Kage Baker: Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key

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Kage Baker Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key
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    Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key
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His name is John James—at least, that’s the name he gives to anyone asking. He’s a former pirate just back in Port Royal from the sack of Panama, and he has every intention of settling down and leading a respectable life. First, though, he must honor a promise and deliver a letter to the mistress of one of his dead comrades. But the lady is much more than she seems, and the letter turns out to contain detailed instructions for recovering a hidden fortune. It’s one thing to know where treasure may be found; finding it, and keeping it, is quite another. On his quest for a prince’s ransom John is joined by two unlikely allies: a black freedman named Sejanus Walker and a humble clerk named Winthrop Tudeley. Pirate attacks, hurricanes, shipwrecks, sharks, unearthly visitations and double-crosses follow. Especially double-crosses… Dustjacket Illustration © 2008 Edward Miller

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Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key

by Kage Baker

Fondly dedicated toMike RettinhouseTeacher. Scholar. Pirate.


The Letter

ON THE 16TH DAY of April, 1671, a man walked down Tower Street in old Port Royal and came to the Bluebell Inn. He stood in the street a while, looking up at the hanging sign. The daubed blue flowers were unmistakable, and in any case he could read the name perfectly well, having had some education. Still, he hesitated to step inside.

His name was John. To some people he was known as John James. He had been a London bricklayer’s apprentice who killed a man and was sent to the West Indies as a consequence. He had been several things since then: redleg bond slave, runaway, pirate, and most lately patriotic gentleman of fortune, for he had just returned from doing his bit sacking Panama with Captain Henry Morgan.

This very morning he had gone ashore, bidding farewell to his late commander. Morgan had returned his salute with a gloomy wave, and headed straight for the nearest tavern for a stiff drink before reporting to Governor Modyford. John would have joined him, but for his new and earnest resolve to give up the life of a buccaneer.

It wasn’t that the Panama expedition had been short on glory and adventure. It was that, when all had been honestly measured out afterward, John’s share of the loot amounted to a mere fifty pounds; and this had decided him to turn his hand to bricklaying once more.

Moreover John had seen madness and nightmares walking in the noonday sun, and left good comrades dead in the ashes of the old Spanish city. Still, there was a responsibility to discharge before he might begin his new life.

He squinted up at the sign again. He reached inside his coat, fingered a bit of paper hidden there, and sighed. At last he squared his broad shoulders and went into the Bluebell.

When his eyes had adjusted from the sea-glare to the dimness of the common room, he saw that the Bluebell was a clean place, as taverns in Port Royal went. No whores on the prowl, at this hour of the day, and no drunks asprawl at the tables. Only a sound and smell of onions frying in the kitchen, pungent, and a landlord who emerged from a back room and looked at him expectantly.

“What d’you lack, sir?” the landlord asked him. Taking a step nearer, he sized John up and grinned. “You’ve come back with our Admiral from Panama, ain’t you? Then welcome, sir! What you want is rum, my bully.”

“Thank’ee, no,” said John, narrowing his eyes. He was young, and big, and strong as an ox, with a broad simple face; but he wasn’t that green. “I carry news for a lady. Have you got a Mrs. Waverly staying here?”

The landlord’s expression changed, became unreadable. “We have. May I tell her your name, sir?”

“She won’t know it,” said John. “But it’s John James. You can tell her I’ve brought her a letter from Panama, and a private word if she’ll hear me.”

The landlord ducked his head in acknowledgement and walked into the back. John heard him climbing a staircase. John looked around again, shifting his weight from foot to foot. The floor of the common room was plaster laid down over planking, rapidly crumbling away to chalky punk in Port Royal’s climate. John made a note to come back, once he’d set himself up in business, and offer to put in good herringbone brick paving at a reasonable rate.

He looked up and saw that the landlord had reappeared silently, like a ghost. “Madam says please step upstairs, sir,” said the landlord. “First chamber on the left.”

John followed him as far as the stairs, and climbed alone. He came to the top of the stairs, meaning to knock, but the door to the first chamber on the left was wide open. A lady stood within, staring at him. Her face was deadly pale, so white John thought she might be going to faint. Her gray eyes were fixed on him; her red mouth was set and tight. She clenched a handkerchief in one hand.

“Ma’am,” John said, and bowed awkwardly.

“You must be from Tom,” she said. She had a sweet voice. Her accent was refined. She’d been Sir Thomas Blackstone’s mistress, so John supposed she’d been at court. He wondered uneasily if she was going to scream, or faint, when she heard his news. He cleared his throat and brought out the letter, with its daub of candle wax sealed by a thumbprint.

“I’m sorry to say, ma’am—” he said.

“Oh, he’s dead. He’s dead. Is that what you’ve come to tell me?”

“Yes, ma’am. He said to tell you, he died singing.”

She jerked as though he’d shot her, but her face twisted into a smile, a horrible thing to behold. “Did he?” she said. “Pray excuse me a moment.” She turned on her heel, smart as a soldier, and marched to a chair. There she sat, covering her face with her hands, and wept, wracking sobs wrenched up dry from the roots of her heart.

John fidgeted, turning the letter in his big square hands. He saw again Tom Blackstone lying on the pallet in the makeshift hospital in Panama, red-faced and sweating. Before the fever had risen, Blackstone had called for pen and paper, and written out the letter in his fine hand. He’d sealed it and handed it to John.

“She won’t be expecting the print of my ring,” he’d told John. “She pawned it herself, long since. But do give her the letter, won’t you? Mrs. Clarissa Waverly, at the Bluebell. You can remember that, can’t you? And do tell her I died singing.”

John had been enough of a tender-hearted booby to shed a tear and cry, “Oh, courage! You won’t die!” Blackstone had given him a pitying look and called for wine. Two hours later he’d rattled out his last breath.

Too vividly John remembered the stink of Blackstone’s bandages in the close foul air of the room, and the way Blackstone’s voice had broken as he’d crowed out the old song:

The serving men doe sit and whine, and thinke it long ere dinner time:
The Butler’s still out of the way, or else my Lady keeps the key,
The poor old cook, in the larder doth look, where is no goodnesse to be found
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn’d upside down.

Now his lady, having wept for him, sighed and wiped her face with her handkerchief. Some of her paint came off on it. She blew her nose, sat straight and looked up at John. John proffered Blackstone’s letter.

“From him, ma’am.”

Her mouth crumpled a bit at the edges, but she took the letter and broke the seal. She read swiftly, her gaze darting back and forth along the lines. At last she folded the letter closed, and tucked it into her sleeve. She regarded John thoughtfully.

“He said you were in his confidence, concerning his mission for Prince Rupert.”

“I was, ma’am.”

“Have you brought Prince Maurice from Panama, then?”

John reddened. “As to that, ma’am…we did find the lost prince. Got him without paying out any ransom money, neither. But he’d been a long time in a Spanish dungeon and he wasn’t, er—”

“Tom said he’d gone mad.”

“In a manner of speaking, ma’am, aye,” said John, remembering Prince Maurice’s gray moon face and blank dead eyes. He wondered whether Mistress Waverly had ever heard of zombis, and decided not to go into details.

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