gets me in trouble." He touched Tony's knee, just a brush of his fingertips, but it made his message clear. Tony closed his hand over Steve's.
"Oh," Tony pursed his lips in mock disappointment, "and I always hate to follow precedent."
Steve laughed; his own fatigue and the relief of seeing Sam—of the this new peace with the Iron Man, perhaps most of all—made him feel giddy, as though anything were possible. "I am sure," he said, "that you are entirely unprecedented."
"Charmer," Tony said, his voice warm and full of promise. "And I have so many surprises left, too."
Steve would have said on any day before this that he hated surprises, but now he decided that he would have to get used to them.