The Atlanteans were staring again. This was only to be expected, Rebecca supposed, but she had to suppress a sigh as she plastered a fake smile on her face and strode down the gangway to the airdock, where Elandra was waiting with a frown on her face.
"You should not have returned."
"Oh, don't worry, we haven't brought the pair of miscreants back," Rebecca said lightly. Indeed, they had put Adoni and Kyeem off in Ponta Delgada, just as they had planned, with strict instructions to stay out of trouble and not kill each other over the course of the next few days. "But we've come across some new information, and that's led us back here." She waited until James and Elizabeth had joined her on the dock, James with his hands shoved into his pockets and a sardonic smile on his lips, Elizabeth wish a scowl paired with suspicious, darting eyes that took in every gawker in the area.
Elandra cocked her head to the side and slowly said, "You have come to see the slave yards."
Slave. The word made the hair on the back of Elizabeth's neck stand up. There weren't slaves in England these days. Maybe an indentured servant or two, but not slaves. In fact, most of Europe was devoid of slavery by this point in time. The colonies, however, were a different story, and that made her stomach lurch. If Will had really been sold off as a slave, he wasn't going to be anywhere close to her. He would have been shipped off to the end of the world to toil in the Caribbean, a place that even she hadn't seen.
And if that was the case, by now he might be dead.
No. She wouldn't think that way. She wouldn't. He wasn't dead. She refused to believe it. Fate would never be so cruel to her.
"We're looking for a man named William Locke," said James, putting a restraining arm on Elizabeth's shoulder. He must have seen her tense at the mention of the slave yards. "We have reason to believe that he was brought in by the—the ship of gold, I believe you called it?"
"Bennett," Elizabeth said, shaking James' hand off and grabbing his arm. "Bennett's ship has golden sails. The pompous bastard seems to think that just because he can afford sails made of cloth of gold, he can take whatever he wants." Like me.
"We know it was Bennett, Lizize," James said. "And you know that we know." He looked back at Elandra. "Can you help us?"
"You have reason to believe this? What reason?"
Rebecca and James exchanged a look, and then Rebecca held out her left hand. "Will sent us a message," she said. "To the crystal in my ring."
Elizabeth's eyes riveted themselves onto the ring. "He sent you a message?" she whispered. "After…after the attack?" She looked back at James. "He's really alive?"
"Yes. I told you he was."
Elandra reached out and passed her hand over Rebecca's ring, and the hologram of Will sprang into the air between them. Immediately, the people who had gathered around the dock to gawk at the foreign ship gasped and drew back. Elizabeth ground her teeth at his appearance. He looked a mess, far worse than when she had last seen him. And she ground her teeth even harder at what he was saying.
"That's not true," she said as soon as the hologram flickered out of existence. "It's not true. I didn't go with them. I fought them every step of the way. I—" She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, and then said, "No, I didn't. Not every step. I mean, I tried, but…"
But she hadn't been able to.
She hadn't been the one to see the ship first. Neither had Will. They had both been below the decks, though not together. She had been sorting through crates in the hold, looking for a new pistol as hers had decided to break. He had been sleeping after a long night that had been spent raiding. The Star had been heavy, laden down with stolen goods that they had planned to put off in Medeira and the Savage and Canary Islands, where they figured the stolen items would fetch a high price from the under-supplied colonists. There had been so many goods. Grain and cotton and rum and sugar and cloth, even amounts of gold, silver, and gems they had planned to keep for themselves…it had all weighed too much. They hadn't been able to run fast enough.
Not that they had known they were going to need to. When the shout had gone up that there was another ship in the sky, she had come running. Will had arrived moments later, his boots shoved onto the wrong feet and his shirt trailing loose. They had clambered up the crow's nest, leery of approaching vessels. The Fallen Star had been unaccompanied by the smaller vessels that normally flew with it. The Dawn Star and Mourning Star had been left in Casablanca after a particularly bad run-in with a group of merchant vessels which hadn't taken kindly to being attacked by pirates. The Fallen Star had escaped with only minor damage, but the smaller ships had required extensive repairs. Now, without their escorts, they were vulnerable.
"We don't want to engage," Will determined, looking suspiciously at the way the strange ship's golden sails had glinted in the bright sun. "Golden sails mean money, and money like that means high security. We can't engage when we're weighed down like this." He surveyed the sky, the clouds that floated sporadically beneath them and the seemingly endless expanse of ocean. "They're in our way, though, and we don't want to pass too close to them. We'll reroute."
"To where?" Elizabeth asked, stepping up onto the edge of the crow's nest after Will. He grabbed the rope which trailed for a quick descent from the crow's nest to the deck with one hand, and held out the other to her. She put her hand in his, and he yanked her against his chest, wrapping his spare arm around her waist. She made a face at him, but it was half-hearted at best, and a moment later she was clutching at his shoulders as they plummeted the distance to the deck.
They broke apart as soon as they hit the deck, both shouting orders to different parts of the crew. Within moments, the Star's wings tilted, the crystals that helped to float and propel it glowed, and they were changing direction. Will had determined they would backtrack and stop in the Azores Islands, as it would only be slightly out of the way. Hopefully it would give the golden ship the time to pass them by.
But when they reached the Azores and were suspended in the air above it, the golden ship was still behind them. And it was closer than ever. "Keep moving," Will ordered. "We have the supplies, we don't need to stop." He hesitated, and then added, "And put some twists in it. Just in case."
And so they twisted and turned and zigged and zagged their way across the sky, more or less paralleling the edge of the world, but not venturing too close. They wove in and out of the wall of mist from the waterfalls, but didn't venture into the area where the air currents could pull them over the edge.
Over the edge, air stopped flowing and Atlantean crystals stopped working. And no one knew how far of a way it was to fall.
So they avoided the danger zone, but tried to stay hidden as much as possible. It was pointless, because at this point it was obvious the golden ship was following them, and it was also closer than ever. They had managed to cut back, away from the edge of the world, by cutting it closer to Atlantis than it seemed the gold ship was willing to, but they only got a dozen miles before the attack came.
She had sent the distress call to James and Rebecca in the first moments of the attack. It had been the middle of the night, when they all should have been asleep, drifting on calm breezes. Instead, they were all wide awake, and armed to the teeth. What they hadn't known was that the relatively small crew of the Fallen Star stood no chance against the massive crew and hired fighters aboard the gold ship.
As soon as that ship had come close enough for Elizabeth to spot its name through her spyglass, she had known who it was. Only Bennett would name his ship the Gilded Cage. But before she could fully process who the ship belonged to, and what its presence meant, they had been engaged. She had fled, full-tilt, to the bridge, where she had brought up the communication crystal and had alerted her friends. She had known—she had known—they wouldn't be able to help. But she'd wanted to let them know, especially because, at the moment of the attack, she and Will were busy missing James and Rebecca's engagement ball.
But she hadn't gotten the full message through before the Star had been boarded and someone snuck up behind her, slamming a hammer down onto the crystal she had been using. She'd been cut off in mid-sentence, and had immediately been sucked into the fighting. She had shot, she had stabbed, she had kicked and punched, but she'd barely made a dent in the forces against them. The Gilded Cage was massive in comparison to the Fallen Star, and the men it held to fight against them seemed endless.
Globes of liquid fire had burst over the ship. Her crew had gone down, one by one, screaming in pain from burns or felled by bullets and blades. The ship itself had begun to descend. She was sent flying, crashing into the rail with force enough to bruise her ribs when a blast knocked one of the ship's massive leather-and-pipe wings free. Moments later the ship rocked again as another blast separated the other wing. Smoke, blood, screaming—it was all too much. She just fought frantically to stay alive.
And then there had been the incident with Will. Bennett had shot him. He'd hit the deck. She'd thought he was dead. She'd screamed some more. And then she had gone numb. She could remember the feeling perfectly, as every ounce of willpower had drained out of her. Her knees had buckled, she'd closed her eyes. She'd collapsed, unable to tear her eyes away from Will's body. Another of Bennett's men kicked Will, so hard that his body rolled onto his back. His head lolled, eyes wide and staring. She hadn't been able to look, after that. She couldn't look into his head eyes and know that they would never spark in laughter again, that they would never stare down into hers with words that he wouldn't say because he was too afraid she would run.
So she'd looked away. Her legs had regained some semblance of strength, and she had stumbled off in the hold of Bennett's men. She hadn't wanted to. It was the last thing she wanted. But she hadn't possessed the ability to resist.
It probably looked a lot like she had gone with Bennett willingly. But she hadn't. She wouldn't. She just hadn't been able to fight back anymore, because she'd thought Will was dead, and that had broken hear heart.
"I just…" she breathed, looking at James and desperately looking for the words to explain her actions. She hadn't signaled Bennett. She hadn't gone along with him willingly. She'd just been in shock.
Rebecca stepped forward and pulled Elizabeth into a brief embrace, and James clasped her shoulder again. "We know," Rebecca murmured in her ear. "We know." She stepped away quickly and looked at Elandra. "The slave yards," she said. "We have to see them."
"I do not know what you expect to find," Elandra said, turning her back on the trio and walking down the dock. The Atlanteans parted before her, backing up gangways and onto ships or crowding to the very edges of the docks. "I have told you, your friend is no longer here."
"What about when we were here the first time?" Rebecca demanded. "Was he here then?"
"I would have told you if he had been on the Island."
They went in the opposite direction of the one they had taken during their previous visit. When before they had gone into the center of the city, toward the large homes and the school, now they went away from the city center and toward a soaring wall of white stone.
"Where are we going?" Elizabeth finally demanded as they neared the wall. "There's nothing here. Certainly not slave yards."
"They are beyond the wall," Elandra said, stopping in front of a huge wooden door. "They are not allowed within the city. They must stay by the old sea docks, where the ocean air may wash away their stench and corruption. However, you must go the remaining distance yourselves. I can take you no further."
"Why not?" Elizabeth demanded.
"It is forbidden for Atlanteans to venture beyond the wall and into the Wilds."
"So who built the sea docks? The slave yards?"
"Foreigners who came to our shores for just such a purpose. They were not made by Atlantean hands." Elandra pressed her palm against the door. Blue light raced up it and spiraled out in an intricate pattern, following a formerly-invisible inlay of crystal. When the light reached the edges of the door, the massive hinges slowly creaked, the door opened, and a cool ocean breeze swept into the city. Elizabeth shoved the hair it ruffled out of her face, and then calmly strode into the open.
Three steps out, she paused and turned. "Has any Atlantean ever gone beyond the walls?"
"Yes," Elandra said.
"And what happened to them?"
"One of them was exiled. The other was above reproach, because of his lineage…but he, too, left. Those who have seen the Wilds are no longer suitable for Atlantean society. They…see the world differently."
Rebecca nodded. "Will they ever be allowed to come back?"
"After a time, perhaps. But I doubt they shall wish to return, when that time comes."
"Why not? Isn't Atlantis their home?"
"Yes, but our culture can be…restraining." Elandra gestured at the walls. "It suits most of us. But the walls, the roles each person is assigned at birth and expected to play to death—to some people they are too much. My sister has always been one of those people. And though she may be allowed to return, eventually, I think she shall not wish to. Why would she return to a city of walls when the whole world lies before her?"
"Would never leave Adoni. He is devoted to her."
Rebecca nodded slowly. "I see." She walked through the door to join Elizabeth, pulling James with her when he seemed to want to question Elandra further.
"Knock three times when you wish to reenter the city," Elandra said. "I will wait and open the doors for you to return."
"That won't be necessary," Rebecca said, though she didn't look back as she said the words. She was too busy looking down the gentle slope to the sprawling complex that was the slave yards. "I can open the door."
"You're sure?" James said, grabbing her elbow. "I thought that you can't control the crystals anymore."
"I can't," she replied. "But Elandra didn't control that door. She just activated it. And trust me, I can activate a crystal. I do it all the time by accident."
Elandra considered this, and then nodded. "Yes," she finally said. "Yes, I believe you will be able to open it. Very well. I shall be in the city, of course. If you should require my assistance on any other matters, simply ask for me. Someone will know where I am." She started to turn away, paused, and added, "I shall have your ship resupplied while you investigate the location of your comrade." She brushed her fingers against the door, and it slowly swung shut, closing James, Rebecca, and Elizabeth outside the city.
And as soon as it banged shut, Elizabeth started running.
She almost tripped over her own feet as she hurtled down the slope to the rough wooden shacks that composed the enclosures the slaves for sale were kept in. They surrounded a roughly circular yard, a square platform adorning the center. The entire complex was surrounded by a waist-high wooden fence. Elizabeth picked up speed and jumped, certain she could clear the fence—and slammed into a wall of blue energy. She tumbled backward, cracking her skull against the ground with enough force to make her head ring and her eyes water.
Immediately, James and Rebecca were at her side, pulling her back to her feet. "Are you all right?" Rebecca asked, brushing her off briskly.
"What the hell happened?" Elizabeth demanded, pressing a hand to her head. "Where did that come from?"
"The crystals." James had dropped Elizabeth's arm and was now standing directly next to the fence, examining the posts which supported the crossbeams. "There're Atlantean crystals implanted in the tops of these posts." He pointed, but wasn't willing to touch the crystals in question. "I presume they're programmed to keep people out."
"Not to keep people out," Rebecca said, moving to join him. "Though they work for that, too, obviously. But I think they're more meant to keep people in."
"Can you disable them?" Elizabeth demanded. "Or are we stuck out here?"
Rebecca looked doubtfully at the crystals. "I don't know," she said. "I haven't tried to control crystals in a long time. I could try, but…" She reached out, but snatched her fingers back just before they touched the crystal. "They're humming."
"Adoni said they sing," James reminded her.
"I know, but I've never felt something like that before. Maybe it's because Elizabeth activated them?" She shook her head, wiping her fingers on her trousers as if they had touched something slimy. "I don't know if I can control them or not, but I don't particularly want to try. I don't know what they might do, and I like I said…I've never felt them do this before." She looked at Elizabeth. "We're not stuck out here, though. There'll be an entrance."
"Which way, though?"
James surveyed the lay of the land, and then nodded his head to the left. "That way," he said. "The old sea docks are to the other side, see? And to the left there's nothing but grass, and then sand and water. They'll have the gate there so if a slave does manage to escape through the gate when it's open, there won't be anywhere for them to hide. Those rotting docks have too many bolt holes."
"Left it is, then." And Elizabeth strode off, still rubbing the sore spot on her head. She was the first one of the group to reach the gate. It was no more auspicious than the rough fence, but it was guarded by two men armed not only with pistols, but with long, curving scimitars. Elizabeth eyed the blades with a good deal of interest. She fought with a rapier, as did most of Rebecca and most of the crew of the Fallen Star. James used a rapier sometimes, but preferred a heavier sword he had obtained when they had stolen a four-hundred-year-old suit of armor from a ship transporting historical artifacts. He said that the blade made him feel like a knight. But a scimitar…that was from Arabia and the surrounding areas, far away from Atlantis.
She didn't comment on the blades, just looked each guard directly in the eye and said, "We need to go in."
"And your business is?" one guard asked.
"We're looking for someone."
"Ah," said another voice, not the other guard. "Crusaders. How interesting." Elizabeth looked up at the voluptuous blond woman standing on the other side of the gate. Her hair was piled on top of her head in a mass of curls, and she wore a man's shirt and a skirt that slit to her hip on each side, revealing a pair of leggings beneath, along with a pair of fine leather boots. A coiled whip hung at her left hip. Her eyes, a cold blue, were already taking stock of Elizabeth an her companions. "You may let them in," she said finally, waving her hand at the gate and turning her back. "They will come with me."
James looked like he wanted to object to this, but Rebecca elbowed him in the ribs. He grunted in pain and glared at her, but followed without protest when Rebecca and Elizabeth strode into the compound. Even still, he kept a hand near the pistol at his hip.
"You shan't win any fights for the cessation of slavery here," said the blond woman, her left hand moving down to caress her whip. "We run quite the profitable business here, and we have no plans to shut down or relocate. And I should mention that the Atlanteans have no contact with us, aside from occasional forays we make to the gates in order to have supplies handed over, so you won't get anywhere by arguing that we are corrupting the natives."
"We don't want to convince you to stop your trade," said Rebecca. "We're just looking for someone. One person."
"Well, I hope you brought money with you. No one leaves here without proper payment being rendered. Now, what kind of person are you looking for? A scout? A laborer? Perhaps a translator?"
"A pirate," Elizabeth snapped.
"Hm. Well, I don't think we have any of those. There were a few that came in a couple of weeks ago, but the last of them died off on Monday."
"What?" Instantly, Elizabeth was at the woman's throat, her rapier pressed flush against the woman's skin. "If he's dead, you just lost the last thing keeping you alive," she hissed.
"Elizabeth!" James grabbed her and hauled her away, even as guards rushed to the scene. Rebecca had already moved, holding out an arm to separate the woman, who was reaching for her whip, from James and Elizabeth.
"I highly advise you don't do that," she said. Elizabeth, still trapped in James' grip, shuddered. That was Rebecca's Dead Voice. The one she had used all the time when she had first been resurrected, and the one that was now removed for occasions when she was extremely unhappy. Like when they had been standing on a balcony at Bennett's manor and she'd had her pistol pointed at Elizabeth's head.
Now, Rebecca was extremely unhappy again, and this time she wasn't holding a pistol. Instead, she was on an island which was practically made of Atlantean crystal. And as she glared at the blond woman with the whip, her eyes never even flickering to the guards which had surrounded them, all the crystals began to glow. From the ones on the fence posts to the ones mounted above the doors of the small huts, from the tiny crystal pieces in the sand to the faceted gem in her ring—they all shone with a brilliant blue light.
"Oh," James said lightly, slowly releasing Elizabeth from his arms but keeping a hand on her shoulder with a grip hard enough to bruise. "I should mention that my fiancée is somewhat gifted with Atlantean crystals. I know you probably didn't expect someone with such abilities to come down here, since really only Atlanteans are gifted enough to control the crystals with just their will, but Rebecca is a bit of a special case. You see—"
Nearby, a crystal shattered, raining rainbow fragments down upon them.
"Oh," James said. "Yes, she is rather annoyed right now, aren't you, dearest?"
"Incredibly so," Rebecca ground out. Another crystal shattered.
"And, see, well, her abilities aren't what they used to be. She used to be an expert at controlling the crystals, but these days, well…they're prone to reacting to her even when she doesn't want them to. So I suggest that, if you don't want every single one of your precious crystals destroyed, you should probably call off your guards."
The woman scowled, but waved a hand, and the guards retreated. Rebecca slowly lowered her arm. The glow around them faded.
"I'll have you know that you will be paying to replace those broken crystals, along with the price of anyone you choose to take out of here."
"And I'll have you know," said Elizabeth, "that we won't be paying for anything."
The woman's eyes narrowed. "Do you know who I am?"
Elizabeth shrugged. "Not a clue, and quite frankly, I don't care."
"I'm Abigail Lewis, the slave mistress for these yards and a representative of some very powerful people from across the world who require my brokering services. I have friends in very high places, and you choose to challenge me? Just who do you think you are?"
And in a gesture so perfect it could have been planned, James, Rebecca, and Elizabeth all smiled at once. "How rude of us," Elizabeth murmured. "We didn't introduce ourselves. I am Elizabeth—" She almost said Cooper, but then realized her new position as Bennett's bride might actually lend her some weight in this situation. "—Bennett, come to complete some business my husband recently conducted here." She swept a neat bow. "And then, may I humbly present James Auburn and Rebecca Browning, otherwise known as the Pirate King and his Queen?"
It was a ridiculous pair of titles, and Elizabeth knew it just as well as James and Rebecca did. They had never claimed to be the King and Queen of anything, let alone of the world's population of pirates, who likely never would have accepted their rule anyway. But, because they had been the ones behind forming the massive network of pirates that had been collaboratively ravaging the seas and skies, some layperson had decided that the Pirate King and Pirate Queen were romantic titles. And once they had been out, they had spread like wildfire—though James and Rebecca hadn't actually known the honorifics were in use until long after they had quit the pirate life.
But for times like this, such titles certainly came in handy. Especially because, upon hearing them, Abigail Lewis had gone pale. "You're joking."
"I assure you, we are not," said Rebecca. As if to prove her point, her ring flashed once more.
Lewis plastered a fake smile on her face. "Well, then," she said. "I suppose we'd best get down to business then. Lady Bennett, congratulations on your recent nuptials; your husband informed me of the happy occasion when he was here. What brings you back to us? He was satisfied with the business we conducted last time, wasn't he?" She appeared to be doing her best to ignore James and Rebecca, probably gauging them, as blatantly-declared pirates, as more dangerous than Elizabeth. A horrible misconception, to be sure, because Rebecca could see the glint in Elizabeth's eye and the savage twist to her smile that indicated she would happily tear Lewis limb from limb.
"Actually, he was terribly disappointed with one aspect of the transaction in particular," Elizabeth said blithely. "He didn't want to worry my pretty little head about it, so he didn't say too much, but he indicated that he regretted trading you for one of the men he brought in off the pirate ship Fallen Star. What was his name…oh, yes. William Locke?"
"Oh. Him." Lewis scowled. "Troublesome bastard. We rid ourselves of him a week and a half ago, thank God. Wasn't worth his keep, but we got a good price for him nonetheless. Why? You didn't want him back, did you? Because I'm afraid that's impossible."
"I highly suggest you don't use the word 'impossible' in regard to this situation, Madame Lewis," Elizabeth said, "because you are going to obtain William Locke for me once more."
Lewis' eyes narrowed. "You're not here on behalf of your husband, are you?"
Elizabeth slid her fingers slowly down the holster of her pistol, fondled the hilt of her sword, and smiled once more. "No, Madame Lewis," she said. "I can assure you that I am not."