I come out of hiding, from among the jumble of foremast ropes on my father’s ship.
Crossing the deck of his brigantine—the Regulus, is a risk. That scallywag promenading as the good and upright fishing lad—Johnny Minnow—could be bunkering anyplace. And he knows I’m onto him.
But the deck remains empty and quiet, except for the whistling of Captain Justus (my father, good natured enough to don a feathered pirate cap for the ride home, to make things feel more epic).
The sun beats on my bare shoulders, and the rock of the boat on this blue Celtic water feels like the dancing of the Earth. Its rhythm is even and cool. No drumbeat of scampering footsteps troubles the deck.
Empress Adara and Caius the Magistrate, along for the sailing trip, are resting at the stern of the ship, watching the shore come. They seem oblivious that dark deeds are astir.
“Steady as she goes, Swift,” my father, Justus, calls to me, playing his role well enough. Though, he’s forgotten that I’m not plain “Swift” at the moment, but the dauntless ocean adventurer—Captain Swift Corkscrew—a privateer, fearless in the face of all wrongdoing; a buccaneer resolute to make good on my oath to Empress Adara and set this sea safe from all piracy.
“Keep a weather eye on the horizon,” says Captain Justus.
But I can’t mind my post of lookout right now. Not when foul acts of treason and pillaging have been committed by that picaroon, “Johnny Minnow,” whom I suspect is the dread Captain Ash Coxswain, Pirate Tormenter of the Cold Celtic Sea. I need only find the proof of his deceit.
Captain Justus, wise as he is, doesn’t interfere nor does he question my business as I cross the deck and slip furtively into the trap door leading down to the galley.
Captain Justus gives me a supportive nod and trains his own gaze on the horizon, where a storm indeed brews.
I close the trap door and slink down the dark ladder into the galley.
“I know you’re in here, you trickster,” I speak to the darkness.
There isn’t a sound in reply. Not a breath. Not a stifled laugh. Nothing.
I flick on my flashlight and turn a fast circle, training its beam all around and expecting that artist of duplicity, Johnny Minnow / Ash Coxswain, to leap out with his rapier and slay me.
Ash doesn’t leap out, though. He doesn’t seem to be anyplace down here.
But. My light brushes something that sparkles.
I kneel before the galley sink and throw back the dishtowel concealing its pipes.
“I knew it,” I whisper.
I clench a fistful of wealth from the trove—Monopoly money and glittering coins and real chocolate galleons and jewels so shining they seem made of sugar, and pearls so swollen and glossed they look fake.
“Johnny Minnow says he’s no more than an honest fishing lad,” I say. “But here, I find evidence that he’s telling lies.”
I stand, cramming as much of the wealth as possible into my trouser pockets.
A voice hisses from the darkness—“So what if I lied?”
I spin and catch the swipe of a rapier blade on my own.
“I suspected you kept a dark secret.” I bear down on the marauder, the swindler. “You’re not Johnny Minnow, the jolly fishing lad from bonny Bristol. You’re the notorious pirate, Ash Coxswain! Admit it.”
With a mighty burst, the false Johnny Minnow throws me back against the sink. “That’s Captain Ash Coxswain, Pirate Tormenter of the Cold Celtic Sea.”
He’s wrapping both his hands around the hilt of his rapier, as though readying to plunge it straight through my body, to fasten my bones to his trove as a trophy—one more of a long line of souls that he’s claimed.
Ash lunges—I feign, and I spin—I’m behind him now, clenching him into a headlock and swiping his blade from his hand.
“You think you can get away with murder, don’t you?” I ask.
Ash shouts, “I have gotten away with murder.”
He struggles to get free, but can’t. Ash is shirtless, as I am, and we stick to each other. My arm crossing his chest is as strong as a hawser rope.
“And I’ll get away with much worse,” says the villain.
Indeed, Ash’s elusiveness is his genius. He’s clever enough at school to never get caught breaking rules. He even regularly springs me—his best friend—from tight places.
But now it’s me, Captain Corkscrew, who’s onto him.
“Not this time.” I cut free the dishcloth hanging over the sink pipes and with it, bind his wrists. “Caius the Magistrate is on board,” I tell him.
“Cockle shards—not Caius the Magistrate!” Ash squirms. “Please, I’ll do anything. I’ll give you half of what I’ve plundered. Just don’t deliver me to Caius the Magistrate.”
But the famed luck of the notorious Captain Ash Coxswain has run out because the galley trap door is opening, and at its brink stands the right noble Caius the Magistrate.
“We’ll be docking in a few minutes,” says Caius. “You lads want to watch me lower the sails?”
Ordinarily, we would. But now that I’ve proven who our dear and doe-eyed Johnny Minnow really is, there are more important matters at hand.
“Let me watch him work the sails one last time,” says Ash. “Before I’m condemned.”
“Quiet, you!” I haul him to the ladder and force him to its top under the threat of a blade to his bottom.
“You’ll never believe it,” I tell Caius the Magistrate, once Ash and I are both out of the hole, Monopoly money and jewels overflowing both our pockets. “This scoundrel, who we thought was a man of civility—he’s the notorious Captain Ash Coxswain, Pirate Tormenter of the Cold Celtic Sea. He’s robbed from every soul on this ship.”
Caius the Magistrate doesn’t miss a beat. “It’ll have to be a trial, then.”
Caius is the best older brother imaginable. It doesn’t matter that he’s leaving for medical school in Bristol in a couple of weeks; it doesn’t matter that he’s as tall as Justus and as magnificent as a Norse hero.
Despite everything that occupies him, Caius is clearheaded. He gets how important it is to address pirate offenses committed by eight-year-old boys.
“You going to make me walk the plank?” Ash asks him.
Caius takes into his hand a fistful of jewels from Ash’s pocket and examines the evidence.
Some of the coins and rings have gone melty in the sun, and they stick to his fingers. “I have a much more fearsome fate in mind for you.”
Ash twists in my clutches. “Cockle shards!”
I lead Ash to the deck, where Captain Justus can look on with his resolute eye, which always makes a sentencing feel more dire.
Caius stands on the steering deck before us. “For crimes committed against this sovereign ship, I hereby convict Johnny Minnow—hereafter to be known as Captain Ash Coxswain, Pirate Tormenter of the Cold Celtic Sea—to suffer a hindrance in the race from this ship, over that wild coast—whereon we’ll shortly make landfall—to the gentle front porch of our beach house.”
“Nooo!” cries Ash “Mercy!”
“To a counting of fifteen shall you wait, Captain Ash,” says Caius, “and if you still believe you can best Captain Corkscrew in a contest of speed, well… God be with you.”
Caius steps down from the steering deck solemnly, his hand covering his heart.
Caius passes me on his way to the foremast, and I can’t take my eyes off him. He knows every inch of this ship and can command its sails as well as Justus can. Caius can read the weather by the feel of the wind, and he knows the sea’s temper by its waves. Caius can navigate bodies of water and human bodies alike, and he knows the name of each one of my bones.
Caius visits the sails, easing their flashing and fastening them to their masts.
I pick up a length of rope, loose on the deck and hand one end to Ash, which he grips with his towel-cuffed hands. Together we knot it—or try to—like Caius is doing.
Ash watches Caius like I do, with awe in his eyes. Things are not happy for Ash at his home, and I’m glad that he’s here and can share my big brother.
After a few moments, Caius has put all the sails to bed, and Captain Justus is steering the Regulus true to her berth. We cut to the coast through a cacophony of white frothy waves—waves splashing up spray and casting to us the tang of the sun-heated shallows, with their seaweed and salt-crusted reef tips and plankton and roe.
The second the Regulus touches her pier, I shout—“Landfall.”
I strip the dishtowel handcuffs from Ash and tear over the length of the ship.
I leap the gap stretching between the bow and the beach, and—despite the chiding from Empress Adara—I’m off, pounding the hardened sand and making for a woodland a hundred meters away.
Our beach house and its front porch—the finish line—rests just on the other side of its trees.