Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE
1816, The Gold Coast of Africa,
Aboard the Golden Scythe

Martín drummed his fingers on the gleaming wooden railing and stared at the Dutch ship. The vessel was upwind and too far away to smell the stench, but Martín could imagine it. The pitiful cries of the slaves were another matter. Those he could hear even from this distance.

The dirty business of slaving was more lucrative than ever since the British and Americans had banned the importation of slaves in 1808. The American South paid well for smuggled slaves, as it could not function without their labor, a fact Martín knew all too well.

He turned to his first mate. "How many crew, Beauville?" he asked in English, rather than his native French. He'd begun speaking English after the British granted him his letter of marque, the document that made his profitable life as a privateer possible.

Beauville lowered his spyglass. "No more than forty, Captain, and most of those appear to be either drunk or incompetent."

Martín laughed at the man's dry assessment and strode to where his second mate held the wheel. "Ready the men, Daniels, and then prepare to make the offer."

Although the Dutch ship had suffered some damage to its mast, it appeared to be a well-maintained ship and far cleaner than the usual run of slavers. Martín's own ship, the Golden Scythe, had been a slave ship before he'd captured her, but she'd cleaned up nicely. He regarded the immaculate deck with pride. With a crew of seventy men and fourteen cannon, the Scythe greatly outmatched the Dutch ship and was a force to be reckoned with.

Still, it was never wise to be too cocky. If the Blue Bird carried to capacity—five hundred souls—the money involved was great. Things would become ugly if the ship's captain was determined to fight for his cargo. Martín was confident he would triumph in such a struggle, but he knew it would not be without cost.

A flurry of activity broke out as he watched the other ship; the crew was flapping about like a flock of frightened hens. A dozen men stood near the main mast and gestured wildly to one another—a few with machetes. Martín shook his head; something odd was going on.

Daniels appeared beside him. "Everything is prepared, Captain, and we await your command."

Martín turned to Jenkins, his man of all work, who held out two pistols for his inspection. He checked the guns carefully before inserting them into a holster that kept both guns resting on his right hip while his rapier lay on his left. The holster was of Martín's design and allowed him to draw any of the three weapons quickly.

He glanced into the large mirror Jenkins held up before him and flicked an imaginary piece of lint from his immaculate coat. He took his time and made a minute adjustment to his cravat, careful to keep his movements languid and his expression bored. His crew was watching, their battered faces amused, yet proud. Martín knew they drew strength from his reputation as a cold, hard killer who was more concerned with his cravat than his life.

To be honest, Martín's stomach churned just as much, if not more, than that of any other man on the ship. If anyone died today, 'he' would be to blame. While that might not bother his conscience—a hardened, shriveled thing—his pride was fat and healthy, and he could not bear to have poor decisions attributed to him.

Martín flicked his hand, and Jenkins took away the mirror. Daniels's mouth was pursed with disapproval. He knew the younger man still found his behavior shocking, even though he'd been Martín's second for over a year.

Martín found his irritation amusing. "Make the offer, Mr. Daniels."

"Aye, Captain!" Daniels turned and gave the midshipman a hand signal. A second later a loud crack issued from one of the Scythe's cannons. The smoke had barely cleared before a black flag crept up the Dutch ship's pole.

Martín exhaled; they would parley.

"Excellent shot, gentlemen, and very persuasive. Beauville, please escort their captain to the wardroom when he arrives." Martín unfastened his weapon belt and handed it to Jenkins. "Don't unload these just yet," he advised before going below deck.
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