Ethan Kaille is a thieftaker in Colonial Boston, scratching out a living by restoring stolen property to its rightful owners. But unlike others in his profession, Ethan relies on magical spells as well as his wits to track down thieves. Being a conjurer doesn’t make him popular with the law in Boston, so Ethan is taken aback when the sheriff seeks his help in settling a dispute between a pair of wealthy merchants and a ship’s captain who has threatened their lives. Ethan knows the captain can back up his threats with magic of his own. But there is more to this matter than the merchants have let on, and Ethan soon discovers that what he doesn’t know might actually kill him. D. B. Jackson’s first Ethan Kaille novel, Thieftaker, will be published on July 3, 2012.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Jim Frenkel.
Ethan Kaille could count on one hand the number of times in recent years he had refused an ale in favor of some stronger spirit. He rarely had enough coin for anything more than the cheap ales that came out of Boston’s local breweries, and even when he did, he usually preferred the pale ales of Kent to whiskey or rum. But December had brought gray skies and frigid winds to the New England colonies, and even the fine fish chowder served here in the Dowsing Rod, a tavern on Sudbury Street, wasn’t enough to ward off the chill.
With a cup of hot rum warming his hands, however, and several sips of the toddy already heating his belly, Ethan could convince himself that winter’s advance had been slowed, at least for the evening.
Most of the tavern’s patrons sat or stood in a tight arc around the hearth, where a bright fire blazed. They laughed and told stories; a few sang songs like “Ye Good Fellows All” and “Preach Not to Me Your Musty Rules.” Ethan, though, kept to himself. A few of the others might have welcomed him, but most knew him to be a convict and thought of him as a troublemaker and an unrepentant mutineer. A few might even have known that he was a conjurer.
On the other hand, the tavern’s owner, a young widow named Kannice Lester, had lately taken an interest in him, and he in her. As he sat watching the men by the fire and chuckling to himself at their poor singing, Kannice brought him a second bowl of chowder. He hadn’t asked for it.
“I thought you might enjoy a bit more,” she said, placing it in front of him. “What with the others hogging the fire and all.”
She tucked a strand of auburn hair behind her ear and gestured at the empty chair opposite his. “May I sit for a moment?”
He grinned at that. “I believe it’s your tavern, isn’t it?”
“Aye, it is.” She sat, rested an elbow on the table and her chin in her palm. “You’re an odd man, Ethan Kaille.”
She nodded. “You keep apart from the others, as if you don’t want any company. Yet you come in here night after night, when you could just as easily be alone, which is what you seem to prefer.”
He leaned forward, his gaze holding hers. Her eyes were periwinkle blue, and when she smiled a small crease dimpled her cheek, just to the right of her lips.
“Maybe I don’t want their company,” he said, nodding toward the fire. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want any company at all.”
Her smile deepened, but she didn’t blush. Thinking about it, he wasn’t sure he had ever seen her blush. He liked that about her.
“Well, if I hear of anyone who’s also looking for company, I’ll be sure to point them in your direction.”
Ethan chuckled. “Thank you.”
She pushed back from his table and stood. “Let me know when you’re ready for another rum.”
Before she could turn away, the tavern door opened, and three men entered, their woolen greatcoats and tricorn hats coated with a fine dusting of snow. Ethan didn’t recognize two of the men. The third he would have known anywhere: Stephen Greenleaf, sheriff of Suffolk County.
Greenleaf was an imposing man, tall, solidly built. He commanded no army, no militia, no constabulary force of any kind. Yet he managed to keep some semblance of peace here in Boston. Usually such an achievement would have been enough to earn Ethan’s respect, perhaps even his friendship. But in the two years since Ethan had established himself as one of the city’s leading thieftakers, the sheriff had made it clear to anyone else who would listen that he neither trusted Ethan nor saw him as a legitimate rival to Sephira Pryce, Boston’s most famous and successful thieftaker. In private, Greenleaf had told Ethan that he remembered all too well the Ruby Blade mutiny and Ethan’s role in it. He also recalled the rumors of “witchery” that circulated at the time of Ethan’s conviction.
“I think what they say about you is true, Kaille,” the sheriff had told him one night this past spring, after Ethan had managed to retrieve gems stolen from the wife of one of Boston’s shipbuilders. “I think you are a witch. I can’t prove it, yet. But at the first hint of devilry, I’ll have you in shackles so fast you won’t even know what happened.”
Ethan walked away from the man, but not before asking Greenleaf, in as light a tone as he could muster, “But Sheriff, if I am a witch, what makes you think that shackles can hold me?”
Ethan had enjoyed the moment, but his remark served only to make the sheriff more suspicious of him. He had enough trouble trying to compete with Pryce and her toughs, who always seemed to be honing in on his jobs; the last thing he needed was Greenleaf dogging his every step. The truth was that Ethan relied on his spellmaking—his “witchery”—to help him recover stolen goods that other thieftakers couldn’t.
He regarded the sheriff’s appearance here in the Dowsing Rod as an ill omen.
Still standing by the door, Greenleaf spotted Ethan, muttered something to his companions, and strode toward Ethan’s table. Kannice glanced quickly at Ethan before placing herself directly in the sheriff’s path.
Small and willowy, she looked like a child beside him. Still, her voice remained steady as she said, “Good evening Sheriff Greenleaf. Care for a bowl of chowder? Or perhaps a flip and some oysters?”
“No,” he said, sounding impatient. “I’ve come for a word with Kaille.”
“Well, he’s eating.”
Ethan suppressed a grin.
“Fine then. Chowder and an ale.”
“And you gentlemen?” Kannice asked the sheriff’s companions.
Both men had unbuttoned their coats, revealing silk shirts and woolen suits with matching jackets, waistcoats, and breeches—ditto suits, as many in Boston called them. Ethan guessed that they were merchants.
One of the men shook his head in response to Kannice’s question. “Nothing for me.”
The other man, the more portly of the two, said, “I think I’ll have a brandy, and some of that stew might warm me up.”
“Yes, sir.” Kannice cast another quick look Ethan’s way, winked once, then walked behind the bar and into the Dowser’s kitchen.
Greenleaf approached Ethan’s table, the merchants in tow. “May we join you, Mister Kaille?”
“Of course,” Ethan said without enthusiasm.
The portly man lowered himself into the chair in which Kannice had been sitting and leaned his walking cane against the table. Greenleaf and the other man pulled over chairs from a nearby table and sat as well.
“This is Deron Forrs,” Greenleaf said, indicating the portly man. “And this is Isaac Keller.” The sheriff nodded toward Ethan. “Ethan Kaille, gentlemen.”
Ethan shook hands with both men.
“Mister Kaille is the thieftaker I’ve been telling you about. I believe he may be able to help you with your . . . your problem.”
Forrs and Keller shared a look. After a brief silence, Forrs turned to Ethan.
“I’m a merchant, Mister Kaille. Both of us are. I’m not a wealthy man—nor is Mister Keller—but neither of us wants for much. I trade in coal from Louisburg and Newcastle, and in wood from Penobscot. As you can imagine, this time of year I’m reasonably busy. Mister Keller deals in ironware from Norfolk and Plymouth—axes, tools, locks, that sort of thing.”
He started to say more, then broke off as Kannice and Kelf Fingarin, her massive barman, brought them their food and drinks. When they had returned to the bar, Forrs continued.
“For some time we did business with a merchant captain named Nathaniel Ramsey. He owned a vessel, the Muirenn, and made a good living for himself sailing the waters of New England.”
“You say you did business with him,” Ethan said. “You don’t anymore?”
The merchant’s eyes flicked toward Keller.
“Ramsey died several months ago,” Keller said. “His son, Nate Ramsey, now captains the Muirenn.”
“He’s not the sailor his father was,” Forrs added. “Nor the businessman.”
Ethan shifted in his chair. “Forgive me for interrupting, gentlemen, but I know little about commerce. I’m a thieftaker; I recover stolen items for a fee. Has one of you been robbed?”
“No,” Forrs said. “Nothing like that. But I do believe that you can help us. You see, before Nathaniel died, he accused Mister Keller and me of stealing from him, a charge that his son has repeated in the months since. Indeed, he has gone so far as to threaten us if we don’t make restitution.”
“What do they believe you stole?”
“Money,” Keller said. “Nathaniel believed that we owed him money for several transactions. We, of course, know that we didn’t. But he insisted that we had cheated him, and after his death his son repeated these slanders. Now, as Mister Forrs has said, he has made threats against us.”
Ethan looked at Greenleaf and found that the sheriff was already watching him, his spoon poised over the bowl before him.
“I’m afraid I still don’t see how I can help you,” Ethan told the merchants. “Your dispute with the Ramseys is over a matter of trade. I concern myself with theft and crimes of the street, not transactions on the wharves.”
Forrs frowned. “Sheriff Greenleaf, you led us to—”
“Tell him the rest,” Greenleaf said.
Neither of the merchants said a word.
“What does he mean?” Ethan asked.
Forrs removed a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his upper lip. “There were rumors about Nathaniel. Some said that he could . . . do things. A few went so far as to say that he engaged in witchcraft.”
Ethan sat back in his chair and looked once more at the sheriff. Greenleaf returned his gaze steadily. Of course. This matter had nothing to do thieftaking and everything to do with the fact that Ethan was a conjurer.
“I take it the son is a speller as well,” Ethan said.
Keller nodded. “He’s never admitted it in so many words, but his threats to us have hinted at such things. He speaks of burning us alive, of killing us in our sleep, of inflicting all manner of violence upon us. And he claims there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. ‘No distance is too great,’ he says. ‘No lock is too strong, no walls too thick. No matter where you hide, I can reach you.’ ” Keller shuddered visibly. “I’m not easily cowed, Mister Kaille. But I’m not above admitting that this man frightens me.”
Ethan faced Greenleaf once more. “And what made you think that I could help these men?”
Greenleaf hesitated. “I’ve heard tales about you, too, Kaille,” he finally said, talking around the chunk of fish he’d been chewing. “There are those who say you know something of the dark arts, and of those who dabble in them. I thought that perhaps you could make some inquiries.”
Ethan had half a mind to refuse. After two years of harrying him, of threatening again and again to have him hanged as a witch, the sheriff now had the nerve to come here, hat in hand, asking for help of this sort? He wanted to laugh at the man, drink the rest of his rum, and leave.
It occurred to him, though, that by helping the merchants he would be putting the sheriff in his debt. Plus, he would be paid. As much as he disliked Greenleaf, he was able to recognize a profitable business opportunity when it presented itself.
“I take it, Sheriff, that no one involved in this inquiry will have anything to fear from you, even if that person engages in spellmaking on the merchants’ behalf.”
Greenleaf’s mouth twitched, but he nodded. “I give you my word.”
Ethan stifled a grin. The merchants must have paid Greenleaf for his trouble, but still, Ethan could see that it galled the man to come to him in this way. All the more reason to take the job.
“As I’ve told you,” Ethan said to the merchants, “this isn’t the sort of work I usually do. But under the circumstances, I might be of service. Exactly what is it you would like me to do?”
“Find out what he wants from us,” Forrs said. “We’ve asked him how we can settle this matter to our mutual satisfaction, but the pup simply responds with more threats. We want you to convince him that we are now under your protection, and that any attempt to do us harm will not only fail, but will also result in injury to himself.” The merchant paused, his brow creasing. “Nathaniel was not a well man at the end. I believe he imagined wrongs and twisted common business practices into foul offenses. In his conversations with his son he must have portrayed Mister Keller and me as the worst sort of villains.”
“Now I won’t allow myself to be held hostage to the delusions of an ill man, but I’m also not insensitive to the young man’s loss. I’m willing to pay a reasonable sum if doing so will end this ugliness.”
“And you’d like me to convey this message to Captain Ramsey as well.”
“Precisely. You are authorized to negotiate on our behalf, in consultation with the two of us, of course.” Forrs produced a leather pouch from his coat pocket and placed it on the table in front of Ethan. The pouch’s contents jangled softly. “That is ten pounds. When this matter is concluded and the younger Ramsey has forsworn his misplaced vengeance, you’ll receive fifteen more. Is that satisfactory?”
Ethan picked up the pouch, heard the muffled ring of the coins, felt their heft. After a few seconds he slipped the pouch into his pocket. “Yes, it is,” he said. “Do you know if the Muirenn is currently in port?”
“She docked at Wentworth’s Wharf this afternoon,” Forrs said.
“Very well. I’ll speak with Captain Ramsey first thing tomorrow morning.”
For the first time since their conversation began, Forrs smiled. Keller merely nodded, but he looked relieved as well.
The two merchants pushed back from the table, their chairs scraping on the wooden floor. Standing, Forrs extended his hand to Ethan.
“Thank you, Mister Kaille.”
Ethan shook hands with each of the men in turn. “I’ll let you know as soon as I have news. Where can I find you?”
“We both have warehouses on Tileston’s Wharf,” Forrs said. “We’re there most days.”
“Very well. I expect you’ll hear from me soon.”
Greenleaf had stood as well, but he gave no indication that he was ready to leave. Both men nodded to him.
“Gentlemen,” he said, nodding in return.
Forrs and Keller left the tavern.
Ethan eyed the sheriff briefly before sitting once more. Greenleaf lowered himself into his chair and took another spoonful of chowder.
“So you’ll threaten to have me hanged as a witch,” Ethan said. “But when it suits your needs you’ll have me use whatever powers you believe I possess on behalf of your wealthy friends.”
The sheriff considered this for a moment, then nodded. “Yes,” he said, and spooned more stew into his mouth.
Ethan couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, at least you’re honest about it.” Sobering, he asked, “Do you believe Nate Ramsey is a speller?”
“I don’t know. If I could determine such things for certain, you probably would have swung years ago.” Greenleaf flashed a grin. “How’s that for honesty?”
Ethan’s laugh this time was drier. He finished his toddy and stood. “I think I’d best be going.”
“If he is a speller,” Greenleaf said, looking up at him, “will you do as Forrs and Keller have asked?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
The sheriff shrugged. “I’m just wondering if perhaps your loyalty lies more with your own kind than with a couple of merchants.”
“I’m loyal to my family and friends,” Ethan said. “As for the rest, I’m a businessman, just like Forrs and Keller. They paid me to do a job, so that’s what I’ll do. Goodnight, Sheriff.”
Greenleaf said nothing, but reached for his ale.
Ethan took his greatcoat off the back of his chair and strode toward the door. As he passed the bar, he noticed Kannice watching him from the entrance to the kitchen. He slowed and sketched a small bow, drawing a dimpled smile. Shrugging on his coat, he pulled the door open and stepped out into the wintry air.
The distance from the Dowsing Rod, on the edge of the West End, to his room above Dall’s Cooperage on Cooper’s Alley, in the heart of the South End, was barely more than a half mile. But with a hard wind whipping through the streets of Boston and scything through his coat and clothing, it seemed much farther. For nearly fifteen years, Ethan had walked with a limp, the result of an injury he suffered during his imprisonment and forced labor on a sugar plantation in Barbados. These raw New England nights always made the pain in his leg worse.
Upon reaching his room, he found that the fire in his stove had long since burned itself out, and the water sitting in a cast-iron pot atop the stove had frozen solid. Being a conjurer had its advantages, though, not least among them the ease with which he could start a fire on a cold night in December. Ethan piled fresh wood in the stove. Then he pulled his knife from the sheath on his belt, pushed up his sleeve, and cut his forearm.
“Ignis ex cruore evocatus,” he said in Latin. Fire, conjured from blood.
Power thrummed in the floor and walls as if God himself had plucked a harp string. At the same time, a ghostly figure appeared in the room just beside the stove. He was tall, dour; he was dressed in chain mail and a tabard bearing the three lions of Britain’s medieval kings. His short hair and trim beard might have been white had he not glowed with a deep russet hue, the color of a rising autumn moon. Ethan thought it likely that this was the shade of one of his ancient ancestors on his mother’s side. The spirit, who appeared each time Ethan conjured, enabling him to draw upon the power dwelling between the living world and the realm of the dead, had always reminded Ethan of Reginald, his mother’s splenetic brother. So, Ethan called him Uncle Reg.
The ghost gave him a disapproving look, as if offended at being disturbed for the mere lighting of a stove.
“It’s cold,” Ethan said, trying not to sound defensive, knowing that he failed.
Reg continued to scowl as he faded from view.
The room was small, but it warmed slowly, and even with two woolen blankets wrapped around him, Ethan lay awake for a long time.
He didn’t know of many conjurers living here in Boston: Janna Windcatcher ran a small tavern on the Neck; Old Gavin Black lived in the North End and claimed to have given up spellmaking years ago. Aside from them, however, and one or two others whom he didn’t know by name, there was no one.
He didn’t necessarily believe that Ramsey’s son could cast; false rumors of witchery were as old as the Province of Massachusetts Bay itself. But a part of him hoped that in this case the whispers would prove true, and that he would convince Ramsey to cease making threats against the merchants. He hadn’t been able to speak of spellmaking with another conjurer since leaving his mother and sister in Bristol.
Ethan slept poorly, rousing himself several times to put more wood in the stove. When at last daylight began to seep into his room around the edges of the shuttered windows, he climbed out of bed, washed his face with the water on his stove, and dressed.
After a quick breakfast—hard cheese and the last of the bread he had bought at Faneuil Hall the day before—he set out for Wentworth’s Wharf. Already wharfmen and laborers crowded the cobblestone lanes along the South End waterfront, all of them bundled in coats and wearing woolen Monmouth caps. The wind had died down and the skies had cleared to a crisp, bright blue, but the air remained frigid. As Ethan walked, his breath billowed before him in swirling clouds of vapor.
Wentworth’s Wharf jutted out into the calm waters of Boston Harbor just north of the Town Dock. It was shorter by far than Long Wharf and even Hancock’s Wharf, but it was one of the longer piers on the waterfront. Ethan walked the length of it and then nearly all the way back to Ann Street before finally spotting the Muirenn tied to a pair of bollards between two larger ships. She was a pink, small but well cared for. Her gangplank was up and she sat heavy in the water, no doubt still laden with cargo. Ethan approached the vessel, which at first glance appeared to be deserted.
“Ahoy, the Muirenn!” he called.
At first, no one answered, and he wondered if perhaps all the crew, including her captain, had spent the night in the city. But then he heard someone moving belowdecks and a moment later a faint call of “Ahoy!”
A moment later, a man appeared at the rails amidships. He was tall and spear thin, with a long face darkened by an unkempt beard. He wore only a silk shirt and breeches, but appeared unaffected by the cold.
“What can I do for ya, friend?” he asked.
“I’m looking for Captain Ramsey.”
The man grinned, exposing crooked, yellow teeth. “That would be me. And you are?”
“My name is Ethan Kaille. I’m a thieftaker.”
Ramsey’s grin faded and the look in his pale eyes turned flinty. “I don’ peddle stolen goods, thieftaker. I never have. Anyone who says different is lyin’ ”
“I believe you,” Ethan said.
“An’ yet ya’re here.”
“I’m wondering if I can have a word with you in private, Captain.”
Ramsey regarded him briefly, then glanced up and down the wharf, opening his arms wide. “There’s no one here. I think this is private enough.”
“Very well. I was hired by two men who claim to know you. Merchants. They say you’ve been threatening them.”
This time, the captain’s smile was forced and sour. “I should’ve known,” he said. “Forrs an’ Keller.”
“Why would they hire a thieftaker? I didn’ steal from them.”
“No, but as I say, you’ve been making threats.”
“Ya’re damn right I have! I’ll be followin’ through on them before long.” He paused, staring at Ethan again. “Kaille was it?”
“Yes, sir. Ethan Kaille.”
“You should go, Mister Kaille. This don’ concern you. An’ there’s nothin’ you can do t’ stop me.”
He walked away from the rails.
“Are you a speller, Captain Ramsey?” Ethan called after him.
Ramsey stopped, turned slowly to face him again.
“I think ya know I am,” he said. “An’ I’ll wager every shilling I’ve got left that ya’re one, too. Tha’s why they hired ya, isn’ it? They’re afraid of what I’ll do t’ them, so they’ve hired a speller for protection. Isn’ tha’ right?”
“Well, this is another matter then,” Ramsey said. He crossed back to the rails and lowered the gangplank. Ethan took hold of it from below and together they set it in place.
“Ya can board, Kaille,” Ramsey said before disappearing from view.
Ethan ascended the plank and stepped onto the ship, only to find the decks empty. Wary, he pulled his knife from his belt and pushed up his sleeve. A moment later, though, Ramsey emerged from the hold bearing a bottle of what appeared to be Madeira wine and two pewter cups.
“I haven’ much t’ eat,” he said. “But I can at least offer ya a bit o’ wine.” He eyed Ethan’s knife. “Put that away ’fore someone gets hurt.” He perched on the rail and waved Ethan over.
Ethan sat beside him and took an offered cup. Ramsey poured a bit of wine into it and then poured substantially more into his own.
“Wha’ shall we drink to?” he asked. Before Ethan could respond, he said, “How ’bout my father?”
“Of course,” Ethan said.
The captain raised his cup. “T’ Captain Nathaniel Ramsey. May a steady wind ever fill his sails.”
“To Nathaniel Ramsey,” Ethan repeated, and sipped his wine.
“I don’ imagine Forrs an’ Keller told you much ’bout him,” Ramsey said, after nearly draining his cup. “They would’ve said tha’ he accused ’em o’ stealin’ from him, a charge they deny, o’ course. It seems they also told ya he was a speller. An’ I would hazard a guess tha’ they made him sound a bit mad. Prob’ly they say th’ same ’bout me.”
Ethan gazed into his cup. “They never said that he was mad. They do feel that he might have mistaken their motives at the end and led you to believe—”
“Did they tell ya how he died?” Ramsey asked.
“He hanged himself.” Ramsey pointed up at the starboard side of the main yard. “Right there.”
Ethan said nothing.
“He pro’bly was mad at th’ end. My mum died fourteen years ago, an’ he never really got over that. But he was all right as long as he could sail an’ turn some profit from his runs up an’ down th’ coast. Forrs an’ Keller had him tradin’ with th’ French, buyin’ molasses from Martinique an’ sellin’ it t’ them at a cut rate so they could turn ’round an’ sell it at a handsome profit t’ rum distillers here in Boston an’ over in Medford. They paid him less an’ less, an’ when he complained, they threatened t’ turn him over t’ th’ customs boys. By th’ end, he was barely makin’ enough t’ cover his costs an’ pay his crew.”
“Why didn’t he just stop doing business with them?”
Ramsay’s smile was fleeting, bitter. “He did. Tha’s why he killed himself. He told ’em he wouldn’ run th’ route anymore, an’ that if they wanted t’ go t’ customs, they could. He’d tell th’ custom boys everythin’. So Forrs an’ Keller told him tha’ they knew he was a witch, an’ that I was, too. An’ they said that unless he wanted both of us t’ swing, he’d ‘get back on his damned ship an’ get his arse down to Martinique.’ ” He looked at Ethan and their eyes locked. “Their words,” he said. “Not mine.”
Ethan didn’t know what to say. He tore his gaze away and stared out over the sunlit waters of the harbor.
“Ya don’ believe me.”
Actually, Ethan did believe him. Every word. But he had taken the merchants’ money. He had promised them that he would convince Ramsey to renounce his claim to vengeance, or, failing that, that he would guard them from his spells.
“It’s not a matter of what I believe,” he said. “I told Forrs and Keller that I’d protect them, and in return for that promise they gave me a good bit of coin.”
“Do ya do that often, Kaille? Take money in exchange for promises ya can’t keep?”
Ethan heard the goad in Ramsey’s question and chose to ignore it.
“You’ve frightened them,” he said instead. “They’re terrified of what you might do. I know it’s small compensation, but maybe you can take some satisfaction in that.”
Ramsey poured himself more wine. “I can. I like th’ idea of them two bein’ scared. I’m jus’ not willin’ t’ stop there.”
“They’ll pay you. They sent me to negotiate in their stead. You can name your price.”
“Ya mean I can take th’ money tha’ should o’ been my father’s in th’ first place?”
Ethan frowned. “I have no interest in fighting for these men, Ramsey. But to be absolutely clear, my mistake was taking money from men who couldn’t be trusted. I made no promises that I couldn’t keep.”
The captain had raised his cup to his lips once more, but he hesitated now, then lowered it, all the while staring hard at Ethan. “Ya think ya’re good enough with spells t’ stop me from killin’ them?”
“I don’t want it to come to that.”
“Then ya should return their money, ’cause it’s goin’ to.”
Ethan drank the rest of his wine, set the cup on the gunwale, and stood. He held out his hand to Ramsey. After a moment, the young man gripped it.
“You have my deepest condolences, Captain.”
“I live on Cooper’s Alley, above Dall’s Cooperage, and if I’m not there, you can leave word for me at the Dowsing Rod on Sudbury Street. Just in case you change your mind.”
Ethan stepped onto the gangplank and walked back down to the wharf.
He turned. Ramsey stood at the rails again.
“Ya should ask yarself if men like Forrs an’ Keller are really worth dyin’ for.”
“And you should do the same,” Ethan said.
A faint smile touched the captain’s lips. He raised his cup once more, as if in salute. Then he drained it and walked away from the rails.
Reluctantly, Ethan walked back to Ann Street and followed the waterfront southward past Fort Hill and the South Battery, to Tileston’s Wharf. There a wharfman who was loading barrels of wine on to a cart pointed him to Keller’s warehouse.
Ethan found the merchant inside in a small office in the back of the building, standing before a writing desk and poring over a ledger.
At the scrape of Ethan’s shoe on the office floor, Keller glanced back over his shoulder.
“Yes, what is it?” An instant later, his eyes widened in recognition. “Mister Kaille! Come in, come in!” His tone was welcoming, but he quickly closed the ledger and shut and locked the desk.
“Good morning, sir.”
“You have news for us?” the man asked. Before Ethan could say anything, the merchant’s brow creased. “Deron should be here.” He stepped past Ethan to the office doorway and beckoned to a worker. “Go get Mister Forrs. Tell him Kaille is here.”
The laborer hurried off.
Turning back to Ethan, Keller smiled weakly. “He shouldn’t be long.”
“Did you find him? Have you spoken to Nathaniel’s son?”
“Yes, sir, I have.”
“And has he agreed to put an end to these threats?”
Ethan weighed the question briefly. “I think you’re right, sir. We should wait for Mister Forrs.”
“Yes, of course.” Keller smiled again, but he seemed not to know what to do with himself.
“Don’t let me keep you from your work, sir,” Ethan said.
“Yes. Thank you.”
The merchant walked stiffly back to his desk, opened it, and pulled out the ledger he had been studying when Ethan arrived. Ethan lingered by the doorway, watching for the laborer and Forrs. Sooner than he might have expected, he spotted them striding toward the office, the merchant leaning on his cane but keeping pace with the laborer.
Reaching Keller’s office, Forrs strode past Ethan to the middle of the room, looked first at Keller, then at Ethan, and said, “Well, what’s happened?”
“He talked to Nathaniel’s boy,” Keller said.
“And?” Forrs asked. “Out with it, Mister Kaille.”
“Why didn’t you tell me how Captain Ramsey the elder died?” Ethan asked, eyeing both men. “That was a pertinent bit of information, don’t you think?”
“We told you Nathaniel hadn’t been well,” Forrs said, “that he was imagining things.”
Ethan shook his head. “That’s not the same.”
Forrs waved his hand impatiently. “Fine. We should have told you. Now, what did the boy say? Did you tell him we’d pay to end this matter?”
“He doesn’t want your money,” Ethan said. “And he remains determined to have his revenge.”
The color fled Keller’s cheeks.
Forrs rapped his cane on the floor and muttered, “Damn.” Glaring at Ethan he said, “We expected more of you, Mister Kaille. You explained to him that you would be guarding us, that his witchery would be met by yours?”
“I told him that the two of you were under my protection.” Ethan smiled faintly, much as Ramsey had aboard the Muirenn. “He didn’t seem to be impressed.”
“So, he is a witch,” Keller said. “You’re certain of this?”
It was all Ethan could do not to laugh at the man. Witches were the stuff of legend, of nightmare. Witchery was a word used by preachers to frighten their flocks. “He’s a conjurer,” Ethan said, using the word spellers preferred. “Just as am I. And like me, he’s confident in his abilities.”
“So what do we do now?” Keller asked, his voice unsteady.
Ethan thought back to his encounter with Ramsey. “He still has cargo in his hold. I expect he’ll spend the day offloading his goods and preparing to sail. I’ll keep an eye on him and his ship, and I won’t let him get near you.”
Forrs nodded curtly. “See that you don’t.”
Ethan nodded to both men, left the warehouse, and started back toward Wentworth’s Wharf. His leg was starting to hurt, his limp growing more pronounced with every step. Before reaching the wharf, he turned into a narrow lane and, after making certain that no one could see him, drew his blade and bared his forearm. Ramsey would sense a conjuring, but at this distance he wouldn’t know what kind of spell Ethan had cast.
Cutting himself, he whispered, “Velamentum ex cruore evocatum.” Concealment, conjured from blood. Power pulsed in the cobblestones and the walls of nearby buildings. Reg winked into view beside him, eyeing him avidly. It sometimes seemed to Ethan that the old ghost could sense a coming battle the way a sea captain might smell a storm riding a freshening breeze.
“Can you feel Ramsey’s power?” Ethan asked the shade.
“Is he as skilled as I am?”
The old warrior hesitated, then nodded again.
“Great,” Ethan said. “Just what I wanted to hear.”
Reg grinned at that before fading from view.
Ethan left the alley and resumed his walk to the wharf. His concealment spell rendered him essentially invisible to the men and women walking the streets of Boston. A truly powerful conjurer might see through the charm, but Ethan didn’t believe that Ramsey could.
As he neared the wharf, he slowed, searching for a vantage point from which he could see the Muirenn. With the vessel moored where it was, however, Ethan had little choice but to position himself beside a bollard uncomfortably close to Ramsey’s ship. He could see the young captain clearly; he could hear him shouting orders to his men. Ethan settled in for what promised to be a long, cold day.
Oddly, Ramsey remained above decks for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. At times he leaned against the rails, appearing to banter with his men. Occasionally he walked the deck, as if inspecting his crew’s work. But at no point did Ethan lose sight of him. It almost seemed that Ramsey knew he was being watched, and that he wished to make himself as easy to find as possible. Ethan wondered if the captain, upon sensing Ethan’s conjuring earlier in the day, had guessed correctly at what sort of spell he had cast and knew that he was near.
By late afternoon, Ethan could see that most of the Muirenn’s cargo had been offloaded. The ship rode much higher in the harbor waters, and most of her crew had settled themselves on the rails. Ramsey still stood in plain view and now he said something to his men that drew a cheer.
An instant later, Ethan felt a pulse of conjuring power. A spinning wheel of light appeared directly above the ship, throwing off sparks of gold and blue, orange and green, silver and red. At the same time, a ghostly figure appeared beside Ramsey. He was stooped, a man even older than Uncle Reg. Like Ethan’s spirit guide, this figure glowed, though with a shade of deep aqua that reminded Ethan of the sea on a calm summer morning.
Ramsey’s crew paid no attention to the ghost; unless they too were conjurers, they couldn’t see him. But they cheered and whistled at the wheel of light. Apparently they knew their captain was a speller, and minded not at all.
The captain left the rail and walked to the center of the deck. Ethan could barely see him, though he did see someone brandish a knife and hold it high overhead so that the blade gleamed in the late afternoon sun. Then the blade descended and Ethan felt the thrum of a second spell in the ground beneath his feet. Jets of fire burst from the ship, drawing frightened stares from men and women walking on the street near the wharf. The first conjuring had been an illusion spell, a weak casting conjured from the air or from water. But even from a distance, Ethan felt the heat of these flames and knew that this had been a blood conjuring.
Two more spells surged through the ground in quick succession; the air around Ethan seemed alive with the power of Ramsey’s spells. Bright flames arced across the bow of the Muirenn, and another brilliant spinning light appeared over the ship, grander and more magnificent than the first.
The Muirenn’s crew let out shouts of approval and began to sing “Row Well Ye Mariners,” their voices loud and jovial, if somewhat off key.
They were halfway through the second verse when Ethan realized that he no longer saw any sign of Ramsey.
Ethan took a step toward the ship, rose onto his tiptoes. He could see several members of the crew, but not the captain.
“Damn!” he said, louder than he should have given that he was still concealed. Fortunately the wharf was nearly deserted.
Ramsey couldn’t have gone far. Of that much Ethan was sure. But too late he realized that the spells the captain had cast for his crew’s amusement might also have served to mask a concealment spell of his own. Ethan had felt several spells resonate through the wharf—how many had there been? And how many flames had he seen?
He ran up the dock to Ann Street and again threaded his way through the lanes and avenues of Cornhill and the South End, desperate now to reach Tileston’s Wharf. Ramsey had a head start on him, and he wasn’t hobbled by a bad leg.
Ethan had just turned onto Flounder Lane when the first pulse of conjuring power reached him. Fearing that he was already too late, he sprinted onto the wharf and toward Keller’s warehouse, gritting his teeth against the agony in his leg and feeling cold sweat on his face.
Nearing the warehouse, he saw laborers streaming out the door, all of them wild-eyed, frantic.
Ethan shoved past them, not caring that they couldn’t see him, that they wouldn’t know who or what had touched them. Once inside, he raced toward Keller’s office. Well before he reached it he halted. Ramsey’s spirit guide glowed brightly in the shadows. The old ghost looked Ethan’s way, seeming to see right through his concealment spell.
Power hummed in the floors and walls. Ramsey materialized just beside his ghost, knife in hand, his sleeve still pushed up to reveal his scarred forearm.
Ethan saw no sign of Keller.
“Are ya goin’ t’ show yarself, Kaille, or do ya jus’ plan t’ watch, th’ way ya watched my ship all day?”
Ethan hesitated, then pulled out his knife and cut himself. Fini velamentum ex cruore evocatum, he recited to himself. End concealment, conjured from blood.
Power pulsed. Reg appeared beside him and immediately bared his teeth at the other ghost. Ethan held his knife ready and walked forward cautiously, his gaze fixed on the young captain. When he reached the door to Keller’s office, he chanced a quick glance inside. The merchant was still alive. He stood at his writing desk, hands at his side, sweat on his pallid face.
“I haven’ killed him yet, if that’s what ya’re wonderin’.”
“You were supposed to keep him away from me, Kaille!” Keller said. “Not chase him right into my warehouse.”
Ramsey glowered at the man. “Shut yar mouth.” To Ethan he said, “Ya shouldn’ ’ave come. I know they’ve paid ya, bu’ this isn’ yar concern.”
“I told you that I wouldn’t let you kill them,” Ethan said, positioning himself directly in front of Keller’s door. “I understand that you want vengeance. I would too, if I was in your place. But you won’t be killing anyone this evening.”
The captain smiled and gave a small shake of his head. For the span of a single heartbeat neither he nor Ethan moved. And then, at the same time, they slashed at their forearms and shouted spells.
“Tegimen! Ex cruore evocatum!” Ethan said. Warding! Conjured from blood!
The building trembled with the power of their conjurings.
Ethan didn’t hear what Ramsey said, but the effect was unmistakable. Fire. It flew from the captain’s hand, hissing like some nightmare beast, and hammered at Ethan, staggering him, seeming to sear his flesh.
Fire spread to the walls of the warehouse, but Ethan was unhurt, and so was the merchant cowering behind him. The warding had held.
Ramsey drew blood again; so did Ethan. Ethan warded himself again. But this time the captain didn’t direct his fire spell at him or at Keller. Instead he threw it at those walls that weren’t yet ablaze.
“I don’t care how he dies!” the man shouted over the growing roar of the flames. “And I don’t care if I die with him!”
Smoke had started to fill the building. The heat was already growing unbearable.
Ethan cut himself again. “Discuti ex cruore evocatus!” Shatter, conjured from blood!
Ramsey howled and collapsed to the floor, clutching his leg. Ethan hadn’t wanted to hurt him, but he wasn’t about to let the fool bring down the building around them.
“Come on!” he called to Keller.
He strode to where the captain lay and stooped to lift him. Ramsey had already cut himself again.
“Ignis ex cruore evocatus,” he heard the man say through gritted teeth. Fire, conjured from blood.
Instantly, Ethan’s coat was ablaze, flames licking at his face and neck. He dropped to the floor, rolled from side to side trying to put out the fire.
He heard the captain say something else, felt power in the warehouse floor. But by the time his coat was no longer burning it was too late for him to save Keller. Whatever spell Ramsey had used—perhaps a shattering spell directed at the merchant’s neck—appeared to have killed the man instantly. Ethan climbed to his feet, his eyes watering, his lungs burning. Ramsey stared up at him, his knife held ready. Ethan sheathed his own blade, lifted the captain to his feet, and then slung the man over his shoulder.
They barely made it out of the warehouse before a section of the roof collapsed. A bucket brigade had already formed, with men scooping water out of the harbor. But they didn’t even attempt to quell the blaze, choosing instead to douse the adjacent buildings and keep the flames from spreading.
“Was there anyone else inside?” a man asked as Ethan lowered Ramsey to the ground.
“Isaac Keller,” Ethan said. “We tried to reach him, but it was too late.”
The man nodded, his expression grim. He went back to helping with the buckets.
“Forrs would’ve told ya t’ let me die,” Ramsey said quietly.
“Aye, but ten pounds and a promise of more only buys so much.”
Ramsey grinned. “I like ya, Kaille. I think we could’ve been friends. I’m sorry tha’ won’ be possible.”
Ethan opened his mouth to respond; he never got the chance. With the fire raging inside the warehouse and Keller dead, it never occurred to Ethan to wonder what had become of Ramsey’s blade. As it turned out, it was still in the captain’s hand.
Ramsey slashed at his own forearm, the steel flashing in the golden light of the setting sun. Ethan’s hand flew to the hilt of his knife, but he knew that he couldn’t possibly ward himself in time.
“Dormite ex cruore evocatum,” he heard Ramsey say. Slumber, conjured from blood.
“Ramsey, no . . .” But already he was falling, sleep taking him.
“Kaille. Kaille, get up.”
The voice seemed to reach Ethan from far off. The hard toe of the boot digging insistently into his side felt decidedly closer.
He opened his eyes to a sky filled with bright stars. A bulky figure loomed over him. Sitting up, he felt his world pitch and roll, as if he were at sea in the midst of a storm. He squeezed his eyes shut for several seconds. When he opened them again, he felt marginally better.
He squinted up at the man standing beside him.
“Is that you, Sheriff?”
“Aye,” Greenleaf said. “Tell me what happened.”
Ethan climbed to his feet, swayed slightly. “Ramsey put me to sleep with a spell. He had already killed Keller and burnt his warehouse to the ground.”
“Well, he managed to kill Forrs, too. It looks like he snapped the man’s neck.”
Ethan closed his eyes again, exhaled heavily. “I made an utter mess of this.”
“That you did.”
“Where is Ramsey now?”
The sheriff appeared as little more than a shadow against the night sky, but Ethan saw him nod toward the harbor.
“He’s put out to sea. By the time I knew enough to look for him, the Muirenn had left Wentworth’s Wharf. I doubt we’ll see him in Boston again.” He turned to Ethan. “And that leaves me with a problem. Two merchants are dead, and I have no one to hold accountable.”
“My guess is that both of them were killed with witchery. And you’re a witch.”
“You gave me your word.”
“And you swore to protect Forrs and Keller!” Greenleaf said, his voice rising. “Do you really think their families care what I promised you?”
Greenleaf couldn’t take Ethan on his own; they both knew it. The sheriff might have been bigger and stronger, but Ethan could conjure. Still, Ethan had no desire to flee Boston and live the rest of his life as an outlaw.
“Did you know that Ramsey’s father killed himself?” he asked. “Forrs and Keller had him running French molasses, which they then sold to the local distillers. They kept lowering the price they paid him, and when he complained they threatened to have him and his son hanged as witches. They paid us both with blood money.”
“The pup tell you that?”
“Yes. And I believe him.”
The sheriff sighed. “To be honest, I believe it, too.”
“You can try to arrest me, Sheriff. But I won’t be taken easily, and we both know I have the means to fight you.”
Greenleaf said nothing.
“So what are you going to do?” Ethan asked after some time.
The sheriff shrugged. “There isn’t much I can do. You know as well as I do, Kaille: Smugglers like Forrs and Keller get killed all the time without a murderer being found. It’s the risk they take.”
Ethan grinned. “Thank you.”
“I don’t expect we’ll ever have need to speak of this again.”
“Good. Go home, Kaille.”
Ethan walked slowly from the wharf, still dazed from Ramsey’s sleeping spell. The burns on his neck and jaw ached. After walking only a block or so, he stopped in an empty lane, cut himself, and healed the raw, blistered skin as best he could. Then he continued on, though not toward home. Instead, he made his way to the Dowsing Rod.
The tavern was crowded and boisterous when he arrived, the air inside warm and heavy with welcoming scents: sweet pipe smoke and musty ale, fresh-baked bread and savory stew. Men were clustered around the bar, speaking loudly, laughing, many of them with arms draped around one another’s shoulders. Most of the tables near the back of the tavern’s great room sat empty.
A few of the conversations broke off as Ethan pushed his way to the bar. Belatedly, he realized that his coat had been burned and that he must look a mess. Abruptly self-conscious, he thought about leaving. Before he could, Kannice appeared before him, grinning and holding out a tankard.
“Have you heard?” she asked, shouting over the din.
“News from London! The war’s over. We’ve signed a treaty with the French!”
A man beside Ethan called out, “God save the king!” Immediately the rest of the throng launched into a chorus of the song of the same title, which in recent years had become an anthem of sorts for subjects of the Crown on both sides of the Atlantic.
“That’s good news,” Ethan said, taking the offered tankard. But already his mind had turned to Nate Ramsey and his father, to embargoes among warring nations and contraband French molasses. Seven years of warfare finished now because of a piece of paper signed three thousand miles away. How many lives might have been spared had peace come six months earlier? Or a year? Tens of thousands of soldiers might still be alive. And perhaps as well an old captain and two Boston merchants.
“You don’t seem pleased,” Kannice said, her brow creasing.
“I am. Thank you for the ale.”
She motioned for him to follow and then walked out from behind the bar to the far end of the tavern. It was quieter here and they could speak without being overheard.
“You’re hurt,” she said, eyeing his neck and jaw. “And your coat has seen better days.”
“It was . . . there was an accident.”
She arched an eyebrow.
He didn’t know Kannice well, but everything he had heard about her and observed on his own told him that she was intelligent and that she missed nothing that happened within these walls. If people had been whispering about the convict, the mutineer who was also a witch, she would know it. And chances were, she wouldn’t want such a person frequenting her establishment.
He sipped his ale, placed the tankard on the nearest table. “Perhaps I should go,” he said.
“Is it true then?” she asked quietly. “Are you a witch?”
He had been deflecting questions like this one for most of his life, choosing his words with great care, resorting to half-truths, even lying outright when left with no choice. But this time, speaking to this woman, after all that had happened this day, he didn’t want to evade or deceive. Still, after so many years, candor came grudgingly.
“Why? Do you allow witches in your tavern?”
“I allow anyone in the Dowser, as long as they pay for their food and drink and don’t cause trouble. I’m asking because I’m curious.”
He smiled. “About witches?”
Ethan glanced down at the table but then forced himself to meet her gaze again. “We don’t call ourselves witches. We’re conjurers, spellmakers, spellers even. Preachers rail against witchery as a tool of the devil. I don’t believe there’s evil in what I do.”
“And did another speller do that to your coat, or did you light yourself on fire?”
He laughed. “That was someone else.”
“What happened to him?”
Ethan sobered, looked down again. “He killed two men I was supposed to be protecting, and he got away.”
“The two who were here last night? With the sheriff?”
Had it just been last night? “Yes,” he said.
His throat felt thick, and he knew that it would be some time before he forgave himself for failing the merchants, even with all they had done to Nathaniel Ramsey. But he couldn’t deny that he took some solace in being able to speak of it openly, without worrying that he might reveal too much.
“It was my fault,” he said.
“Well, that’s always the worst, isn’t it? It wouldn’t be so hard if you could blame someone else.”
“No, I don’t suppose it would.”
“Sit,” she said, tapping one of the chairs. “I’ll have Kelf bring you some stew.”
She started to walk away, but Ethan reached out and caught her hand in his own. Her skin felt cool, smooth. Kannice stopped, looked at their fingers, raised her eyes to his.
“Thank you,” he said.
She smiled, her cheeks coloring this one time.
“A Spell of Vengeance” Copyright© 2011 by D.B. Jackson
Art copyright © 2011 by Chris McGrath