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Grapeshot Through The Heart (And You're To Blame)

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It was a well-established fact that pirates were shameless.

One sterling example of the phenomenon was currently visible standing on the prow of The Gory Guppy with a pair of semaphore flags. The Gory Guppy, formerly H.M.S. Patroclus, was a once-proud ship brought to new depths of degradation and sin.

The same, Captain William Frederick thought to himself, could probably be said of the vile brigand who captained the vessel, Black Nate o’ Bedlam, although he neither knew the loathsome pirate’s history nor, at the moment, cared to learn.

The pirate waved the flags around. WILL YOU ENGAGE?

Captain Frederick’s eyes widened behind his spyglass. The nerve! The incredible bally audacity of the sea-rat, to make him an offer now!

“Send reply,” Captain Frederick ordered the gormless midshipman at his side, and began dictating.

NEVER

Black Nate seemed almost surprised. Frederick’s blood boiled as he realized that his feelings had obviously never even entered the man’s head!

WHAT DO YOU MEAN NEVER? the pirate replied. It took a while.

NEVER Captain Frederick had the boy sign. NEVER EVER [STOP] I WOULD NEVER CONSENT TO GIVE YOU MY HAND [STOP] It took an even longer time.

YOUR HAND? I WANT ONLY YOUR STEEL

Oh. Oh, dear. That was a misunderstanding indeed, and Frederick blushed. And damn the pirate, but he had a way with words. Frederick would be all-too pleased to give him his steel, right through his pestiferous guts, or flee the brigand’s own blade in turn. They would dart and frisk across both ships, back and forth, all blood and danger and the sheer, unalloyed thrill of battle, the entire world shrunk down to nothing but the two of them in it.

But no. It could never be. All unknowing, he’d already fought the cur for the last time. This betrayal was too terrible, too deeply felt, for any hope of recovery. They would never be so happy ever again.

Righteously angry, Frederick had the boy send back, YOU SHALL NOT HAVE THAT EITHER [STOP] I SAW YOU WITH HIM

Through the spyglass, Frederick watched Nate go pale. Too right! The loss of color made him look even more sickly and vile, his moustache drooping beneath the weight of its sins.

Monstrous, lying moustache. Commodore Beauregard Flashwood had surely been treated to all that that moustache and those fingers could do during his captivity with the pirates. The ceaseless twirling of the ends of the facial hair; the almost-delicate gestures that accompanied all the pirate’s aping at gentility; the way red wine dripped disgustingly out of the hairs and was caught on the tongue, when the pirate shared his nightly drink with his prisoner in the comfort of his quarters, his dark eyes half-mad and rimmed with kohl, glimmering in the candlelight--

Frederick’s breath caught, his heart clenching in misery, and he could only barely master himself. Oh, it was too terrible, too horrible for words. Of course Black Nate would want a commodore for a nemesis, why wouldn’t he? He was wicked enough that he certainly deserved the finest opponent the British Royal Navy could offer.

And Black Nate could have a commodore if he wanted one, without a doubt. Commodore Flashwood had been recovered from his tenure on The Gory Guppy battered and beaten, in all manner of deprivation and dismay, and panting for the sight of his captor. He had talked for months of how he was shown every possible incivility he could desire, no detail neglected, no insult scorned by his attentive captor.

“If I had been the Admiral of the Fleet,” Commodore Flashwood had gushed, “Nathaniel Bethlehem could not have used me more ill. The man is a fiend, an absolute fiend. I cannot wait to return the favor.”

Frederick could barely keep his composure when the Commodore talked so. But it was hopeless. What could a mere captain do to compare with the prize of a commodore?

WITH WHO? CDRE BF? Black Nate replied at last.

YES CDRE BF WHO ELSE? Captain Frederick instructed the boy to reply.

WELL WHAT DOES THAT MATTER?

Captain Frederick turned his back on the pirate and leaned against the ship rail, too wounded by this rapacious sadism to watch any longer. He clutched a hand around the miniature image he wore about his neck and bit his lips. There was cruelty and then there was cruelty, and this was simply wanton and too brutal to bear.

YOU WERE CROSSING BLADES WITH HIM [STOP] I SAW YOU [STOP] he had the boy sign.

“HE ATTACKED FIRST AND I HAD TO DEFEND [STOP] IT WAS MEANINGLESS [STOP],” the boy read aloud Black Nate’s reply.

HE TALKED ABOUT YOU FOR MONTHS [STOP]

“F YOU FOOL WHO CARES FOR CDRE BF question mark I DO NOT EVEN DISLIKE THE MAN [STOP],” the boy read back to him. “BUT YOU O I HATE YOU MORE THAN ANYTHING IN THE WORLD YOU MUST BELIEVE THAT [STOP]”

NO [STOP]

“NEMESIS MINE--”

“Stop!” Frederick cut the boy off. How could the pirate call him that? How could he presume--

“Come about!” he ordered the helmsman. “We are bound for Port Royal and we will idle here no longer!”

If Frederick had not cut off the midshipman, he would have heard the laborious translation of the pirate’s O THAT IS IT arm gestures. He did, however, see the extra sail being opened on the pirate ship and saw the vessel’s swift lurching towards them. The Gory Guppy caught the H.M.S. Jurisprudence within two hours and the chains were thrown with great accuracy. Captain Frederick mustered his men and braced for the fight as the first pirates boarded.

Black Nate did not immediately go after him. Oh, that was not his way. Frederick had his troubles subduing other pirates alongside the members of his crew, throttling, punching, kicking, and stabbing amidst all the yelling and the pops of pistols.

At last, however, Black Nate cornered him away from the others, caught with a borrowed sword and a heart full of wounded loathing. The pirate seemed smug as he closed, like a sword-bearing cat teasing a sword-bearing mouse.

“At last, we’re alone,” Black Nate purred. Damn him, oh, damn that voice, roughened with drink and ruined by barked orders, so often simpering with a sickening affectation of gentility! It makes Frederick’s stomach turn and dip.

Frederick had his sword at the pirate’s throat in a trice. “Yield, you dog,” he snapped.

Black Nate smiled, revealing teeth much too good for a pirate. It was those little details that made Frederick wonder if Nathaniel hadn’t been a real gentleman once.

Black Nate batted the point away, coming across with another sweep of his blade. Frederick parried it, going in for a hilt-punch, but Black Nate rebuffed it with a quick jolt and dodge. Their blades crossed once, again, and they leaned in as close as they could before they destabilized. Their blades drew apart as they danced for distance. Black Nate ran the length of his sword along Frederick’s own blade, the grind of steel-on-steel a flashing tease that brought color to Frederick’s cheeks.

“Revolting animal,” Frederick snarled. “Your presumption is unmatched by anything I--”

“Has anyone ever told ya yer repulsive when yer angry?” Black Nate sighed, closing again. Frederick moved with him before pushing him back in turn, and to and fro they went across entrance to the captain’s quarters.

At last Nate had him backed beneath one of the staircases leading to the helm. Frederick allowed him to lead until he got a clear shot at Nate’s left side. He took it, lunging, and though he missed the killing strike he managed to land a spectacular punch into Black Nate’s gut that bent the pirate double.

“Yield!” Frederick commanded, putting his blade at the pirate’s neck again.

Black Nate snarled and threw himself bodily into Frederick’s knees, taking the captain’s legs from under him. Frederick went down with a gasp, landing hard on his ass and finding himself shoved up against the wall, his own blade held at his throat.

They stared at one another, panting for a few moments.

“Well?” Frederick demanded. “Kill me, then! I’ll not suffer you to show me mercy!”

“Oh, Fred,” Black Nate sighed, sounding almost fond. “Ye are such a melodramatic thing. I’ll not kill ya today, not when I sees we’ve got us a terrible misunderstandin’.”

He reached out and clutched Frederick’s chest, fingers scrabbling across his coat and underneath.

“How dare you--” Frederick choked, slapping at one of the pirate’s hands.

“Ah, ah, ah,” Black Nate purred. From beneath the coat he retrieved Frederick’s miniature portrait of him and held it up with a sadistic grin. “Look, now. Saw that around yer neck months ago and ye’ve got it still. Such a sweet gesture, Fred! I am touched to my heart!”

“I wear it to fill me with vengeance,” Frederick hissed, mortified. “I’ll never stop hunting you until I see you swing from the gallows!”

Black Nate pressed closer, the blade flat against Frederick’s throbbing pulse.

“That’s right,” Black Nate breathed. His breath smelled of fennel seeds--he had a weakness for the little sugar-coated treats, as Frederick well knew--and Frederick sneered, appalled. “Going to throw me a ball and see me step to the manila minuet, aren’t ya? Too right, Captain, too right indeed. And I have my own little something…”

Black Nate reached into the folds of his own voluminous coat and pulled out--oh.

Oh, good merciful God.

“Nathaniel…” Frederick breathed, astonished, truly touched. From its position in Black Nate’s grip his own face looked back at him, expression severe and unyielding. He could tell that the picture had been the recipient of many loathing caresses; it was worn in just the same places as his own. “How long…?”

“Ages,” Black Nate said. “I’m a dab hand with a set of pencils and it weren’t hard to get your scurvy looks down right, back when you spent the Michelmas of ‘92 in my brig. Distinctive-like face, to say the least. You’ve got a mouth like a newt.”

Oh, he was so charming when he wanted to be.

“And you have a chin like a shovel blade,” Frederick sniped back. It was true, but it could hardly be otherwise, when Black Nate also had those magnificent, jutting cheekbones...

“Commodore Flackwash means nothing to me,” Black Nate insisted. “I hate you, Fred. I keeps this to remind me how I hate you and I takes it with me everywhere.”

Frederick doubted that. Not everywhere. Not like him. He slept with his miniature of Black Nate on the other pillow beside his face.

“How could y’doubt it?” Black Nate asked, anger and...and just maybe, something else, in his voice. “The times I’ve intercepted yer orders to ambush ye, the times I’ve killed me own men to keep them from challengin’ ya…”

“He said--” Frederick had to stop and swallow and find his breath again. “Flashwood said you pushed drink on him during the nights in your quarters, and he raved about how you had your bosun whip him like a dog.”

It had been hurtful news. Black Nate had never so disdained Frederick so much as to leave him in the hands of the bosun; Nate had always whipped Frederick personally. It had been an incredible insult paid to the Commodore and the unendurable jealousy had given Captain Frederick many sleepless nights.

“Of course I pushed drink on him! It’s a time-honored tradition, the ironic drink with yer prisoner. And I couldn’t possibly keep him on my ship without a whippin’! The crew’d mutiny!”

“No, I know that. It’s just that...he mentioned that you sometimes, you...you were sarcastic at him.”

“Sarcastic? I? Impossible. I’m never sarcastic with you, am I?” Black Nate replied, with a dangerous glint in his dark eyes. Frederick found he had the urge to smile and had to gnaw on the inside of his cheek to keep his composure.

“You showed him every incivility owed to one’s partner in a most passionate antagonism,” Frederick said coolly. “You can hardly be surprised if your behavior was construed as an overture and I may report that if it was any such thing, it was heartily accepted. The Commodore is madly in loathe with you.”

Black Nate’s expression twisted with fury and part of Frederick rejoiced to see it. Even now he was not insensible to Nathaniel’s utter lack of charms and his bewitchingly despicable manners.

“All the blessings of the world upon the Commodore!” Black Nate roared. “May his wife be lovely and his children hale, may his property expand and flourish and may he never outspend his income, may the wind be forever at his back and, in due and lengthy course and at the evening of a life well-lived, may the Good Lord take the Commodore onto his bosom and bring him into the company of the angels!”

Frederick stared.

“But you,” Black Nate growled, leaning close, hot, fennel-scented breath fanning across Frederick’s cheek, the blade beginning to press ever-so-slowly into his skin. “God damn you to the pit, ye scurvy, malcontented limpet, ye lily-livered, gall-faced lapdog, ye unrepentant bloody idiot...I’ll chase ya to Hell me own self, with a whip at yer back. I’ll drive ye from wherever yer at and leave ye no safe harbor, hound ye from the very earth itself and into the gnashin’ maw of Davy Jones.”

Frederick’s voice was breathless. “Oh, Nathaniel…”

“Come on, ye worm-riddled blackguard,” Black Nate snapped, reaching out and seizing him by the front. Frederick was up in a moment and dragged onto the deck with the sword at his neck again, his wrists held tight behind his back.

A triumphant roar went up as the pirate saw their captain with his captive.

“Get down, all you sorry sons of whores--I said get down!” Black Nate bellowed, grinning. “Tom Dally, Scrivener, Li Chun, get these mongrel pups into the brig! Drive them down in there! Francois, ‘round up yer lads and make meat of this place--I want the silver, the gold, the maps, the powder, all of it!”

He turned to Frederick, who watched as his men were corralled and disarmed.

“On yer knees, ye slack-jawed wretch,” Black Nate growled.

Frederick stood tall until Black Nate seized him by the shoulder and threw him to the deck. Standing close, Black Nate curled his fingers in Captain Frederick's hair and pulled, forcing him to bare his neck, and Frederick growled as the pirate's sword touched beneath his jaw.

“A’right, Captain!” a young pirate cried. “Run him through!”

“Shut yer gapin’ flapper!” Black Nate snapped. “You get some line and bind this here prisoner. He’s worth more in ransom than he is as fishfood!”

The young pirate hopped to his duty and ran for line. A large, heavily tattooed pirate cleared his throat. “Beggin’ your pardon, captain--”

“Aye, Mr. Slipgut, what is it?” Black Nate asked.

Ah, Slipgut. Yes, they treated him with some amount of delicacy. He was a former barrister, after all. He did all the parlaying.

“It’s only that this is now the ninth time we’ve hosted Captain Frederick as a hostage,” Mr. Slipgut said. “And he’s escaped us eight times before.”

“Aye, it’s true, he has.”

“And he has had you in his custody no fewer than ten times, sir, and ten times you have escaped, too.”

Frederick blushed to hear his preference so clinically mentioned.

“What’s yer point, Slipgut?” Black Nate asked, with patience beginning to wear thin.

The young pirate returned with the line and began tying Frederick’s wrists behind his back.

“It’s only that, be Captain Frederick’s ransom ever so great, it cannot be enough to tempt us if it is never delivered. He will surely affect a daring escape in five to six days’ time and we shall have none of him. I propose that we kill him now and save ourselves future trouble.”

“Yer objections are as always reasonable and worth the listenin’ to, Mr. Silpgut,” Black Nate said. “And I’m sure I appreciate yer bringin’ them to me in as candid and forthright a manner as ye’ve demonstrated, on account'a the implicit trust ye place in me leadership. That said, I’m a-takin’ him a hostage and if you don’t want to see if my blade can slice though that silver tongue of yers, ye’ll go along and get us what loot we can make of this dinghy.”

Mr. Slipgut sighed, but saluted. “Aye, sir.” He turned away to pursue the business outlined to him.

“That Slipgut seems a good creature,” Frederick observed.

“I’ll have none of yer admirin’ o’ my crew,” Black Nate grumbled. “Now, walk. Yer set for a stay in my brig.”

Frederick stood with enormous dignity, his head high and shoulders back.

“Do you still have that Jerez sherry from last time?” he asked out of the side of his mouth.

Black Nate chuckled darkly. “Fred, we’re raidin’ your cellars right now, so the drinks’re on you.”

That was well enough. He could recommend the port wine and be perfectly contented.

***

Captain Frederick, though generally unharmed aside a few nasty scars and the loss of his cravat, made his ninth escape from The Gory Guppy in six days’ time, according to Mr. Slipgut’s predictions. It had required the liberal use of his astrological knowledge, a stolen jollyboat, and the improbably successful lock-picking applicability of the tail of a captured rat.

The Jurisprudence had given chase to the pirate ship and picked him up in short order, before disengaging in the night and taking advantage of some muggy weather to disappear.

They were apart for many months, then. The Jurisprudence had blockade duty in the Channel, staving off Napoleon’s attempts at invasion, and even Black Nate would not dare to leave the Caribbean and face the entire British fleet for the pleasure of combat. Then there were a few scuffles in the Mediterranean that the Jurisprudence was called upon to deal with.

While whiling away more than one balmy Maltese night, Captain Frederick had lifted a private little toast to Black Nate’s imminent demise, drinking his wine and wondering if Black Nate was toasting him just the same way.

His birthday came and went and with it came many tokens of fondness from his sister back in England. She sent him new socks and a letter full of affection and minute descriptions of her quarrels with her own nemesis, another gentleman’s daughter who had launched a perfectly vicious campaign of insultingly attentive civility and covert needle-stealing.

...and at Mrs. Fillmaw’s ball she appeared in a gown made of exactly the same muslin as my own--and what’s worse, she wears it better. I don’t know where she got the intelligence, but there is a spy in the household. I have been up for days, seething and thinking how I shall get her back. It is such a pleasure to be so thoroughly in hate, Diana wrote to him. I cannot fathom, my dearest brother, how you can bear to be so long apart from your own arch-enemy.

It was with a bittersweet smile that he acknowledged that he found it hard to bear, himself. Black Nate’s likeness scowled at him from where he’d placed it on the desk, and in the privacy of his quarters he indulged the yearning, petulant urge to flick it on the nose.  

At last he had orders down into the West Indies, and he happily beat his way out there with the brimming expectation of meeting his opponent once more.

He’d been there only a fortnight when new orders had come, instructing him to escort 15 British merchant ships alongside the H.M.S. Barbadoes and the H.M.S. Netley.

It was not at task to his liking. Keeping alert for the presence of a martial enemy and protecting a group of slow, ungainly merchantmen was tedious, stressful work at best. He waited every instant for the sight of the French colors to appear on the horizon and thought with a wistful sigh of Black Nate.

When last they were in port, not two days ago, Nelson had been expected every moment in Antigua, and what Villeneuve in Martinique would do in response had been the question on every seafaring lip (aside the usual pleasantries of “when is shore leave?”, “where is the grog?”, and “how much, luv?”). But now they were at sea, a goodly bit off of Anguilla, with a good wind and a steady roll making it easy to move about.

“Sail ho!” cried a voice from the maintop. “Broad off the port quarter!”

Frederick unfurled his spyglass and put it to his eye. There, a little under a league out, was a ship. He squinted a bit and tried to make out the vessel’s colors. It must be a French ship, surely.

“Very well,” he murmured. It was one ship and one alone. The captain would be a fool to face them down, formed as they were in a convoy. They would outrun it for a while, surely, but if they had to break away from the formation to intercept, it would be a pleasure. Anything to get away from this insipid escort.

“Sail ho!” cried the voice again. Captain Frederick glanced up, annoyed. He’d seen it and he was not in the habit of listening to needlessly repeated information.

“Three points abaft the starboard beam, hull down!” cried the able seaman. “Cap’n, ‘tis The Gory Guppy!”

What? Impossible!

Captain Frederick spun around. He could only see a league about him and the pirate vessel was far enough out that it could not yet be viewed. The captain raced up to the top and swung himself up the Jacob’s ladder and onto the platform. He stuck the eyeglass back to his eye and stared, aghast.

The Gory Guppy was coming towards them at a port beam reach, advancing as dead on as ever she may.

It was an obvious choice. Little as he could abandon the merchantmen to the possibility of a French attack, there were two other warships to herd them. The pirate ship, however, must be intercepted, for her captain was a madman and just might take on three ships of the line in passionate pursuit--and Captain Frederick was the only man who would satisfy him.

Captain Frederick sneered in delighted disgust. “Oh, you coquet,” he muttered. “I told you never to call me here.”

It was the work of some moments to communicate all around that there were pirates on the prowl. The merchantmen were terrified, but Netley had her wits about her sufficient to take up Jurisprudence’s place in the rear. They all watched the unknown ship on the horizon, keeping a wary eye on it.

“‘Tis a French ship, sir!” the look-out cried at last.

Captain Frederick clenched his jaw. Blast. Well, he’d run along at a slower pace to keep her off until he could engage The Gory Guppy. It was still two-to-one around the merchantmen. It would be absurd.

“Alter course northwest-by-west,” he ordered. “Hands to braces.” The helmsman and second lieutenant echoed the orders, and the crew complied swiftly. From the celerity of his crew’s compliance, he began to wonder if The Gory Guppy bore more than one arch-enemy within reach of their nemesis' eager arms.

“Sound the cannon,” he said, when The Gory Guppy was within the league. With his glass, he could espy her captain twirling his moustache. Captain Frederick tugged on his jacket and lifted his head up higher, pushing his shoulders back.

“Shall we beat to quarters, sir?” asked the bosun.

“Not yet. I just want him to know,” Captain Frederick said, “I’m here.”

The cannon boomed and after a moment's visible delight on Black Nate's part, the pirate's semaphore flags came out.

I SEENT YOU F Black Nate signed, and Captain Frederick positively grinned.

The convoy began to approach the horizon as the Jurisprudence held the new course into The Gory Guppy’s arms. As they closed, the crowd of leering, grinning faces upon the deck of the Guppy gleamed with shining steel, the guns poking their eager muzzles out of the sides.

Black Nate was resplendent in his long coat and, unless Captain Frederick was quite mistaken, a new waistcoat. His likeness had not changed a bit in the last months, except that he had a ruby droplet hanging from one ear. It was a fantastic touch.

And his kohl was perfect. It always was.

“Surrender, Fred!” Black Nate bellowed. “And prepare to be boarded!”

“Come and get it, you mad fiend!” Captain Frederick barked. His crew let out a huzzah.

The brigand gave the order and the guns boomed, splinters flying as the pirates began throwing chains, grappling hooks, and lines onto the Jurisprudence.

“Fire!” Captain Frederick shouted, and they pummeled the Guppy’s side in return. Some pirates were pierced by flying shards, but others swarmed aboard the Jurisprudence even as a few midshipmen frantically cut the lines and sent scallywags plummeting into the water. Pistols fired and the smoke from the guns rose up in plumes, obscuring the encroaching forces.

Captain Frederick had his hands wrapped around a pirate’s throat when Black Nate dove out of the murk and fell upon him like a Fury. Captain Frederick fumbled for his blade and spent precious seconds doing little more than trying to smack the sword out of his nemesis’ hand. His efforts earned him nothing more than the pleasure of being pushed back away from the center of action and towards the staircase leading to the helm, where the air was still clear.

Frederick mastered himself and recalled the proper manner in which to buckle swashes, and made a few good swipes that announced his readiness for Black Nate and put the pirate back on his guard. Bold offensive maneuvers had made him careless and Frederick reminded him of it in a way that landed a nick on Nate’s cheek.

“Ghat damn ye!” Nate snapped as the sting fell. He was grinning. The bead of blood on his face matched the ruby in his ear perfectly. “This is two approaches in a row for me, then, Fred. I’ll begin to think I’m chasin’ ye for nothing!”

“I have other matters to attend to besides hunting down every leprous mongrel on the ocean,” Frederick replied haughtily. He lunged for Black Nate’s guts and dodged the swipe that threatened his precious stick-uppy forelock.

The pirate guns fired again, and out of the smoke hideous splinters came flying. A spear of wood came at Frederick’s head. Black Nate seized him by the back of the neck and gripped him fast against his chest, out of harm’s way.

“All right?” Black Nate bellowed at him, looking at him with a fretful expression on his face and patting Frederick’s head with his free hand. “It didn’t nick ye?”

Captain Frederick smiled at him.  “I’m perfectly well.  Thank you, Nathaniel.”

“Good.” Nate grinned back.

The smoke was beginning to clear. They bolted apart and looked around. Everyone had something besides their leaders to occupy their attention. They’d gone unnoticed.

Right.

Black Nate lunged within an ace of Frederick’s hip. Captain Frederick beat him back with a kick aimed at the elbow and a clash of steel. They were backed against the staircase now.

“Aye, of course, ye are a busy man,” Black Nate snickered, picking up the thread of the earlier argument. “Fightin’ off the frogs, as one must. Tell me, what is that half-finished floatin’ galley chargin’ down upon ye for? I can smell the garlic stink of ‘er here.”

Black Nate swung for him and Captain Frederick danced up three steps before running Nate’s hat through and throwing it aloft to the helm behind him. Black Nate growled and advanced, and their swords clinked and smacked as they rose abaft.

“Can you not know? Villeneuve broke out at Gibraltar.”

“Ye tell a lie!” Black Nate gasped, appalled. “That bloated pisspot never got ‘round One-Eyed Nelly!”

The Jurisprudence’s guns fired. More splinters. They were far enough off that the carnage from The Gory Guppy was easier to dodge.

“You wrong me--” Frederick sniffed, pushing forward and leaning into the cross of their blades, “--for I tell the truth. There was a storm; it reflects not upon the Admiral.”

“Too right. Now where’s me hat?” Black Nate shoved him in the chest with a hand and sent Captain Frederick staggering. In a trice he had his lopsided tricorn upon his head once more, though it bore a hole from Frederick’s blade.

Something else was different, too. As they grappled and clashed, Captain Frederick realized what it was.

“Your bandana!” he cried. He pushed Black Nate back and back.

“Aye, what of it?”

“That’s my cravat!” Captain Frederick shouted, thrilled and revolted. “You disgusting, bilge-blasted rat pup! I lost track of it when you had me stripped for the cat, and now I find it wrapped around your thrice-bedamned head!”

Propelled by loathing, Frederick pushed and pushed his opponent. Black Nate danced backwards, his footwork irritatingly exquisite, and let the captain lead the moment. Their swords crossed, clacked, slid, and tapped as they felt each other out.

“‘Tis a fool who wastes good textile, Fred!” Black Nate replied, but his cheeks were red. “And this is some of the finest! Cotton, is it? And the embroidery--” He spared a hand to kiss the tips of his fingers.

“My sister stitched that for me!”

“And she did a lovely job. Deft hands run in the family, do they?” Black Nate grinned, drawing a little figure-eight of a come-on with his point. “The satin stitching is as fine as ever I’ve seen!”

“I’ll tell her you said as much.” He engaged, clinked, drove Black Nate back again.

“Pray, do.”

Captain Frederick pushed again, but this time Nate’s heel slid on a patch of slick deck and he fell back. A splinter had taken out a chunk of the railing and he began to tip over the side, arms windmilling.

Captain Frederick reached out and seized him by the bandolier, never gladder that the fiend wore the thing. He lurched back as hard as he could, dragging Black Nate back into his arms.

Black Nate landed against his chest with a thump. “Sweet Moses on the Mount!”

“Nathaniel, are you all right?” Frederick asked urgently. His heart hammered in his chest. To think he’d come so close to losing him!

“Aye, of course. Thank ye, Fred, t’was nearly a bad misadventure.” Black Nate patted him on the chest twice and Frederick smiled with relief.

They broke apart and looked around again. Again, unseen. Excellent.

It was awkward to try to explain these kinds of things to crewmen. They didn’t understand why one could not simply let one’s enemy die.

Their blades had crossed again, this time well out of range of the slick patches, when the Guppy’s guns fired a third time. They both hit the deck, Nate’s hands on top of his head and the pirate swearing like a, well, sailor at the peril of the situation.

They popped up once more and there was a bit of chasing around the helm before they began circling one another, Black Nate all daredevil grin and body wracked by each panting breath, Captain Frederick all tooth-gritted, nostril-flared, icy calm.

They lunged at each other and their blades ground and clashed. Nate jerked his arm up, taking Frederick’s with it, and they stood with their heaving chests pressed together and their swords crossed above their heads, each with a leg between the other’s.

“Captain!” bellowed a seaman.

Captain Frederick took his eyes off his opponent for an instant and Black Nate pressed the advantage, decking him across the mouth at such close range with a closed fist and sending him sprawling.

“There ye are,” Black Nate purred, advancing. He angled the tip of his sword at Captain Frederick’s throat. “It seems ye shall be enjoyin’ my hospitality again, Fred.”

Captain Frederick waited until the pirate was standing over him before popping himself up on one foot, swinging the other leg up, and kicking Nate in the back with the tip of an immaculately-shined boot. Black Nate panted out his breath in a harsh jerk and Frederick supposed he had caught a kidney. He bounced to his feet before the winded pirate, taking advantage of the instant to take stock.

“What is it, seaman?” he demanded. Black Nate pushed forward and they crossed blades.

“Sir, it is the--” but there was the sound of gunfire and a splash, and the seaman spoke no more.

Captain Frederick forced himself to take his eyes off of his captivating adversary to look out.

Not twenty feet away, Le Balle de Tennis ran alongside them.

Captain Les-Argeux stood upon the deck with a superior smile upon his lips, the sort that Captain Frederick had thought all beaten out of the Frenchman’s people around the year 1793.

Then again, just because he wasn’t an aristocrat didn’t mean he wasn’t still bloody French.

Captain Les-Argeux stood surrounded by his crew. In the hand of one sailor was a smoking flintlock, the culprit behind the seamen’s premature extermination.

What the hell were they doing here?!

“Damn and blast!” Captain Frederick cried, still pressing against Black Nate’s attack.

“Son of a whore,” Black Nate grumbled.

Captain Les-Argeux gave a signal and the Frenchmen began throwing ropes and chains to force a warp.

“This is your fault!” Captain Frederick snapped at Black Nate, whipping his sword away and going for the pirate’s throat.

“I?”

Clash, clash, step, twist, slide.

“You, you pompous peacock! If it weren’t for your desperate little attention-seeking, distracting me away from the rest of the convoy--”

Black Nate’s expression clouded and he pushed forward. “You shut yer howlin’ screamer, ya--”

“--my ship would not be a vulnerable target for this French rowboat!”

“Well, if ye feel that way, I suggest ye take yer grasp o' basic strategy and shove it up yer--”

The French guns went off. Chain shot, like as not. If they got out of this with all masts it would be because the very hand of God came down to hold it upright.

Captain Frederick sprawled on top of Black Nate, holding them both out of the way. The pirate did his bit with a hand on Captain Frederick’s lower back, keeping him down and relatively shielded.

“Damn, damn, damn,” Captain Frederick growled.

They threw themselves apart and lurched up from the deck just as Captain Les-Argeux approached them from the steps, his sword drawn.

“Bonjour, gentlemen!” the Frenchman cried. “Or perhaps I should say gentleman. You may return to your raft, sea-rat,” he said, addressing Black Nate, “the Jurisprudence is mine.”

“I call that big talk for a poof-haired snail-eater!” Black Nate snarled. “I’ve been poundin’ away at this fine vessel and that makes ‘er mine!”

“Captain Frederick, we are in the habit of cutting the tongues out of pirates who speak so freely to gentlemen,” Captain Les-Argeux sneered. “I think you are perhaps remiss in your duties.”

“I thought your lot was all about egalité these days,” Captain Frederick snapped.

The Guppy’s and the Balle’s guns went off at the same time, splinters flying. Captain Les-Argeux ducked slightly, holding his beplumed hat on his head with a delicate gesture.

Captain Frederick nearly hurled down his sword in fury. Damn, damn, damn! Who gets double-broadsides like this?!

“Well, captain,” Les-Argeux chirped. “It appears you are at a disadvantage.” He pulled out a flintlock and aimed it at Black Nate. “Surrender now and I will have the dog put down, and we can finish this like gentlemen.”

“I think not,” Captain Frederick said. He leveled his sword at Black Nate’s neck and cocked an eyebrow at the pirate. “I’ve fought him this long and I’ll finish him myself.”

Black Nate’s eyes narrowed in distrust. “Ye wouldn’t--”

“Drop your weapon, mutt,” Captain Frederick said, deadly serious.

Hopelessly outnumbered, with that flintlock still pointed at him, Black Nate growled and opened his hand, letting the sword fall to the deck.

Les-Argeux lifted his flintlock up and away, releasing the hammer. “Very well. Do be swift, captain. The Jurisprudence is more valuable to me afloat than otherwise.”

Captain Frederick clenched his jaw and drew back his sword, placing the tip at Black Nate’s throat.

“Back to the pit from whence you came,” Frederick snarled at him, and Nate reflexively gasped as he leaned his weight behind the sword.

He ran the tip along Nate’s throat, drawing a thin cut in the exposed flesh and apparently sticking the length of the sword out through the other side of his neck. Frederick closed on him, reached for him with his left arm, as if to hold him up in his death throes, and seized for the flintlock at his right hip.

In an instant he had it out, sighted, and shot a foolishly stunned Les-Argeux at five feet. The Frenchman went down with a choked curse and Black Nate’s hand shot up to his neck to inspect the damage.

“Sir,” Captain Frederick smiled at his nemesis, handing him back his pistol. “Thank you for your invaluable assistance."

“Ye bloody two-faced popinjay,” Black Nate grinned. “I ought’a kill ya for that alone.”

Their attention was diverted by the topmast beginning to creak ominously. Chunks of the mast were missing.

DAMN.

“Change of plan!” Black Nate cried, picking up his sword. “Kill anything with an accent! I’ll deal with you later, Fred!”

“Aye, so you claim!” Captain Frederick replied.  He gave a gurgling Captain Les-Argeux the coup de grace and took the Frenchman's sword, tossing his pistol to Black Nate. “I shall know it when I see some evidence to support it!”

They darted away from each other, running down the steps to kill this new enemy. The two-man pincer move snowballed as the pirates, following their captain’s lead, began attacking the French sailors as well as the English, while Frederick’s crew divided itself between fighting off the men on their own ship and beginning to overpower Le Balle de Tennis.

Things got a little hairy when the Jurisprudence’s fore topmast finally gave up and fell. Frederick had never thought he’d be grateful for piratical assistance, but when one is aloft on the mainmast with any and all available men, slicing at line in a desperate attempt to keep from losing another mast, it was good to have someone subduing the French. At last they cut the topmast away and pushed it overboard, just in time to clamber back down and chase back the buggers chopping at the shrouds and ratlines.

By the time the Jurisprudence sailors managed to gain control of the Balle’s guns, Captain Frederick was aboard The Gory Guppy, pushing a shish-kebabed Frenchman off his sword, and Black Nate was wiping his bloody blade off with a handkerchief as he walked the deck of the Jurisprudence.

They looked at each other.  There was no certainty that the Jurisprudence could bear another round of artillery.  Moreover The Gory Guppy, no spring chicken herself, could not be guaranteed to limp back to Tortuga with many more holes in her.

“Cease fire!” they shouted at the same time. In a wild confusion, the pirate first mate and British first lieutenant echoed the order to opposing gun crews, who nevertheless obeyed. The relative stillness was incredible, after the thunderous noise of the guns.

“We helped ye lay them low,” Black Nate cried to his nemesis. He disdainfully nudged a French corpse off the side of the ship. “Give us our pick of the Balle’s booty and we’ll let ye leave with the boat and yer lives.”

“In a pig’s eye!” Captain Frederick snapped, storming over to have it out.

The issue was far from being resolved when two sail were sighted. Black Nate, never cowardly but ever prudent, decided that rather than risk two British warships or French reinforcements, it was best to call for a retreat to The Gory Guppy with all speed.

Captain Frederick would not give him leave to go, of course. They had another swordfight over it, though they were both exhausted, and it finally ended with Mr. Slipgut hoisting Frederick up with his arms stretched back and Slipgut’s hands laced behind his head.

The pirates pushed off and Captain Frederick soon found, to his total lack of surprise, that they’d secretly made off with whatever loot they wanted while he and Black Nate had been having it out. The candlesticks, silverware, wine bottles, the late Captain Les-Argeux’s clothing, half the grog, and all the salted meat rations were gone. In a truly vindictive move, they’d even pinched whatever orders and instructions might have been in the late captain’s keeping by the expedient method of simply prying his safe out of the wall.

The two ships joined them when The Gory Guppy was nearly upon the horizon. They were the Netley and the Barbadoes, and Frederick nearly tore his hair out to see the warships away from the convoy.

The merchantmen were in Villeneuve’s possession.

It was shameful.

But they had Le Balle de Tennis and she was still a prize, and the Jurisprudence would limp back to Anguilla to recover herself. Captain Frederick sent his first lieutenant to man the Balle and the Jurisprudence staggered back to harbor as quick as she could, without her crew breaking out paddles.

Black Nate, Frederick later heard with no small relief, made it to Tortuga in a day or so after the engagement.

As he was refitting, Captain Frederick was at leisure to receive his letters. Diana’s missives were a welcome reprieve, but one day he received a bottle in the mail.

It contained the French intelligence, torn into pieces with a chipper little note encouraging him to enjoy his dissection puzzle. This was accompanied by a very offensive caricature of himself, with an erect phallus wedged between the caricature’s buttocks.

Frederick held the bottle to his chest with a longing sigh.

He could just kill the man.