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Flesh, bone, bile

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The reactions are all more or less what he expected:

Flint, gripping the table so hard his knuckles go white, anything to prevent himself from shrinking away from the sight of him: “Jesus, Vane. Fuck.”

Teach, unwittingly taking a step backward: “Fuck. God damn you, Charles.”

Jack, with a hand over his mouth: “Charles. What the fuck.”

Bonny, eyes wide: “Fuck.”

As for Vane himself, he’d be very much enjoying this if he weren’t a shambling horror with no particular understanding as to why, after a week or so of being dead, he all of a sudden wasn’t. Flint came back from the dead too, so the story goes around Nassau, but anyone who looks at Flint and then at Vane knows the difference. Flint has only managed to cheat death for the time being. Vane, though—over a hundred men saw him hang, saw his body left in the square for days. He looks like a dead man because that’s exactly what he is, and there’s no mistaking him for anything else. Not with his sunken, hollow eyes and twisted neck and the stench of the grave on him.

But it isn’t all that important how exactly he returned from the dead; what’s important is that he’s back and he has an account or two to settle, as it were, with the greater part of Nassau and its governor and Miss Guthrie most of all. Flesh, bone, and bile, she had called him, intent on reducing him to dust—and whenever she set her mind on something she had always managed to get her way, hadn’t she? Render him a corpse by whatever means available and reckon with the costs later. Only later is now; the moment has arrived sooner than anyone would have believed possible. He pictures Eleanor in the governor’s residence, gazing through the lace curtains as the sun sets over the ocean and listening to the ticking of the clock and the murmur of the servants, not yet aware of what’s coming for her. He wonders if she senses the breeze changing direction: the slightest shift in the air before the hurricane rolls in and blows out all the fucking windows.

Eleanor is seventeen when he sees her shoot a man—sees her stagger back from the recoil, steady herself, and coolly fix her gaze back on her target. The man is some new recruit of Teach’s; later Vane forgets his name and the trouble he caused, but after she shoots him he curls up on the floor of the tavern whimpering and clutching his bleeding shoulder. “Now get the fuck out,” Eleanor orders, her voice clear and pleasant, as if she were commenting on how lovely the weather is that day. And Teach’s man does indeed get the fuck out, leaving only a trail of blood on the floor behind him.

After he’s gone, she looks around the room and announces, “I apologize for the disturbance; please, gentlemen, enjoy your evening,” and marches straight to her office (still her father’s office in those days). Vane drains the rest of his rum and follows her, dodging around Mr. Scott and managing to catch her eye before she shuts the door in his face. “Let him in,” she tells Mr. Scott after a moment, and the man gives Vane a hard look but lets him through without protest.

Inside, with her back to him, she sets the pistol down and places her hands on the table. She stands there for a minute, head bowed, and then she straightens herself up and turns to face him. “Well?” she asks expectantly, one eyebrow arched.

He crosses the room in six long strides and takes her right there on her father’s desk, papers and books shoved carelessly to the floor, and when they’re finished and sprawled out on the rug together, he runs his fingers through her hair, admiring the fineness of it. “You never shot a man before,” he says.

“Never,” she answers. She nestles her head against his shoulder and closes her eyes. “My aim was poor. I meant to kill him. Next time, I won’t miss.”

“I heard you gave a pretty speech on the gallows,” Flint remarks, leaning on the railing and gazing out across the main deck as a gentle wind pushes them in the direction of Nassau. “You did always like giving speeches.” It makes Vane chuckle—the old hypocrite. He hated Flint before and now he can’t remember why exactly: something to do with Eleanor’s favoritism, with your-man-cut-down-my-man-and-I-demand-restitution, with squabbling over scraps; none of it seems important now. (“You’re afraid Flint’s fucking me,” he recalls Eleanor saying to him with relish, though he had never really believed it; Flint always kept the same woman and was faithful to her, as far as he knew.)

“Won’t be time for speeches when we make landfall,” Vane says. Like before, the fort will be the key: a nighttime approach by longboats, take the tunnels first, and by the time the soldiers at the top realize what’s happening, it will be too late. From there, they control the bay, and their ships can move in while Billy Bones and his men make the approach from land and cut off their escape and send smaller contingents to the plantations to stir up slave revolts. As for the street, he’s told, the street has barely been kept in check ever since his hanging; all it needs is one final push, one final step off the cart, and it will erupt. What better push do they need than the sight of Charles Vane with a sword in hand, returned from the dead to see Nassau reborn?

“No speeches,” Flint agrees. He rubs his beard thoughtfully. “What will you do when you see her?”

The breeze dies down. Vane looks at his hands, discolored and swollen, the dirt from the grave still wedged under his fingernails. “Always thought I’d die at sea,” he says after a while, as though he hadn’t heard Flint’s question. “But she took that away from me, too.”

His name is the first thing Eleanor teaches him to write: C-H-A-R-L-E-S-V-A-N-E, written as a single word, the letters shaky and all different sizes. He accidentally snaps two quills in the attempt, and Eleanor shakes her head, amused, and tells him she will just deduct it from his next prize haul. But he doesn’t complain or toss aside the page. He is determined to master it, just as he has mastered everything else.

He is twenty-two or twenty-three or thereabouts and already a captain with a ship and a fierce crew and a reputation that makes His Majesty’s naval commanders shit themselves when they see his flag. Wherever he goes, he commands respect and fear. They look at him, bronze from the sun and scarred and radiating strength, and they see a legend in the making. And here the legend is, hunched over with his nose just inches away from the page; Richard Guthrie’s daughter looking over his shoulders and rapping his knuckles like a schoolmarm. C-H-A-R-L-E-S-V-A-N-E-C-H-A-R-L-E-S-V-A-N-E-C-H-A-R-L-E-S-V-A-N-E.

This is her gift to him, one of the few things she will never demand anything in return for. (Other than the cost of the materials, that is; she will account for every cent and he wouldn’t have it any other way.) This way, he cannot be so easily cheated by unscrupulous quartermasters and accountants—or, indeed, by Eleanor herself—and he can pen his own messages, rather than pay to have them dictated. Years later, when he pins his manifesto to Richard Guthrie’s shirt and leaves him for dead, it will be in his own hand, and it will be because she taught him how.

But that is in the distant future. Between that moment and the present lurk an endless string of lies and betrayals and retaliations that neither of them have yet dreamed into being. For now, however, after he’s practiced the alphabet to her liking, he writes a new word underneath his own name: E-L-A—she smacks his knuckles. He crosses it out and tries again. E-L-E-A-N-O-R.  

Teach won’t talk to him, not even to say I told you so; I warned you about the Guthrie woman. Vane knows well enough that Teach doesn’t need to openly gloat; his silence is enough to show contempt. And Teach doesn’t let go of grudges—he remembers every miniscule slight and the face of every motherfucker who crossed him thirty years ago, and regardless of whatever affection he ever felt towards him, Vane has now betrayed him twice.

Bonny, lurking in the shadows with her arms crossed, tells him, “You know he didn’t give two shits about England or Flint’s war or any of it; if the cunt hadn’t hanged you he’d still be sitting around and lording over his fucking beach. But he was ready to burn Nassau to the ground for you. We all was.”

“I’m touched,” Vane says. It comes out sarcastic, and he means it to, but it’s actually true: he’s genuinely fucking touched by this.

But Bonny isn’t finished. “Teach thinks you won’t be able to do it when the time comes. Kill the cunt.”

“Oh? He confides in you now?”

No answer. Vane grins. “Or that’s what you believe.”

“You knew what she was,” Bonny says with a sneer. “You knew she’d be the end of you and you didn’t care. Long as she’s alive, she’ll find ways to thwart us. What she’s done demands an answer. Your answer.” So get your shit in order, Vane.

Vane raises his eyebrows. “Is that all?”

“You loved her,” Bonny says as she seamlessly melts back into the darkness. “Even after the shit she’s done, you still do. But believe me, she don’t love you. She never did. She ain’t got it in her.”

He teaches her, too: how to navigate by the stars alone, how to stand to best brace herself for the recoil when she fires a pistol, how to slide a knife between a man’s ribs and jerk upward with one quick motion so his death is a sure thing. She will stride down to the Ranger’s tents on the beach all alone, as cool and arrogant as you please, and make her way to him—to fuck him, to argue with him, to make pretty little threats that he actually enjoys very much. Some nights, she will curl up in his arms and rest her head on his chest and fall asleep; the next night, she’ll be throwing bottles at him; the night after that, she will go skipping off to her favorite whore to spite him and he will go out and stir up some trouble for her that will take her days to fix. Eventually, one of them—usually him—will come crawling back to make amends. (Heavily qualified amends, that is, torturously constructed to avoid any semblance of an actual apology or admission of wrongdoing.) On and on it goes. 

She returns to his bed and he is so pleased to have her back that he that tells her things during those long nights that he has never told any other soul. And even when it comes to the things that are buried too deep within him to ever speak of, she has her ways of finding out: tracing her fingers around the brand on his chest and observing as he tries not to flinch. All those years spent attempting to erase any trace of weakness, and it takes just one touch for her to begin to unmake him. He knows this should bother him. It doesn’t.

The crew, of course, looks less than favorably upon this whole arrangement, particularly when he and Eleanor are on the outs again. More often than not, it’s up to his quartermaster to drag him out of whatever shithole he’s managed to end up in on those occasions. “I hear you’ve been giving Miss Guthrie instruction on how to kill a man,” Jack groans on one rainy evening as he tries to keep his captain upright and moving in more or less the right direction. It turns out he can do one or the other, but not both. “Have you considered that perhaps she doesn’t need the encouragement?”   

“Fuck you, Jack,” he mumbles through the haze of alcohol and opium.

“This woman going to kill you someday. I hope you realize this. You don’t need to teach her how to do it.”

Vane stops and shakes his head. The world spins around him. He tries to process what his quartermaster is telling him and formulate a response, but it turns out that “Fuck you, Jack” is the most he can come up with in the moment. Really, what else is there to say?

“Where did you go, Charles?” Jack asks him the night before the assault on Nassau. His hand is shaking a little, making the wine in his glass jitter and jump. “While you were…”

Vane shakes his head carefully. (Bit of a risky endeavor with a broken neck.) “Didn’t go nowhere. Heaven, Hell. There wasn’t shit. Just…nothing.”

Jack lets out a small sigh. “I was afraid you’d say that.” He’s been antsy around Vane, practically radiating guilt. When he speaks again, Vane can barely hear him. “I’m sorry.”

Vane takes a long drag from his cigar, though like food and drink, tobacco brings him no particular pleasure anymore. He does, however, derive some pleasure from blowing the smoke into Jack’s face. “Fuck you, Jack,” he tells him affectionately.

Jack coughs. It sounds suspiciously like “Fuck you.”

A monster, they call him at the opening of his trial. An animal, a brute, a creature of the devil. More than that, he is hostis humani generis. “The fuck does that mean?” he interrupts, and they pause to translate: enemy of all mankind. From there, they proceed to read off all his alleged crimes—assault and murder of respectable English citizens, wanton theft and destruction of property of said respectable persons, the illegal trade and sale of said property, and so on and so forth—and not a word mentioned of any crimes against the slave, the indenture, the outcast, the poor, either committed by him or under the cover of the law.     

Eleanor is not there to watch the proceedings, though he imagines she must be sitting on the other side of the door listening in, prepared to counter any possible obstacle to killing him as soon as legally permissible. Even now, he cannot help but admire her ability to strategize and frustrate her enemies; to take power in both hands and wield it without fear or indecision. The trial is tonight but the gallows were prepared for him yesterday. The conclusion is foregone; death is the only way forward.

At last, they ask if the accused has anything to say in his own defense, and for the first time in hours the room falls silent. A dozen faces framed by identical powdered wigs turn his way expectantly. This is the point at which he is supposed to beg. His life is such a small thing, easily taken, and they will have it, but what they want is his submission, and that he will not give. Not to these men, not to anybody.

So he ignores them and turns instead to look at the door. “Eleanor,” he says, addressing his executioner directly. It is the last time he will ever do so in this life. “You were wrong. I am a man.”

Finally, only hours before the attack is set to begin, he hears Teach’s heavy footsteps approach from behind. He doesn’t turn around. “What is on your mind?” Vane asks quietly as Teach comes to stand beside him.

Teach places his hands on the railing and stares out into the darkness. They are still too far away, but soon they will see in the distance the outline of the fort illuminated by torchlight, and fires down on the beach. “I have been thinking about the first time you chose another over me,” Teach replies without looking at him. “I resented you, but I understood. You were a young man and you made a foolish mistake because you loved a woman. I too had once been a young man. I too made mistakes out of love, blinded by emotion and having no sense of proportion. That much I could forgive, once enough time had passed. But the second time…the second time, you chose Flint and his war over me, without the excuses of youth or love. You see why I could not comprehend that as anything other than betrayal?”

Vane looks at him and says nothing, because he cannot apologize for his decision, and Teach would not accept it anyway. He waits for him to continue.

“This was not what I wanted,” Teach says. Even in the dark, Vane can see his face twisted with anguish, and he knows at last that Teach has not been refusing to speak to him out of anger but out of grief. “You were always supposed to outlive me. A father should not outlive a son.”

“You never understood who I was,” Vane tells him, and for the first time, Teach turns to meet his gaze. “You believed that I should be your mirror image, because you saw me as your son and heir. I used to believe it too, as I never had a father, only masters. But I am not you. Just as you made your own choices, so I made mine. I was born into slavery, but I lived as a free man and I died as a free man. That is all that matters.”

From the shadows, he can see a trace of a smile on Teach’s face. “Well then, Charles…” he begins. Vane waits for him patiently; watches him lean against the railing and tilt his head back to look at the stars. Captain, mentor, father, friend.

In the end, Teach leaves his thought unfinished. Just well then, Charles. But it’s enough.

You could be strong again. You could take this whole fucking island from me, if only you weren’t so goddamn afraid.

He takes the whole fucking island from her. The end is swift: in the space of a few hours, a third of the regiment is dead and the rest captured or fled, the governor himself taken, plantations falling one by one. The cannons boom. Nassau shudders and splinters into a thousand pieces. Bloody bodies in the streets, ships on fire in the bay, buildings blown apart, the gallows a mass of broken wood and tangled rope. Every war is the same.

The full damage won’t be realized until the sun rises. In the morning, a new world will emerge, and none yet know what shape she will take or whose face she will wear. Nassau reborn, but in whose image?

But this isn’t the question he came here to answer. The others believe she will be hidden away in the depths of the fort or guarded by dozens of soldiers in the governor’s mansion, if not already halfway to Port Royal by the time they arrive. All reasonable propositions, and all wrong. He finds her where he knows he will find her: alone in the room above the inn that for so many years was the center of her power, the center of their world. He opens the door and there she is, standing behind the desk with her pistol pointed at his chest, no shock or horror in her expression, no trace of fear. He knows that gaze. He had first seen it when she was just thirteen years old, having found her way down by the beach, hardly more than a child but her very presence a challenge to every man on that island: this place belongs to me. When he caught her eye, she stared right back. She didn’t look away then and she won’t look away now.

What will you do when you see her?  

He shuts the door behind him.

Later, people ask Jack what happened behind that door, and he has to admit that he doesn’t know—only that by the time he rolled through with Anne and Flint and Teach, Charles Vane and Eleanor Guthrie were long gone. No one saw them leave and there were no signs of a struggle in the room, no chairs knocked over or blood on the floor, just a loaded pistol left behind on the desk. Eleanor Guthrie mysteriously resurfaces some weeks later in Philadelphia in the care of her grandmother, and there she remains. To no one’s surprise, the Guthries grow richer by the hour.

As for his former captain’s fate, far less is certain, but Featherstone does inform Jack that he heard from a man who heard from a man who, the night Nassau was reclaimed, saw a lone man in a skiff leaving the harbor. Or at least something in the shape of a man. And Jack receives the news with some skepticism, telling Featherstone that there are many men in Nassau and more than a few skiffs, and at any rate he’s rather preoccupied at that point with dealing with the massive administrative headache that follows their victory and sorting out all manner of grievances between this crew and that, so as much as his friend’s disappearance concerns him, he does not really think much of it until other stories start trickling in.

From the crew of the Heron at Port Royal, one month later: twelve days we was becalmed, our rations all gone and water nearly so, and I thought it was the end of us for sure, but then Danny Brewster spotted to the west a small skiff with a man aboard, and it was moving even though there wasn’t no wind. And once we saw the skiff, the breeze picked up and blew us here. It was Charles Fucking Vane out there, mark my words.

From a maroon, an ex-slave, come to Nassau Town to barter for gunpowder: we rescued twenty-two slaves from a Spanish slave ship that foundered off our shores. One said that as the ship broke apart in the storm and water filled the hold and she believed she would die, from out of nowhere a man grabbed her by the arm, broke her chains with his bare hands, and pulled her onto his skiff. When she awoke on the beach he had already vanished. She had been half-drowned and so she could not describe him well, only that he was terrible to look upon.     

From the survivors of the English fleet sent from Boston to retake Nassau: we sighted a skiff to the east, and one man aboard, and even though the weather had been perfectly calm all day the thunder clouds at once came in from that direction and the heavens opened up and tore our ships to pieces, and Lewis here, he swears he saw in a flash of lightning the Jolly Roger imprinted against the sky and heard a man laugh. And believe me, Lewis ain’t the type of man to lie. Everyone in that fleet knew it was Charles Vane come to defend Nassau, and now they’re all dead, save for Lewis and myself and a few others. It’ll be a long fucking while before England tries that again.

So the story goes, and so the story spreads. And Jack and Anne settle comfortably into their lives in Nassau, now that their future is secure, or at least as secure as it will ever be. He never counts their dwindling pile of coins and despairs, never needs to worry about where they will be in a day, a month, a year. There’s no need for them to go on the account anymore. Yet after a few months, Anne tells him she’s restless and wants to go, and he admits that he too has felt the call, and so in a matter of days they piece together a crew, fix up a sloop, and take to the sea once more.

Now, just past dawn, the ship pitches and rocks gently under his feet. He glances at Anne at his side and watches the breeze rustle the brim of her hat and the glow of the rising sun set her hair ablaze. He puts his arm around her and she leans into him, and they look out across the vast and endless ocean. Charles, he wonders, are you out there? Where are you now?

No sign of a skiff on the horizon. But the sky is clear, the light dances on the water, and the wind is blowing in their favor, and that, he thinks, is answer enough: friends, welcome home.