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And What Should I Do In Illyria?

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It was a late summer evening and the harbour at Dover was bustling: filled to the brim with merchants, sailors, shop keepers, captain’s wives, prostitutes and gawpers of all descriptions. Curtis Avon slipped gracefully through them, taking no particular notice of anybody until someone tried to insinuate a hand into his purse.

“Here, what’s the idea?” the boy yelled as Avon hauled him up to eye level. “I ain’t done nothi-!” He swallowed the rest of the word, as Avon raised an eyebrow and his dagger to the boy’s throat.

“Spare me the protestations of innocence.”

“Proty-whats now?”

“Protestations. Now I don’t like to repeat myself,” Avon told him. “Don’t make me do it again. Just tell me which of these is Blake’s flagship and I’ll let you go.”

“That sort of information costs-”

“Don’t let it cost you your life,” Avon said, pressing the dagger closer to the boy’s shuddering throat. “Blake’s ship. Which is it?”

“The one with the green sails. Liberator. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.” Avon sheathed his dagger and dropped the urchin. He inspected his gloves but none of the mud on the boy had passed from one to the other. That was a relief.

Without looking back, he continued along the quay. Now he knew which it was, the Liberator was indeed impossible to miss. As well as the unnecessarily expensive forest-green sails, there were large areas were painted in gold. With most other ships this decorative, it would have been clear that the owner was a man with more money than sense, but, as Avon’s professional eye ran over the lines of the galleon and its rigging, he had to concede that it seemed Blake had a modicum of sense too. For all its frills, the Liberator looked like it would be fast under sail and easy to handle. And there were guns – lots of guns. Avon had hoped for nothing less after all the stories, but he was used to being disappointed.

Judging by the state of readiness aboard ship, they were planning to catch the evening’s tide but a few men were still carrying barrels in from the dock.

They were supervised by a young blond man in deep-purple leathers, who looked at Avon suspiciously as he crossed over the gangplank behind the barrel-carriers.

“And you are?”

“My name is Avon,” Avon told him. “I’m here to join your crew. Blake should be expecting me.”

“If he is, he didn’t tell me about it.”

“And he tells you everything, does he?”

This seemed to ruffle the young man, though he tried not to show it. “As much as he needs to.”

He turned to yell back across the ship, “Will?” and one of the men who’d been supervising the relocation of the barrels looked up. “Pass the word for Blake. There’s a man here called Avon who says he’s here to join us. Blake asked him.” He looked at Avon, eyebrows raised. “Have I got that right?”

Avon inclined his head.

“Seems unlikely,” Will said, ambling over. “Blake doesn’t see anyone while we’re in England.”

The young man regarded Avon steadily. “I know.”

Ah. This was something Avon’s informants had inconveniently failed to include in their stories about Blake. Clearly, this was what happened when you didn’t pay for your information. Once again, Avon lamented the failure of his embezzlement scheme. If he were rich, this sort of thing wouldn’t have happened to him. Of course, if he were rich, he could have hired a ship of his own, rather than relying on Roger Blake and the Liberator. But then they did say Blake was the best when it came to hunting pirates, even if ‘they’ didn’t mention anything about his conversational habits in port.

Just as Avon thought he was going to be thrown off the ship, the young man added,

“But Blake did mention an Avon in relation to the girl we’re supposed to be looking for. So it’s just plausible that he is expecting someone. Just tell him, will you? And tell him everything’s on board. We can go whenever he’s ready.”

“All right,” Will said. “Gan can take over for me while I’m gone.”

“No one needs to take over for you. You’re going to the other end of the ship, not the New World.”

Will grinned. “That’s still enough time for Gan to do most of my work. He’s quick.”

The young man’s stern expression softened as Will disappeared into the captain’s cabin. Then he turned back to Avon, who smiled thinly.

“Blake doesn’t see anyone in England? Usually, that is.”

“Not usually, no.”

“Why?”

“That’s his business, isn’t it?”

Avon’s smile became wider. “Something else he hasn’t told you?”

The young man ignored him, looking away across the deck. Avon looked, too, noting again the orderly way everything was arranged and how the deckhands set to their business without fuss.

“You there,” the young man shouted at one of the sailors securing the barrels, “that knot’s a disgrace. It’ll come apart the moment we hit a wave.”

The door to Blake’s cabin opened again and Will backed out of it, still talking to whoever was inside. Avon narrowed his eyes, waiting for his first sight of the famous Blake, but no one else emerged and Will shut the door behind himself.

This was bad. Avon's plan, such as it was, had been to walk onto the ship as though he owned it. If questioned, he would say Blake had asked for him. If questioned further, he would ask to speak with Blake and then appeal to him personally. That was going to be impossible, though, if Blake refused to come on deck.

When Avon had written to Blake earlier in the week, he had asked Blake for two things.

The first was that Blake seek out and rescue Anna.

Even now, several months later, Avon could barely understand how it could have been possible for so many things to go wrong at once. He’d been in London (picking up the ring Anna had insisted he collect himself) and had been unable to oversee the maiden voyage of the Foresight, Queen Elizabeth’s newest ship. Anna, he later found out, had taken it upon herself to order the launch go ahead regardless and to represent him in his absence. Avon had arrived back at Dover in time to witness the Foresight’s capture through a telescope. When the queen’s agents had come to inspect the dockyard for signs that Avon had been complicit in its loss, they had found the three hundred pound gap in the accounts that Avon had been hoping nobody would ever notice. He’d been hauled up before Elizabeth herself and it was only the queen’s inexplicable fondness for him, coupled with the obvious and obviously genuine signs of his grief for Anna, that had saved him. That and a promise to pay back the money, as fast as possible.

Avon had tried not to think what had become of his fiancée in the months that had followed, but when he did, which was every hour, he was full of fear and rage. In all likelihood she was dead. That was what her brother seemed to think, anyway, and the alternative was, in many ways, more dreadful.

Avon had sworn to rescue her or, if that was not possible, to avenge her with a sword or pistol shot through the hearts of the people responsible. And so the only other thing he had asked was that Blake allow him to accompany the Liberator’s crew during the search for Anna.

Blake had written back in a tolerable hand that he would indeed work actively to recover Avon’s fiancée out of a sense of duty to women in general and to the victims of the Turks in particular. If he found Anna alive, she would be returned to Dover and Avon would be sent word. In reply to Avon’s second request, Blake wrote only that he chose his own crew.

Avon had written back to say that, while he appreciated Blake’s offer of help, he also had to insist on accompanying the rescue mission.

Blake had not written back in reply to this or to any of the other letters Avon had sent detailing his skills, the money he would be willing to pay for the privilege of working for Blake, or the kind of people who would be very cross if Avon didn’t get what he wanted.

“Look,” he said, as Will jogged over the deck towards them. “I can pay for passage. No one needs–”

“It’s all right,” Will said, arriving out of breath. “Blake says he’s sorry he forgot to mention it, but he’s had a lot on his mind. This is our new carpenter.” He turned to Avon. “Curtis Avon, right?”

“Yes,” Avon said smoothly, as though none of what he had said earlier had happened. “That’s right.”

Will held out a hand, a broad grin plastered over his face. “William Restel, master gunner. And this is Jen- er, Jem Stannis. Master of the rest of us, except Blake that is.”

“I’m willing to pretend I didn’t hear you trying to bribe your way onto this ship,” Stannis said to Avon. “But only because Blake has approved you.” He paused and then nodded decisively. “You can share a cabin with Will and Gan-”

“Where?” Will said, his face falling. “I’m sleeping in Gan’s armpit as it is.”

“You’ll manage.”

“It’s all right for you, sharing with Cally. He’s tiny.”

“You’ll manage,” Stannis said firmly.

“Yes, but–”

“Captain on deck!” someone bellowed and Avon, Stannis and Will turned as one towards the stern.

Roger Blake was tall and bearded, and you could see the years he’d spent rowing in a galley in the width of his shoulders. Otherwise, he was every inch the merchant prince. He wore a green leather doublet and hose; and a velvet cape; and from his ear hung an emerald that, if it was real, was worth almost more than the ship itself.

Avon started forwards, but Stannis blocked him with an arm.

“Let me guess,” Avon said wearily. “Nobody talks to Blake while we’re still at port.”

“Blake!” shouted the large man who’d been working with Will. “Did you really order twenty barrels of sack for this trip? Only Will says-”

“It’s a fact that rewards of alcohol act as a morale boost,” Will protested as he peeled away from Avon and Stannis towards where Blake was laughing. “And that better alcohol is a better morale boost. And that’s a genuine fact I learned during shore leave.” Five or six others, some of whom seemed little more than common seaman, also converged on Blake, talking to or at him, depending on who they were.

“Evidentially not,” Avon said.

Stannis turned on him. “I just want to make it clear that we survive on trust and respect aboard this ship, Avon,” he said, voice low. “That means we work with each other, not against, and we do what Blake says unless there’s a very good reason not to. And you do what I say, good reason or not. Do you understand?”

“You don’t think I’m a team player.”

“Am I right?”

Avon grinned whimsically. “Of course not.” The grin died. “Now, can I speak to Blake?”

“Jem?” Blake called, and the young man turned his head. “Haul in the gangplank and prepare to cast off lines.”

Stannis touched his hat. “Right away.”

“Gan?” Blake hollered. “Signal the rest of the fleet that we’re about to leave.”

“Blake’s busy at the moment,” Stannis told Avon as the stream of orders continued behind them. “Why don’t you follow his example below deck? We’ve been in port for almost a week so we’re in fairly good shape, but there’s always work for a carpenter. You’ll find tools stowed in your cabin.”

Avon nodded and left Stannis marshalling crewmen. He would have liked to witness the Liberator leaving port and the way Blake and Stannis handled that delicate operation, but he knew he’d seen enough, really, to guess that it would go smoothly.

As he crossed the deck, he paused to inspect the main mast and Blake, who was standing next to it, reached out a hand and caught him by the arm. Their eyes met and Blake’s mouth moved into what might have been a smile.

“So, you’re Avon.”

“So they tell me.”

“I enjoyed your letters,” Blake said. “Nobody’s tried to threaten me for some time.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“Not in writing, at any rate,” Blake said with another half-smile. “Good to have you on board,” he added and let go of Avon. He turned and yelled back into the ship, “Jem, are we ready to move out?”

Avon, assuming correctly that he’d been dismissed, continued below deck. He collected the tools left to him by the previous carpenter and began his inspection of the gun ports with the man allocated as carpenter’s mate, who was entirely untrained but fortunately not a complete ignoramus.

This would be Avon’s first long voyage as ship’s carpenter, but he’d briefed enough carpenters about his own ships to know what was basically required of a master carpenter at sea. There were numerous leaks to caulk, but after about three hours, Avon knew he was too seasick to continue. Gan, passing him leaning heavily against the deck ladder, guided him back to the cabin they were supposed to share with Will.

Avon had seen it earlier, but had hoped he was mistaken about what it was for. The cabin was small, even by standards on board ship – what would have been the armoury and officers’ mess on one of Avon’s ships had been split into several compartments that served as cabins for small batches of officers, presumably for the sake of relative privacy.

“I was the same, my first night at sea,” Gan said kindly as Avon curled into the cabin wall, which was only about three feet away from the door. “That made it difficult for the other fellows chained next to me, I can tell you. Not a very good impression to make on your first day in captivity.”

“Is this charming story supposed to make me feel better?” Avon asked without looking up at him.

“I don’t know,” Gan said, his voice confused. “No. I don’t think so.”

“Then keep the rest of it to yourself.”

“All right. I’ll tell Jem you’re off duty until tomorrow. He won’t mind. Unless,” Gan added jovially, “someone blows a hole in our side, of course.” Avon ignored him. “But, er, I don’t think that’s likely this close to Dover,” Gan finished. “Anyway, I’ll leave you in peace.”

*

Unfortunately, ‘peace’, on board a ship, was a relative term. The wood creaked and from above there was the thunder of men’s feet and voices – Blake’s baritone was particularly carrying. Avon resigned himself to lying in discomfort and listening to Blake ordering people around, but he must have eventually fallen asleep because he woke in even greater darkness with Will Restel’s foot pressing into his face and Gan’s loud snoring coming from only slightly further away.

Avon thought briefly about how little he wanted to stay in this tiny cabin and felt for the ceiling. Once he’d established where it was and how much room he had to manoeuvre in (almost none), he clambered over his fellow officers and into the cargo hold. Fortunately the ladder to the upper deck was relatively close to his cabin and the moon shone through the hatch.

Jem nodded to him as Avon emerged on deck but didn’t abandon his post behind the helmsman. Avon nodded back but didn’t go over to talk to him. Instead he swung his gaze over the rest of the ship and found Blake leaning against the side, looking out over the water where the other four ships of his fleet were spread out in an orderly triangle. The deck of the Liberator was covered with sleeping sailors, but there was more room between them than there was down below, presumably so the men still on watch could move around. There were also several feet of empty deck space around Blake, who looked up as Avon joined him.

“Feeling better?”

“Not noticeably,” Avon told him.

Blake smiled. “It’ll pass.”

“Yes, I know. It may surprise you to learn that that doesn’t make it any easier to live through.”

“Beginning to regret forcing your way onto my ship yet?”

“No. And that’s an interesting choice of phrasing,” Avon said. “Does it still count as forcing your way onto a ship if the captain agrees to let you aboard and gives you a job?”

“I think that depends on the intention, doesn’t it?”

“My intention is to rescue Anna. It always has been. I told you as much when I wrote to you. And you told me there wasn’t a place for me here, despite the death of your carpenter and his mate on your last voyage.”

“No,” Blake said evenly. “I told you I chose my own crew.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“I like to get the measure of people before I hire them,” Blake said. “Most of my crew served on a galley much like the one I was on, so I know they’re determined, used to hard work and hardship. You, on the other hand, are an unknown quantity, Avon.”

“I sent you my references.”

“References can be faked. Yours are so outlandish that it was only sensible to assume they were. Now I still don’t know whether you’re a hard worker, but I do know you’re determined enough to recklessly force your way onto a ship you thought you wouldn’t be welcome on. I thought, from your first letter, that you might be, so I pushed the point.” He considered the matter. “And you’re right – we do need a carpenter.”

“What would you have done if I hadn’t passed your test?”

“There are carpenters aboard the Redeemer and the Retribution,” Blake said, naming two of the other ships in his fleet. “They’re not as good as say you are-”

“As I say I am?”

“It would be difficult to be as good as you say you are. But all right, let’s say I believe you, which I do. They’re not as good as you are, but they would have kept us afloat in a crisis.”

“Flattery will not make the fact you manipulated me more palatable.”

“You got what you wanted.”

“Yes,” Avon said with a smile. “That does help, I agree.” He paused and then asked the question he’d been trying to ask Blake yesterday. “Do you have any idea when we might meet the Turks?”

“No,” Blake said. “But I’d be surprised if we made it to Venice without meeting someone who wants what’s mine.”

“That will attract them, of course,” Avon pointed out, nodding towards the green sail.

Blake grinned dangerously. “That’s the idea.”

“You mean you are consciously drawing attention to your wealth in the hope that raiders will attack you?”

“How did you think I got my reputation?”

“I thought you were arrogant and unlucky-”

“Charming.”

“-but clearly I was wrong. You are insane.”

“Beginning to regret forcing your way onto my ship yet?” Blake repeated, apparently under the impression he was being amusing.

“Perhaps,” Avon told him.

Blake laughed and pushed himself away from the edge of the ship. “I’m going to turn in.” He put a hand on Avon’s shoulder. “I’ll leave you to think about what you’ve done.”

Avon rolled his eyes and turned back to the sea as Blake walked off. He was feeling less ill now, perhaps due to the fresh air, but it was far too dark to get on with any work. He thought about returning to the shared cabin... and decided to go to sleep in the space Blake had just vacated on the deck.

*

Avon began the next day with a thorough inspection of the masts and yards. It had been a while since he’d actually climbed any sets of rigging and so it the job took him longer than he would have liked, but he didn’t fall and embarrass himself, which was something. When it was light enough to see down below, he resumed his tour of the lower decks, satisfying himself that the caulking had been done correctly in his absence; sounded the well; and checked the pumps. Everything was in good order, so at around eight he reported to Blake in his cabin.

To Avon’s initial surprise, the cabin was sparsely decorated. Blake seemed to have prioritised space over luxury, but this made sense once Avon remembered the Liberator’s outward appearance was bait and that Blake probably wasn’t comfortable with confined spaces.

Blake himself was sitting at the small table behind the door, dressed in shirt and breeches. Although he nodded in the right places, he barely looked up from his charts as Avon recounted his general impression of the ship, and so it was a surprise when Blake finally met his gaze.

“Then it’s your professional opinion that she’s in good shape?”

“You know she is,” Avon told him.

“True,” Blake said, smiling, “but I like to be told from time to time. If that’s all, you can-”

“It is not all,” Avon said and Blake raised his eyebrows. “The Liberator is in good shape for a ship I didn’t build, fit or maintain,” Avon told him. “It is my professional opinion that the main mast is at least two feet too short – you probably had to replace it in a rush, somewhere without a proper dockyard and have not troubled yourself to find a correct replacement. That is contributing to a loss of speed, exacerbated by the heavy gun mounted on her bow. I’m sure it must be useful to you in a brawl, but it’s a determent to your speed and manoeuvrability. There are also too many cabins below deck, contributing to excessive weight in the stern. I would advise stripping them out, remounting the gun several feet lower, and, obviously, replacing the mast.”

“Obviously,” Blake said. “Very well. The cabins stay. The rest you can do when we reach Venice.”

“Can I ask-?”

“Not at the moment. And I’d like you to take a look at the other ships in my-”

“Blake,” someone yelled from outside. “Sail to windward! Looks like a Spanish galley. It’s alone. Could be a privateer.”

Blake was on his feet and pushing past Avon and out of the cabin in a moment.

“Tack as though we’re trying to avoid them,” he told Jem, pausing briefly in confusion as Avon handed him the jacket he’d left behind in his cabin, “and gradually decrease our speed, if you think you can do that without them noticing. Thank you, Avon,” he said, pulling on the jacket.

He probably wouldn’t have even noticed it was missing if it hadn’t reappeared, Avon thought with a slight grimace. And this was the man who was in charge of the ship?

“I’ll see what I can do,” Stannis said, with a roll of his eyes.

“Gan,” Blake continued, “signal the rest of the fleet and get them to manoeuvre to our lee. Will, make sure the gun crews are ready. Cally-”

Avon ducked below deck. If they were about to engage in battle, there would soon be plenty of work for him to do down there, and he wanted to prepare shot-boards and plugs and be sure the carpenter’s mate knew what was required of him.

The first shot was fired about two hours later by the Spanish galley. It went wide, but Avon felt the splash through the gun ports.

“Hold it!” Blake yelled from the deck. “Let them get closer.”

Another three shots were fired by the Spanish galley (one of which made contact with a mast that Avon heard creak and hit the deck) before Will was allowed to open fire. Smoke filled the lower deck. Another shot smashed through a gun port, killing one of the gunners and hurling the cannon he’d been manning across the deck. Another explosion further down the deck took out another gun and some men who’d been foolishly standing behind it. The only mercy was that nothing had struck below the waterline yet. With her greater manoeuvrability, the galley was keeping them at a distance too large for the Liberator’s grappling hooks to find purchase.

“Blake – another Spaniard on the horizon,” Stannis yelled from above. “Coming in fast. Should be on us in two hours.”

“Will, we need this finished now!” Blake shouted.

“Finish it, he says,” Will muttered. “Thanks Blake. No problem. I wasn’t really trying before.”

“There,” Avon said, pointing through the new hole in the side of the Liberator towards the galley. “She’s already riding low. If you hull her there, she’ll sink within the hour.”

“The thing is,” Will said, wiping soot from his eyes, “Blake doesn’t usually like us to sink anything if we can help it.”

“Who cares about prize money?” Avon demanded.

“Well, I do,” Will said, and Avon inclined his head in agreement because his question had been ill-considered. “Not that we ever see any of it.”

“Not if we’re dead at the bottom of the ocean.”

“No. I mean - Blake’s idea is that we keep the ships we take, re-fit them back in Venice and then give them back to the slaves currently aboard. With a qualified captain from amongst our ranks here-”

“Wonderful. Meanwhile we get blown to pieces.”

“It’s not usually this bad-”

“Well, this time it’s them or us. Which would you prefer? Or shall we ask the dead men?”

Another shot exploded into the ship and they both ducked a spray of splinters.

“You’re right,” Will said. “Let’s do it. Blake will understand. I hope. Don’t tell him?”

They were close enough now that it wasn’t difficult to score a direct hit. Avon watched in satisfaction as the galley’s sides smashed inwards at the vulnerable point and the ship began taking on water. There were cries of alarm from the Spanish and the oars stopped moving. Small explosions from hand-held pistols went off from both sides.

Through the gun ports Avon could see grappling hooks being thrown over its side from the Liberator, and then Blake’s men began to heave the galley towards them. Both ships protested loudly and any Spanish oars that hadn’t been hastily withdrawn were crushed against the side of the other ship. With bellows of elation and bloodlust, the Liberator crew boarded.

Avon was still working on patching the hole around the gun port when the ship’s boy arrived.

“Blake wants you on the galley.”

“I’m busy,” Avon said, without looking up from his work.

“He said–”

“Go back,” Avon said impatiently, “and tell him what I’m doing is vitally concerned with our survival. Ask him whether he is willing to take the responsibility for what happens if I delay, and come back with his answer.”

“But–”

“I’d go quickly, if I were you,” Avon suggested.

He knew what Blake’s answer would be, though, and spent the five minutes before Blake’s irate voice bellowed, “Avon, get over here now!” giving Will’s gun crew a basic course in how to stop leaks above and below the waterline so they could assist the carpenter’s mate.

That done, he jogged through the ship and clambered up to the deck. It was in chaos, though Avon was pleased to note the fallen mast had been cut free and wasn’t causing any more damage to the rigging. Cal Auron, the slender French surgeon, was trying to treat Gan, who had a nasty head-wound, and there were bodies everywhere.

Blake was scowling on the deck of the other ship.

“She’s sinking fast,” he said as Avon climbed across to join him.

“Yes, I know,” Avon said. “Given that we both know this, a curious man might wonder why you thought this was more pressing than my work on the Liberator.”

“Obviously, I want you to keep her afloat.”

“Impossible,” Avon told him. “Even for me. Now, if you’ll let me get back to work-”

“We’re only three hours off the coast of France. I don’t expect her to make the Indies, just the nearest stretch of land.”

“Three hours away?” Avon repeated. “Wake up, Blake. This ship has twenty minutes, maybe less. I supervised the shot that crippled her myself–”

“You did what?”

“And if you want my professional opinion, at this stage, all you can do is loot the place and evacuate.”

“Do you know how many slaves there are chained below this deck?” Blake demanded, indicating it with fury.

“A hundred?” Avon asked.

Two hundred, Avon.”

“Really? Well, it’s not my area. I would, however, point out that you have five ships that could be employed to carry a selection of these released prisoners. They do not need their own ship. In fact, I’m sure most of them would be glad to see the last of it. Things will be uncomfortable until you set them ashore, but I hear it’s only three hours away.”

“It will take at least an hour to bring even one of the other ships in close enough,” Blake said slowly and clearly. “And the Liberator can’t support another two hundred men on her own. Do you see what the problem is, Avon?”

Avon narrowed his eyes but he could feel his resolve breaking under the force of Blake’s personality. “Bring the ships in closer,” he said eventually. “I’ll see what I can do to slow the rate of sinking.”

“Thank you,” Blake said in the same tone he undoubtedly used for saying, “I’ll deal with you later”. And he strode off.

*

In the end, Avon managed to keep the Spanish galley afloat for almost an hour and a half. It was nothing short of a miracle and he returned to the Liberator exhausted, only to have to supervise the raising of the replacement fore-mast and yard that Jem had salvaged from the Spanish galley. After that he inspected the work that the carpenter’s mate and the gun crews had done on the leaks in the Liberator’s hull and made his own checks. He sounded the well, found there was an unacceptable amount of water sloshing around in it, and put some more men onto the pumps.

Then he made the mistake of appearing on deck, which allowed Blake to collar him.

“Avon – a word in my cabin, if you’ve got a moment you can spare.”

“And if I don’t?” Avon asked, but Blake was already steering him through the ranks of massed former slaves on the deck. The air stank of humanity. I saved you, Avon thought as he met various sets of eyes that were still blinking in the sunlight. I saved the lot of you.

As soon as the cabin door closed behind him, Blake whirled on him. “What you did today was completely unacceptable.”

“Wrong,” Avon snarled, having decided to go on the offensive. “What I did was save two hundred lives and then restore this ship to working order. It was you, Blake, who behaved unacceptably. You risked every life aboard the Liberator by not trying to sink the galley as soon as it was in range.”

“So you think I should have sentenced those slaves to death, do you?”

“I think you should put the safety of your own crew before people you know and care nothing about, yes. You could have rescued the slaves as the ship was sinking, if you insisted on it. But no - you prefer the grand gesture. Setting the slaves free with a ship of their own to bring down their oppressors, just as you did. No matter if people who’ve pledged their lives to you die in the crossfire.”

“Everyone aboard this ship agreed to do things my way when they signed up,” Blake said. “Everyone including you, I hear.”

“I lied."

“Then you can leave whenever you want,” Blake said simply. He sat on his bunk and began to pull off his shoes. “Go and get some rest, Avon. You look exhausted.”

Avon let himself out of the captain’s cabin unsure whether he’d won that argument or not. Half way down the ladder to the lower deck, he realised Blake hadn’t asked what he would have done if Anna had been aboard that Spanish galley. It would have been an easy way to score some points but Blake hadn’t taken it. That was either very stupid or very kind of him, and nothing Avon had seen of Blake so far suggested he was stupid.

*

Several of the former slaves elected to stay and serve aboard the Liberator, which was something, according to Will, that often happened.

“Now, I see why you’re so willing to risk your men,” Avon said to Blake in passing. “It’s so easy to acquire replacements.”

“Shut up, Avon,” Blake said succinctly and Avon knew he had struck a chord.

The rest of the ex-slaves were dropped in France. Blake sent Cal with them, along with what looked like enough gold to buy a new ship. Avon was initially under the impression that they would combine this mission with a trip to a nearby shipyard where the damage to the Liberator could properly repaired, but they stayed at anchor only long enough for Cal to return. Apparently the Liberator was not welcome at many foreign ports due to her habit of attempting to wreck any foreign ship that came across her path, and Blake and Jem were anxious to return home with the goods from Britain. Two weeks in a French shipyard was therefore impossible on numerous grounds. Avon objected strenuously to this course of action, but mostly on principle as he could see the logic of it.

*

The next week passed largely without incident. The new fore-mast was a relatively effective replacement and, soon after their meeting with the galley, Jem persuaded Blake to switch the green sails for the white ones they kept in reserve. He also sought Avon out early the next day before Blake was awake.

“Come to berate me about my lack of team spirit?” Avon asked, as he tested the hinges on the repaired gun port.

“Actually I think you did the right thing,” Jem told him.

“I don’t think I heard you correctly.”

“Like I told you,” Jem said, “we obey Blake unless there’s a good reason. You might want to be less obvious about it next time, though, or he’ll throw you overboard.”

And with that he left, leaving Avon with no one to direct his incredulous look at.

*

The orderly mind adjusts well to routine, and so Avon found himself adapting fast to life at sea. He woke with the dawn, completed his inspection of the ship, and reported to Blake. He was the first of the officers to do this everyday, so his was the dubious pleasure of watching Blake accelerate from basic, primitive consciousness at eight o’clock to full-on annoyance five minutes later. Once he even caught Blake asleep, but given that Blake slept with a dagger in his hand and Avon had a dislike of being stabbed in the morning, it was not an experience either of them wished to replicate and Avon knocked very loudly after that.

The rest of the day then passed with further routine tasks, which Avon would complete with consummate skill, interspersed with rest periods in which he played cards with Will and Gan, tried to read over the noise on deck, and casually antagonised Blake if it looked like he wasn’t doing anything. At dusk, Avon slept. On Sunday, the routine was briefly disrupted by a Protestant ceremony that Blake conducted himself, apparently under the impression that he was the closest representative to God aboard ship. But otherwise things continued in a respectable fashion.

They met another privateer ten days out, but this time Blake was willing to listen to reason. Neither the flagship, nor the crew, were in any condition to put up a fight, and the merchant ships that comprised the rest of Blake’s fleet were armed only for defence. The fleet tacked away from the privateer until it disappeared below the horizon.

The winds were good and the weather almost balmy as they rounded the coast of Malta. Avon was beginning to think he might even survive this voyage, and without murdering or being murdered by Blake, when he heard the shout from up on deck,

“Sail to windward! Looks Turkish. Could even be one of Servalan’s.”

“Well, that’s done it,” Will sighed, gathering up the playing cards he’d spread over the gun deck. “And I was having such a nice day.”

“What do you mean?” Avon asked, annoyed because he’d been winning. “Who is Servalan?”

“Blake’s nemesis,” Will explained. “You know. She’s the one who captured his ship in the first place, and he served in the galley on her flagship for about two years before they left him for dead.”

Avon had, in fact, heard this rather fanciful story before. Those who talked of Blake in the taverns around London maintained that he’d been serving as first mate aboard a British ship when it had been taken by a Turkish corsair, who apparently now called herself Servalan. That had been about ten years ago, when Blake was only twenty or so. He was young and strong, but the life of a galley slave was so hard that most died less than three years after first taking up the oar. Blake had collapsed after two, and had been, as Will said, left for dead off the coast of Venice. He would certainly have died if he hadn’t been found and cared for by the man who was now his adoptive father.

Over the next seven years, Blake had built a merchant empire for himself, but rather than luxuriating in his wealth and security, he used his power and funds for one purpose and one alone: to bring down the woman who had enslaved him.

So they said, anyway.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Will continued, “she’s a thoroughly evil woman the world would be better off without, but we always get smashed up horribly whenever we come into contact with her. She’s got about twenty fighting galleys, you see,” he said mournfully.

“But Blake is being sensible,” Avon said. “He is waiting until this ship is re-fitted before taking on any other privateers or pirates.”

Will gave him a curious look. “You don’t have a nemesis, do you, Avon?”

“No.”

“Funny.”

“What is?”

“I’m just surprised you don’t, that’s all. Having met you, I mean. Aren’t people lining up for the post?”

“Anyone who annoyed me died less than a month after I met them,” Avon told him. “That did not leave enough time for them to develop into a nemesis. We have known each other sixteen days, Will. Remember that before your next joke.”

“I’ll take my chances against you, if it means avoiding Servalan. Sadly, unless you kill me in the next five minutes, you might as well forget it. I’ll be dead anyway. You don’t let your nemesis go just because your ship’s a bit battered. Blake’ll have us over there within a few hours, mark my word.”

Avon cursed and got to his feet. He had to force his way through the crowds pushing up on deck (almost everyone knew what a sighting of Servalan’s fleet meant) but eventually he was out in the light and there was Blake, his shirt billowing out behind him in the wind and his eye to a telescope.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Avon snapped.

“Taking the air,” Blake told him. “And enjoying the view.”

“One damaged fighting ship and four dead-weights against a fleet of twenty?”

“Actually, I think she’s only brought five of them with her today.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I’d hate for her to waste ammunition. And six will take us out quite as easily as twenty. A few days ago, you agreed with Stannis and me that it was foolish to take on one privateer in our condition. Now you’re willing to take on six times that number?”

“I’m not a hypocrite, Avon,” Blake said, lowering the telescope, “or an idiot, though thank you for your vote of confidence. Jem’s already altered our course. We’ll anchor off Malta until Servalan and her cronies have gone. I just wanted to look. And,” he added darkly, “remember.

“That’s... good to know,” Avon said, feeling the adrenalin drain out of his system. Blake raised an eyebrow and, rather than look at him any more, Avon turned out to sea.

To the naked eye, the Turkish ships were only visible as patches of colour on the horizon, but there was something familiar about one of them. Avon leaned out further, as though that would help.

“Here, take this,” Blake said, close behind him, pressing the telescope into his hands.

Avon took it without thanks and stared through it, running his eye over the lines of ship at the head of the convoy.

Blake,” he whispered hoarsely, reaching back for the other man and grasping the front of Blake’s shirt. “That’s the Foresight. That’s the ship Anna was on when they captured her.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Avon said, his voice shaking. He lowered the telescope. “I... built it. I would... recognise her anywhere.”

“It looks like she’s serving as Servalan’s flagship now,” Blake said and Avon swung to look at him. He knew he must look mad, but Blake regarded him steadily and seriously. “What do you want to do?” he asked.

Avon stared at him. “You are offering me-”

“-the chance to change my mind. If you want it. We don’t need to engage her in battle. There are other ways to take her down.”

Avon turned again to look at the ships, now six slightly bigger specks on the horizon. He was not a naval strategist, but the mathematics of defeat were clear.

But, when it came down to it, what did he care about Blake and his crew? He was out for himself, as he always was. He had only protested Blake’s ridiculous plans because they threatened his own life. When it came down to it, he had boarded the Liberator in order to avenge Anna personally and here was the perfect opportunity. At the very least, they could get close enough to the Foresight to do some real damage and possibly take out this Servalan.

Avon’s nimble mind turned over other possibilities as he stood there staring at the Turkish ships. They could feign a surrender and... spring into action once they boarded the ship. No, she would be expecting that. He could rig the Liberator to blow, but that would kill Blake and the others. And so Blake was unlikely to agree to it. He could perhaps send a small boat in alone, under the cover of nightfall, and take the Foresight by surprise. But Avon knew he was not the right man to scale fifty feet of battleship in the dark, so someone else would have to go. Blake... would probably agree to do it. But Blake was the sort of man who needed to be protected from his own worst ideas, not given new ones.

“It would be suicide,” Avon said eventually.

“Is that a no?” Blake asked.

“Yes,” Avon said. He released his hold on Blake’s shirt. His fingers ached. “That is– it is a no, Blake. Hold the course for Malta. We will get Servalan another time.”

“As you say, Avon,” Blake said gently.

Avon heard him walk away and say something to Jem. He closed his eyes and dug his fingers into the edge of the ship. The spray of the sea was cold on his face.

“Celui qui fuit de bonne heure peut combattre derechef,” a light voice told him.

Avon cracked an eye open. “What was that?”

“A saying amongst my people,” Cal explained. “It means: He who flees early can fight again.”

“We say something similar,” Avon told him. “Discretion is the better part of valour. Loosely translated: it is acceptable to be a coward.”

“Do you regret your decision already?”

“What decision?” Avon asked. “Retreat was the only logical course.”

“That is true, but I’ve noticed, in my time onboard this ship and elsewhere, that men do not always take the most logical course,” Cal said with a smile.

“Other men,” Avon said. “Not me.”

“Well, in that case, you are very fortunate,” Cal said. He laid a hand on Avon’s arm. “If you do want to talk about the decision you didn’t make, I’ll be in the surgery. But it might make more sense to talk to Blake, and he will be brooding in his cabin for the rest of the evening.”

“You know, you may be the first person to use ‘sense’ and ‘talk to Blake’ in the same phrase,” Avon told him.

“Don’t be unkind,” Cal said reproachfully.

“Why not?” Avon murmured as the surgeon walked away. Because Blake didn’t deserve it? When had that ever been the point?

He stayed where he was for another ten minutes, thinking about talking to Blake, and then he sighed and went to knock on the door of Blake’s cabin.

“Yes? What is it?” Blake’s voice said.

Avon pushed open the door and found Blake mid-pace, one hand held contemplatively to his mouth. The action caused his shirtsleeves to hang loose around his elbow and Avon saw, for the first time, the scars around his wrists.

“Well? What is it, Avon?” Blake repeated impatiently.

“Cal,” Avon said, “intimated that you might need company to stop you brooding alone in your room. But now I see he was wrong, and you are simply trying to complete a marathon without leaving the comfort of your cabin.”

“Very funny,” Blake said, but he smiled ruefully and sat. This brought the shirt back around his wrists, which Avon was glad about because the sight of Blake’s injuries had caused something like anger to twist inside his stomach and it had been distracting.

“Actually, it’s not so bad this time,” Blake said as he began to open the chest at the end of his bunk. “Nobody died as a direct result of a decision I made. The only thing I have to regret is not being able to do anything.” He pulled out glasses and a decanter of something pale that sparkled in the light. “And I live with that every day.”

“So you don’t need me to stay.”

“On the ship?”

Avon laughed. “I know you need me to stay on the ship.”

“I hope that’s not true,” Blake said. “If it is, we’ll be rather lost when you find Mistress Grant.”

“What do you mean by that?” Avon asked sharply.

“I assume you’ll be returning with her to England,” Blake said. “And to the queen’s service, if she’ll have you.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Avon said, trying to work out what part of this conversation was confusing him. It was as straightforward as Blake seemed to think it was. “And she will take me back.”

“Despite the loss of the Foresight and the several hundred pounds that were supposed to be used for outfitting her?”

“I didn’t realise you knew about the money.”

Blake inclined his head.

“Yes,” Avon said, “she will take me back, despite the loss of the Foresight and the money. Her majesty is increasingly turning her attention to the sea and, if she wishes to compete on an international scale, she will need the best ships.”

“And you build the best ships.”

Avon smiled.

Blake laughed with friendly incredulity and then said, “Come on, Avon. Stop playing games. Just stay.” There was a brief moment when the bottom dropped out of Avon’s stomach, and then he realised that Blake had put two glasses onto the table and was pouring the whisky into them from the decanter. “It’s not good for me to drink alone.”

“Now that’s a flattering invitation,” Avon said but he sat in Blake’s chair and accepted the other glass. Feeling whimsical, he raised it.

“To a life without regret.”

“To freedom,” Blake suggested.

“The same thing, surely.”

The same warm, incredulous chuckle from Blake. “Not really.” He drained his glass and poured another. “So – tell me about Anna Grant. What’s she like?”

“Beautiful,” Avon said. “Clever. She likes ships.” He smiled at that, but he didn’t want to talk about Anna to Blake, although he wasn’t quite sure why. Whatever the reason was, though, it wasn’t the same sick feeling of fear that had stopped him answering Cal’s or Will’s questions on the same subject. “What about you? You’re not married?”

“To the sea,” Blake said.

Avon rolled his eyes, but went with it. “And how do you find that relationship?”

“Very amicable, on the whole,” Blake said, “though she’s sometimes as rude to me as you are.”

“You make it easy for her, I’m sure.”

“Not on purpose,” Blake said. “We just have very different ideas about what direction we should go in.”

“You should try taking her advice occasionally,” Avon suggested.

“No, that doesn’t help. Even when I do follow her advice, she’s still wretched with me.”

“Well, perhaps she’s just trying to ensure she has your undivided attention.”

“.... Are we still talking about the sea?” Blake asked.

“What?” Avon said, and then he realised what Blake was suggesting. And then, rapidly, he realised that Blake was right, and that he was finding it difficult to breathe.

“No,” he said wretchedly, meaning “this can’t be happening”, but Blake interpreted it more literally as an answer to the question he’d asked earlier.

“What are we talking about then?”

“I don’t know,” Avon said. “I seem to have lost track of this conversation somewhere. Thank you, Blake, for the drink. I’m suddenly very tired.”

He stood and so did Blake with terrible, awkward timing. The cabin was larger than Avon’s, but most the floor was taken up with furniture. By necessity they were standing close together and Avon looked up at Blake and saw how soft his expression was.

Avon,” Blake said, like a sigh, less than a foot away from him, and Avon walked out.

He wanted air, desperately, but the deck was as busy as always and there was also the possibility that Blake would follow him. So, Avon made for the lower decks.

“This is all your fault, Auron,” he snarled at Cal as he passed the surgery.

“What is?” Cal called after him in confusion.

“Good question,” Avon murmured to himself as he swung into his own cabin. It was empty, which was fortunate, because Will had the infuriating habit of being either too perceptive or completely oblivious, depending on which you’d least prefer at that moment.

“Avon, what is the matter?” Cal asked from the doorway.

“Nothing,” Avon said. “I’m... sorry I shouted at you.”

“I’ll just get back to re-organising the medicine chest then,” Cal said, his voice incredulous. He waited another moment and then walked away.

Avon sat alone in the darkness, and thought about how close he had come to kissing Blake and what he was going to do about that.

*

What he decided to do and what he did was essentially to act as though it hadn’t happened. This was made somewhat easier because Blake had apparently decided something similar. Avon found this behaviour rather insulting and would have taken Blake to task about it, except that he was pretending there was nothing to be insulted about.

Following his conversation with Blake, he also thought a lot about Anna and how dreadful it was that he’d betrayed her so completely after less than three months apart. That he hadn’t actually kissed Blake made little difference to Avon. Blake had been so close and Avon had wanted to kiss him more than he’d ever wanted to kiss anyone, beautiful Anna Grant included. He’d bedded men before, and better looking ones than Blake, so it wasn’t just a discovery of his hitherto repressed desire for boys. It was Blake himself who was the problem, and an incredibly distracting problem at that.

Now it had been brought to his attention, Avon realised that there had been several days on board the Liberator in which he hadn’t thought about Anna at all. When he did think about her, he felt much of the same anguish and sense of loss that he’d felt before and he knew that he still loved her, but thinking about her was something he had to make time to do, whereas Blake was everywhere. And every time he forgot her to berate Blake about some messy decision, or smiled at some joke Blake had made that wasn’t ridiculous, Avon felt like he was burying his fiancée before he’d even learned for certain that she was dead.

*

The journey into the harbour at Venice went smoothly.

Blake left for the house of his adoptive father on the first night in port, taking Jem, Cal and Gan with him. Most of the rest of the crew also disembarked to enjoy the pleasures of Venice. Only Avon and Will were left behind: Avon to supervise the repairs he’d been so anxious to effect a few weeks earlier; Will to supervise Avon, mind the ship, translate the Italian of the dockyard hands, and complain about being left behind.

“I love Venice,” he explained mournfully. “Gold on every wall. Fountains of champagne. Beautiful women. It’s got everything a man could ever dream of.”

“A man with limited imagination, anyway,” Avon said, the jibe only half as vicious as it would normally have been because he was only half listening. The rest of his brain was trying to work out what Blake was likely to be doing in the city Will was describing and what Anna might be doing wherever she was.

“Hey, we can’t all be idealist heroes,” Will said. “Some of us would be content with a nice little pile of ducats. Yer, a pile as big as Gan would do it.”

Avon raised an eyebrow and turned his attention to the conversation properly. “As big as Gan? That is your idea of a little pile?”

“I’m not greedy,” Will said. “I just want enough to set me up in total luxury and comfort for life. Is that too much to ask? And we could win it all in one night in one of the ridotti.”

“The ridotti? What are they?”

“Private houses around the city that host gambling parties,” Will said. “I’ve heard stories of trappola games going on all night. I’m unbeatable at trappola,” he tailed off dreamily and then snapped back to despondency. “The only problem is they’re private houses.”

“Invitation only?”

“That’s right. And we haven’t been invited.”

“I bet,” Avon said slowly, with a smile, “that Blake has.”

Will made a face. “Blake doesn’t gamble.”

“He doesn’t need to. How often does he return to Venice?”

“I don’t know. Once or twice a year maybe?”

“Now, if you were a doorman at a private party would you memorise the face of a man who was only in the city once or twice a year?”

“No, I wouldn’t,” Will said, catching on.

“You’d almost certainly be convinced if an Englishman, dressed in Blake’s clothes, showed up claiming to be Blake. Particularly, if he had manacle scars around his wrists.”

“What, you mean, like this?” Will said, pulling back his sleeve.

Avon grinned and they shook hands on it.

*

Watching Will fleece twenty or so aristocrats in Blake’s name was entertaining for a while, but after the second hour it began to drag and Avon began to brood again.

“I’m going out for some air,” he told Will, who was having such a good time he barely seemed to notice.

Avon rolled his eyes and began to push through the crowds. At the door he almost knocked over a young blonde woman, who looked at him for a moment as though surprised to find him there, and then said, “You’re supposed to be in the dockyard” in a tone that was used to being obeyed.

Avon blinked. Any doubts he had about whether he was looking at Jem Stannis were dispelled as a woman who was obviously Cal Auron appeared behind Jem. One officer having an identical twin sister with whom he shared the movements of his shipmates was unlikely enough. Two made the truth inescapable.

“Avon,” Cal said in slight alarm. “What are you doing here?”

They were both very beautiful women and Avon wondered briefly how he had been taken in by what must have been a pair of poor disguises before he realised that he hadn’t looked closely at anyone on the ship except Blake and felt sick again.

“Yes, Avon, what are you doing here?” Jem demanded.

“I could ask you two the same question,” Avon said, “though I admit it wouldn’t be first on my list.”

“We came looking for Blake,” Cal explained. “The doorman said he was here.”

“You were misinformed,” Avon said.

“He seemed very sure.”

“Doormen always are.”

“Tell me you left someone in charge back at the dockyard, Avon,” Jem said.

“I’m sure he did,” Cal said. “Will was there, wasn’t he, Avon?”

“Yes,” Avon said. “He was there.”

He turned as Jem’s eyes flicked towards the gaming table where Will, in an inconveniently loud voice, was just explaining to his new friends about the many Spanish galleys, he, Roger Blake, had taken through his incredible heroics.

“Like I said,” Avon said, as Jem strode over to the trappola table, “he was there.”

“I think that’s the last time you two will be left alone together,” Cal said, as they watched Jem lean over Will and say something that made his face fall.

“It will be hard, but I’m sure I’ll find some way to bear it.”

“I’m sure it will be hard,” Cal said without irony. “You two are good friends, aren’t you?” Before Avon could answer, she pointed across the room, “Avon, is that Gan?”

Solid, responsible Gan was even less likely to be in a gambling den than Blake was and Avon would have said this to Cal, except that it obviously was Gan.

“Unexpectedly,” he agreed.

“Wait here,” Cal said and worked her way over to Gan, who was questioning a group of revellers by the fireplace. Avon saw her ask something that was probably “What are you doing here?” and saw Gan reply something to the effect of “I heard Blake was here.”

Avon sighed and, rather than waiting for Cal, began to make for the exit again. This time the person he ran into at the door was Blake.

Avon stared at him. “What are you doing here?”

“I heard I was here,” Blake explained. His beard was neatly trimmed and he has wearing heavily embroidered green velvet that didn’t suit him. “But I must have been misinformed.”

“You may not have noticed, but in certain lights you bear a striking resemblance to Will.”

“Is that so?”

“Very dim ones, anyway.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Blake said. “How absent-minded of me.”

“Yes. In further tales of your incompetence, did you know most of your senior officers are, in fact, women?”

Blake raised his eyebrows. “Even Gan?”

“You did know,” Avon concluded.

“Of course, I know,” Blake retorted, suddenly angry. “Do you think I split the officer’s mess into several cabins because I like extra weight in the stern of my ship?”

“Then you offer no excuse?” Avon asked, meeting Blake’s anger with his own.

“Why should I? They’re very good at their jobs.”

“And what are those jobs exactly?” Avon snapped, venturing into territory he knew would be unacceptable and not only because it was blatantly false. “Are you running some sort of floating brothel?”

Blake grabbed him by the collar and dragged him closer. “Don’t make me hit you, Avon,” he said, voice low.

“Oh, is that what you’re going to do?” Avon asked, feeling reckless because Blake was close and intense and his lips were slightly open.

Blake held his gaze for a moment longer and then shouted “Jenna?” into the party. He did not release Avon’s jacket.

The woman who had been called Jem Stannis left Will in Gan’s capable hands and joined them. “Yes,” she said, glancing at Avon before turning her attention back to Blake. “What is it?”

“I’m sorry to have to ask you this, Jenna,” Blake said slowly and without looking away from Avon, “but could you please tell Avon, here, whether you have ever been subjected to sexual advances by me or any other member of the Liberator’s crew.”

Avon’s eyes slid over to her and he saw what might have been a flicker of regret, which reminded him of the way Jem had seemed uncomfortable on that first day when Avon had pointed out that Blake didn’t tell him (or, rather, her) everything. Then Jem’s cool stare reasserted itself.

“No.”

“Have you,” Blake continued, having missed all this, “ever been subjected to any behaviour of any sort that you consider to be unacceptable based on your gender?”

“I’ve been subjected to plenty of unacceptable behaviour, but no, nothing like that.”

“And what,” Blake said, “do you think I would do to anyone who acted inappropriately towards you?”

“I don’t know. I suppose, after I’d broken their legs, you would probably throw them off the ship at the nearest port.”

“Thank you, Jenna,” Blake said, releasing Avon. “I think that’s everything.”

“Actually it isn’t,” Jenna told him. “We’ve all been trying to find you all evening to tell you-- Blake, Servalan’s in Venice.”

Blake stared at her, aghast. “What?”

“Servalan,” Avon repeated for him, “is-”

“Yes, thank you, Avon,” Blake said. “Are you sure, Jenna?”

“Fairly sure, yes,” Jenna said, as Blake began chewing on his thumb. “Gan and I both heard the news from different people, and Will says that some of the people here know, too. Apparently she bought one of the palaces between the Fondamenta Barbarigo and the Rio di San Maurizio a few months ago. She hasn’t been using it, but I’ve asked around and it seems her ships came in the day before ours. Every indication is she’s taken residence.”

“But we’ve tried to attack her in her own home before,” Blake said. “With fairly disastrous results.”

The side of Jenna’s mouth twitched. “A fortified mountain lair is not the same as a Venetian palace.”

“You’re right,” Blake said. “Yes, you’re right,” he said again, more firmly. “I think we can really do it, Jenna. Of course, the fact that it’s here in the city means that we’ll have to be discrete about it. The troops will have to be left at home. We penetrate the palace with just a few trusted people-”

“Well, then, what are we waiting for?” Avon asked. “She may not have heard news of our arrival. We should strike now. Tonight, if possible.”

“I said a few trusted people, Avon,” Blake said. “What are you doing here, again? I thought I asked you to stay in the dockyard.”

“Yes, that’s what I thought, too,” Jenna said.

Avon tried scowling, but felt his face relax into a pleading expression almost of its own volition. He sighed. “Please. Blake.”

Slowly Blake grinned, and then he clapped Avon on the arm. “Get the others. We leave in an hour.”

*

The six of them split into three groups to attack the palace.

Jenna and Gan, who had been deemed those least likely to be recognised as members of Blake’s crew (since Jenna was usually disguised as a man and Gan didn’t socialise much in Venice), were assigned the front entrance. Jenna’s informants had assured her that some sort of big event was taking place, and it was hoped they could blag their way inside without much difficulty.

Blake and Cally, meanwhile, were planning to scale the walls and enter via a fourth floor window.

“Which leaves Avon and Will to penetrate the wine cellar from the canal,” Blake concluded. “The plan is simple. Get in, kill Servalan... and get out without being identified. Any questions?”

“Yes,” Avon said, raising his hand. “Why am I deemed more recognisable than Gan? He’s been with you for years.”

“Yes, but I was never the queen of England’s shipbuilder,” Gan said. “Besides, I’m not very good in gondolas.”

“And the cellar will be dark and slippery,” Jenna said. “So I expect you’ll feel right at home, Avon.”

“It’s the punishment assignment, mate,” Will said, slinging an arm around Avon’s shoulders. “Try not to complain too much or they’ll just make it worse. I know how this works.”

“Will, I’ve changed my mind,” Blake said. “You’re with me. I’m going to need you to open any doors upstairs.” Lock-picking, it transpired, was one of Will’s many talents. “Cally, you go with Avon.”

“See,” Will said glumly to Avon. “I told you. Now I’ve got to climb a wall.”

*

It was remarkably easy to acquire a gondola. All Avon had to do was mention “my lovely wife”, “some private time beneath the moonlight” and “thirty ducats” and one of Venice’s finest crafts was his for the evening. Steering it proved to be more of a problem. Eventually Avon gave up in disgust with the tiny Continental boat and let Cally handle that side of things while he watched for the right cellar door.

Fortunately, Servalan’s palace was lit up and they couldn’t have missed it if they’d tried. The door to the cellar was locked, but they’d each brought four pistols and Avon used the first to blast the lock open. Rather than waste time re-loading, he threw it back into the gondola and followed Cally into the cellar.

“This way,” she called, already at the top of the stairs into the palace. She opened the internal door and more light spilled into the cellar. With its help, Avon saw what she had not: a woman chained to one of the far walls by both her wrists.

“Wait a moment,” he called to Cally and slipped between the stacks of barrels towards the woman. Her delicate features were battered and bruised and her elaborate dress was torn in numerous places. In all likelihood she had never expected to be so hurt and alone in all her life.

Her eyes fluttered open and met Avon’s.

“It’s all right,” Avon told her gently, with no idea of whether she’d be able to understand him. “We’re going to get you out of here. Hold still.” He fired his second pistol at her left manacle and it shattered.

The woman winced only slightly and lowered her freed hand. “You’re English,” she said, her voice lightly accented with something that wasn’t Italian.

“That’s right,” Avon said, kneeling next to her. “My name is-”

“Avon,” Cally said, coming up behind him. “Don’t release her.”

Avon looked up at her. “Why not?”

“That’s Servalan,” Cally said. “I’m sure of it.”

“Chained up in her own basement?” Avon said, turning to look back at Servalan, who regarded him steadily through long eyelashes.

“Apparently,” Cally said. “Someone must have got here before we did. Or perhaps there was a coup. Whoever the people are who did this, they’re probably still in the palace. And they could be dangerous. I’m going to warn Blake and the others. Wait here. Kill her if you have to.”

Avon stared at the wall as Cally left. Could he kill a bound woman in cold blood? He didn’t think he could, no matter what she had done.

“So you’re Avon,” Servalan said. He turned to look at her and she smiled. “And you’re with Blake now. Well, well. That I didn’t expect.”

“How do you know my name?”

“Someone must have told me.”

“I think I want to talk to you about that someone,” Avon told her, hearing his voice shake.

“I’m sure you do,” Servalan said. “Release me and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

“I don’t think so,” Avon told her. “You tell me what I want to know and I might stop Blake killing you when the time comes. Then again, I might not. I’ve seen the marks you left on him.”

“That’s not a very generous offer.”

“I’m not a very generous man,” Avon said. “That’s the best I can do. Now, do you want to talk or not?”

“First, I want reassurance. Do you honestly think you can stop Blake killing me? He’s very determined.”

“So am I,” Avon told her.

“You do think you can,” Servalan said, smiling, and Avon’s stomach twisted. “That is interesting. All right, Avon. I’ll tell you what I know, but you won’t like it. And not for the reasons you think. You see, Anna Grant-”

There was the sound of footsteps at the top of the steps and Avon sprang to his feet, pointing his gun at-

A woman with a pale, heart-shaped face and blonde hair. A woman who was achingly familiar and who laughed slightly as though she was trying not to cry and said his name over and over again and kissed him on the cheek.

“Hello Anna,” Avon said numbly.

“Oh Avon,” she said, in the same tear-heavy voice, “I thought I’d never see you again.”

“I came here to rescue you,” Avon told her, his mind still moving in slow motion. “But it seems that I’m unnecessary.” He gestured at Servalan. “This is your doing, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Anna said. “Not me, personally, but the other slaves- They were so angry. About the way she’s treated us. I couldn’t stop them-” She buried her face in his shoulder and her rich dress crunched against him.

Has she been treating you badly?” Avon asked.

“Oh,” Anna said weakly, “I don’t want to talk about it. It doesn’t matter now you’re here.”

“I’m afraid it does matter,” Avon told her. “Because, you see Anna, you don’t look mistreated. You look... perfect.” His heart ached as he looked at her. “Where did you get that dress?”

“It’s one of hers,” Anna said. “I put it on after we took the palace. I didn’t have anything else.”

“I see. And what about the marks on your wrists, Anna?”

“What marks?”

“That’s what I mean,” Avon said. “There aren’t any. You haven’t ever been manacled.”

“No, I... promised not to run.”

“That doesn’t sound like you,” Avon told her.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be enslaved!”

“Do you?”

“I don’t understand.”

“But you do,” Servalan said from behind him. “Don’t you, Avon?”

Avon tried to ignore her. “What happened, Anna,” he asked intently, “the day the Foresight was taken? How did it happen? Did she... take you by surprise? Did someone on board betray you? Please tell me how the queen’s ship was lost, because it almost ended my career.” He swallowed. “What about the other people on the Foresight, Anna? Did they survive?”

“No,” Servalan said. “She had them all killed without even asking whether they would join her. I watched it myself. I shouldn’t have been surprised that she turned on me, too.”

“That’s not true,” Anna said imploringly. “Avon, you can’t believe this.”

“But," he said helplessly, "you haven’t given me a reason not to."

He felt her hand reach for the pistol at his belt and draw it and, without thinking, he fired the pistol in his hand. With a slight intake of breath, Anna dropped the other gun.

Avon caught her as she fell, and lowered her gently to the ground. From outside there was the sound of gunfire.

“I didn’t want you to be part of it,” she told him, smiling sadly as the life flowed out of her. “I sent you away to London so you wouldn’t be on the ship when I took it. I wanted you to be safe.”

“I wish I could believe that,” Avon told her. “But it was all a lie from the beginning, wasn’t it?” The memory of something he’d once told Blake clawed into him. “You were so interested in the Foresight. How she was designed, when she might be ready to launch. It’s clear, now, how much of a fool I’ve been. I thought you just liked ships.”

“I did,” Anna said. “And I did want the Foresight. But I also loved you, Avon. Right from the beginning.” He felt her body relax, and held her more tightly as she slipped away.

“Not enough,” he murmured into her hair and pressed a kiss to her forehead. He thought of Blake, scowling, and laughing, and standing on the deck of his ship without a jacket, and so close that his breath was warm on Avon’s face. “Which perhaps makes two of us,” Avon told Anna, unsure whether he was saddest because she was dead, or because she had betrayed him, or because she was dead and had betrayed him and all he could think about was how Blake was probably out there getting himself killed.

He didn’t see Servalan pick up the gun Anna had dropped, but he felt the barrel press into the back of his head.

“Does she have the keys to the other manacle?” Servalan asked.

“I don’t know,” Avon said vacantly.

“Then find out,” Servalan suggested, pressing the pistol harder into his hair. Feeling incredibly weary, Avon reached around Anna’s waist and found a ring of keys hanging from her belt. He unhooked it and handed it to Servalan without getting up.

Behind him, there was a clink of metal and then Servalan stood.

“Give me one good reason I shouldn’t kill you now,” she said.

Avon raised his eyebrows but before he could make his brain suggest something plausible, another cool female voice said,

“Because if you do, I’ll shoot you where you stand.”

Servalan smiled up at Jenna, who was pointing a gun at her from the stairs. Behind Jenna, Gan and Cally were also armed and were watching the exit, presumably for the arrival of Blake and Will.

“Not a very convincing threat,” Servalan said. “Since your friend here will still be dead.”

“I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood the situation,” Avon told her, with a regretful smile. “They don’t really like me.”

“That’s true,” Gan said. “We don’t.”

“So you see, Servalan,” Avon said, “your threat is void. I’m useless as a hostage. Kill me and you gain nothing. Let me live-”

“And you’ll kill me anyway?”

“No,” Jenna said, “we’ll use you as a hostage. There are too many of us to escape in the gondola and I don’t like our chances of fighting our way out. Your lot have taken the palace again, by the way.”

“How do I know that’s the truth?”

“I wouldn’t need you if it wasn’t. Now drop the gun or I shoot you.”

“Very well,” Servalan said with a sigh and handed the pistol to Avon, who took it. He moved Anna’s body gently to the ground and stood.

“What happened here, Avon?” Jenna asked as she prodded Servalan up the stairs.

“I’d rather not talk about it,” Avon told her.

“Fine by me,” Jenna said, as they entered the hallway. “I only asked to be polite. This way. Blake’s holding them off from the library.”

The hallway was filled with smoke and the sound of gunfire continued. It was just possible to see that they’d entered another room, and then Avon was able to make out a shape that was Blake reloading his pistols behind an upturned table.

“What kept you?” Blake shouted, turning away from them to fire at one of the other guards.

“We ran into some old friends,” Jenna explained.

“Hello Blake,” Servalan said. “How nice to see you looking so well.”

Blake was on his feet in an instant, but Avon had guessed he might do something like that and was ready to seize his gun arm before he could raise it. “She’s a hostage,” he said firmly, feeling Blake tremble with rage.

“You need me,” Servalan told him, smiling.

“Only until we get outside,” Blake growled.

“That is a good point,” Servalan conceded. “Tell me again why I should cooperate with you?”

“You have no choice,” Cally said. “You gave your gun to Avon.”

“Ah yes.”

“Why not make yourself useful by telling the guards to stop firing and let us leave?” Gan suggested. “That’s bound to make us think more highly of you.”

Servalan looked at Jenna, who nodded. “Guards,” she called, “this is Servalan. Stop firing. Now. I am going to walk out of the main doors. I do not want anyone to open fire. Is that understood?”

“Right,” Gan said, as mutters of agreement came from the men around the doorway. “Let’s get out of here.”

“No, wait a moment,” Blake said. “Will’s not back yet.”

“Well, where is he?”

“He’s-”

“Blake!" Will shouted, as he ran in. “Everyone! Get out here! The fuses are going to burn out in less than a minute!”

“Fuses?” Servalan repeated in horror. “Blake, what have you done?”

“Set the whole place to blow, presumably,” Avon snarled, grabbing her wrist, “now run.” And with that he tugged her towards the door.

Outside the palace, there was a garden with a long path running down to the gates. They were half way down it when the palace blew. Avon had positioned himself behind Blake as they ran, and he was therefore able to shield him, to some extent, from the blast that knocked them all off their feet. Everything hurt. Coughing, Avon rolled onto his back, letting the damp evening grass cushion his aching body. Around him the others were coughing, too, so he knew they must be alive. That was something.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Servalan get to her feet and begin to run. Blake must have seen her, too, because he pushed himself up on one elbow and tracked her across the grass with his gun. Eventually he fired and Servalan yelped as the bullet hit the gate next to her head. Blake pulled another gun from his belt and fired it without bothering to take careful aim. This time the shot went wide by some distance and Blake hurled the gun away from himself with a wordless shout of fury, as Servalan turned into the street and out of range.

*

They limped home to Blake’s father’s house mostly without talking, except for Gan, who made time to grip Avon’s shoulder and say, “I didn’t mean it, you know.”

Avon would have pointed out that he didn’t care, but he did, so he said nothing.

At Blake’s house, they were ushered into what Avon could only think of as the most perfect baths in existence. Once most of the grime and some of the pain had been washed away, Avon pulled on a large, heavily embroidered robe that smelled of Blake, and padded out into the house in search of its owner.

Blake, it transpired, was sitting in the dark in the study with a glass and a decanter that was more than half empty.

“Do you mind if I join you?” Avon asked, as Blake squinted unattractively in the light of the candle Avon set on the desk in front of him. “It’s not good for you to drink alone.”

That prompted a wan smile from Blake. “You’re quite right.”

“I usually am.”

“Usually?”

“Most of the time anyway,” Avon conceded, sitting and taking the glass that Blake held out to him. “Thank you.”

“To a life without regrets,” Blake said dryly and drained his glass.

Avon paused with his glass half way to his lips and then put it down again. “Anna’s dead,” he said suddenly.

Blake blinked in surprise. “Are you sure?”

“Oh, yes,” Avon said. “I’m sure.”

“Then I’m very sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Avon told him. “She betrayed me and killed hundreds of people. I... don’t really want to go into it right now, but, suffice to say, this has not been one of my better days.”

Blake seemed unable to respond to this for a while, which suited Avon so he let the silence linger until Blake finally said,

“So what are you going to do now?”

“The logical thing would be to go back to England. Anna’s dead, but I could be useful there.”

“Building more ships for the queen, you mean?”

“Mm. And there doesn’t seem to be much else for me to do.”

“Well,” Blake said, “you could always stay.”

Avon raised an eyebrow, though he had, in fact, been steering the conversation this way. “Stay with you?”

“Yes. If you want to.”

“As your carpenter.”

“Yes, if that’s what you want,” Blake said.

“And if I don’t?”

“Then you don’t have to,” Blake said in frustration. “Avon, I don’t understand why you make every conversation so difficult. Do you want to stay or not?”

“Well, of course,” Avon said. “I’m surprised you ever doubted it.”

“Thank you,” Blake said. “Do you want to tell me why?”

Avon grinned at him. “I like a challenge.”

“You don’t want to tell me why,” Blake said.

“Oh, I do. It just depends.”

“On what?”

“On whether you say it first.”

Blake frowned. “Say what first?”

“If you don’t know, then we are likely to have several very difficult conversations in the future.”

“Well, I’ll look forward to those,” Blake said with a slight laugh. “Goodnight, Avon,” he said and tried to get up, almost overbalancing as Avon grabbed the front of his jacket and pulled him down into a kiss.

After a moment of surprise, Blake tried to climb onto Avon’s chair to get nearer, but the chair arms were too close together, so he pulled Avon upright instead. Avon buried his fingers in Blake’s hair and let Blake kiss his jaw-line and his neck and his collarbone before he pulled him back into another proper kiss.

“Avon,” Blake said, the same way he’d said it in his cabin, but this time against Avon’s skin. “I may not have said it, but you know I’m in love with you, don’t you? God help me.”

“I did know,” Avon said. “That is, I suspected it. But I wanted to hear you say it.”

“And now you have?”

“Now I have, it’s only fair that I tell you that I seem to be in love with you, too. That, and not the scintillating bedtime conversation of Will’s foot, is the reason I’m staying.”

Blake laughed against Avon’s face. “You don’t still have to sleep in that cabin, you know,” he said.

“I was counting on it,” Avon said and let Blake kiss him again.