We eventually ditched the body overboard. It was the worst hour of my life and I didn’t talk much at all after leaving the ship. Aiden assured me that it was very unlikely anyone would find the body and confessed to me that he hadn’t recognised the man’s face, so I thought someone from the town had found their way inside.
Aiden wasn’t his usual cheery self as we walked along the waterfront and into the town. I didn’t talk much about what had happened even though I had a lot of questions on my mind. My trust for him hadn’t changed one bit but I still
wanted to know why he had been attacked first. I didn’t know everything about Aiden, but as far as I was concerned he was only the navigator and had nothing to do with the Eleven or anything like that. He was by far the most likeable of the crew which made me think that someone wanted to get under the Captain’s skin. Maybe he was seen as an apprentice or even like a son and someone had wanted to really leave a mark.
At any rate I took an interest in the town and my mood lightened as we walked along. It had been the first time I’d been on land for years. Aiden noticed my inquisitiveness and delighted in telling me all about the history of the port known as ‘Rochefort.’
“This place used to be a great arsenal for King Louis XIV and a real headache for any enemy strategist, too,” Aiden said, his enthusiasm becoming infectious again. “The marshy terrain made life difficult for any opposing army to get even close too so they often had an advantage during any conflict. Back in the 17th century there was the Royal Rope Factory, which was a patriotic symbol for France fighting against British Naval power. So as you can expect, Jack, it’s quite significant that we’ve chosen to come here first.”
I listened with great interest and enjoyed learning about the land. At times I’d read stories and even spoken with the crew about life beyond the sea but it had always been few and far between, with nothing other than speculation. When Aiden spoke he seemed well educated about his history. My biggest concern, though, was why we’d chosen a port so close to Britain. If the captain was seen as a threat they could reach us in a short amount of time and we’d not have long to get away. Eventually they’d almost certainly catch up with us. Was the captain simply allowing on pure chance?
“You look worried,” Aiden said, smiling. He was spending so much time with me lately that I think he could even read my mind. “I am too, Jack. I won’t lie to you about that. I was just a boy in his crew like you are once. I didn’t know anything about his true identity. When I found out, I had to make a choice. I had to choose between our government and the real founding fathers of Old – and I’m confident I chose the right side. That’s what it always comes down to in the end, you know? Choosing a side. You need to think very carefully about who you trust.”
“But I’ll tell you this much. The Captain has chosen Rochefort for a reason. This isn’t just an important part of mariner’s history. It’s where his ancestors were born a long, long time ago. Way back when the Eleven were commonly known and played a part in politics. He’s chosen this place because of its legacy, Jack. I know you might think it’s unwise, and I did point that out to him, but he said it had to be this way. He couldn’t hide away forever.”
I kept quiet and just nodded, which I think he took as a need on my part to change the subject. The truth was I didn’t understand the captain’s motives or his reasoning for the expedition. I didn’t know enough about the Eleven to make an informed opinion. All I did know was that we were going to see some changes in the crew and that even if we did manage to escape unnoticed, the problems wouldn’t go away overnight.
I had no doubt that the attempted murder was because of the demonstration. What worried me the most was that all of our lives were under threat. As much as I feared the Captain a large part of me wanted answers. I wanted to know if he had taken into consideration the wellbeing of his crew.
Then I started to think about the Captain some more and I tried putting myself in his shoes. I got to thinking how isolating it must feel to hide your true identity and take on the guise of another. I thought about how angry I’d feel if my ancestors had been murdered and forgotten about for decades. I could see why he wanted to take back his inheritance.
No matter how I felt about it all, I couldn’t just let them take Aiden away without putting up a fight. There was nothing for me back home. I had no family or friends and I wasn’t trained in any kind of profession. I was just a boy lost at sea.
“You are going to be amazed by the demonstration,” Aiden said. His eyes sparkled with excitement as he went on to describe what had happened. He talked about the atmosphere and how everyone had fallen silent when the Captain revealed his identity.
This time they were going to find out a lot more. I guessed that they had been put the demonstrations so close together because he didn’t intend to stay for very long. Or couldn’t.
We walked through boulevards and along cobbled streets before coming across the most beautiful type of plant I’d ever seen – which didn’t mean much, considering. The petals were a mix of yellow and pink and they were all star-shaped to give them a leafy, blossoming look.
Aiden noticed my interest and called them ‘Hollyhocks.’ When I breached the subject some more, he told me that there were many other wonderful things out there in the world. At that moment I noticed a look of pity swept across his face. He must’ve known that I had barely seen anything in my life.
I had to admit it was emotional to finally be on land again after so long. I listened intently as Aiden told me more about the historic naval stronghold and its many attractions. There were plenty of different relics he mentioned but I was the most impressed by the old rope factory – once it had been the longest building in France. With a deep sigh Aiden went on to say how the building was lost and replaced by a museum. I nodded at this but couldn’t escape the dawning realisation that nothing was safe from the inevitability of time. Everything was subject to change.
What left me the most impressionable was its spacious feel. There was so much room for us both as we moved along the broad paths and watched as a mixture of residents and tourists walked past. It was such a large, ceremonious town that I was surprised by how empty it felt.
After a while I saw that the people around us looked to be in a state of distress.
Aiden seemed to have taken in this change too because he began quizzing people about the demonstration. His outer calm quickly gave way to anxiety.
Then we saw Ollie standing outside of a coffee bar to our left, motioning for us to follow him into one of the side streets. We moved towards him, seeing the concern written heavily across his face. That threw us the most because he was always so placid and level-headed.
After turning into the side street we cushioned ourselves into a private entrance that looked inconspicuous thanks to its lack of lighting. As we stopped I managed to take a longer look at Ollie whose hair was no longer tied back and now looked flustered and unkempt. He had bruises and cuts along the bridge of his nose and his eyes were darting all over the place.
“What’s happening, Ollie?” Aiden said urgently. He was almost standoffish as we stood underneath the roofing of a closed down shop.
“It’s all kicked off. We’re in a real mess now. I was lucky to get away but the others…” he stopped for a moment and swallowed. Finally Aiden softened and encouraged him to finish. “Sam and everyone. They’re all dead. I can’t believe it. I didn’t know what else to do Aiden, so I headed for the ship to send a warning. I don’t think we have much time left.”
“What about the Captain?!” Aiden said, losing his composure.
“He’s still alive. They’ve taken him in for questioning. The boss didn’t give in easily, I’ll vouch for him there. He really put up a fight but they overwhelmed us. They came in from all sides and made a scene. I didn’t think they would break in during the speech, but they’re passed procedures now. Aiden, it was the Captain’s old friend who betrayed us! She was supposed to come in and support him on stage. Instead, she’s been plotting against us the whole time.”
“Why would she betray her own? They have been on the same side for years. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“That was until the Captain changed the game,” Ollie said, folding his arms. “They’ve been working for the government for a long time. Her career in the military stretches back even further than the Captain’s time as a mariner. They were close. But I don’t think this was a decision they could make lightly and I think she’s chosen not to bite the hand that feeds her.”
“How did you manage to escape?” Aiden asked. He didn’t look like the same man now as all of the enthusiasm left his body.
“They couldn’t catch us all because we were among the crowds. I’m sorry I ran, Aiden, but I had to think on my feet. We were surrounded and they weren’t holding back. When I saw the Captain was being taken prisoner I decided I was going to inform the crew. Someone had to get to them first. Only…”
“It’s you,” Ollie said, sighing. He looked at us both with such melancholy I thought we were already dead. “She took control of the stage and demanded that you be brought forward. I have no doubt there will be outsiders coming on deck looking for you soon. We need to get you out of here.”
“Not a chance! I have nowhere else to go. My place is with the Captain, Ollie. We need to find him right away and stand up to them.”
“That won’t work. They outnumber us plenty even if we can convince some of the crew to help us. We haven’t got a chance. If you go straight to where they’re holding the captain you won’t be coming back. They aren’t just putting people in chains here. They are shooting on sight!”
“We can’t just let them get away with this. I won’t allow it. I will be going one way or another!”
“May I make a suggestion?” I said. I jumped in before Ollie could raise his voice. “I might have an idea. I didn’t think much of it at the time but when I was taking food to the captain I overheard him having a conversation. At one point he mentioned an old naval officer he used to know who’s retired around here. I got the impression they were quite pally,” when I paused to see their reactions I quickly turned away guiltily and added: “I wasn’t listening in on purpose or anything. I just happened to be there at that time. Anyway, I don’t know if he can help us but…I think I know where we might find him. He might be our only option.”
“You are a dark horse, aren’t you?” Ollie said with a glimmer of a smile. He turned to Aiden who looked at me thoughtfully for a while and then, despite our current situation, erupted into a raucous laugh.
“He’s full of surprises, alright!” Aiden said gleefully. “Okay, Jack, tell us what you know. We haven’t any other options here. We can’t sail away without the captain and there’s no way we can stay around here for long before we’re found. It looks like we’re going to have to hope the Captain has some strong friendships.”
It didn’t take long to find the naval officer’s house, situated close to the main harbour. I couldn’t believe my luck that I’d remembered the details of the conversation. The captain had arranged to meet him and needed to know his whereabouts. I had overheard it all by chance, having nothing else to do but wait, and could never imagined how useful that knowledge had been.
Ollie and Aiden exchanged hopeful glances as we knocked but no answer came. Then, without any sign of life, the two paused for a moment before trying another tactic. They started banging very loudly on the door instead.
There was still no response. It hit me there and then that we didn’t really have any power at all. There was no chance that the crew would agree to help – not many of them at least, and I was confident that the woman in charge would have a much bigger unit. In truth I wasn’t very optimistic that the old man would offer us much help but I didn’t have any other choice. If he didn’t answer then I was all out of ideas.
“You won’t find anyone inside,” someone called from behind us. We turned around and saw a man with a cap on looking back at us from a short distance. His grey hair looped into curls around his ears and he wore a brown jacket – looking like nothing more than an ordinary layman. “It’s been empty for some time. The man who used to live here died a few years ago.”
We couldn’t hide our surprise at the news. After the captain had been so specific it was difficult to believe there was no one living inside. On second glance, however, the house did look abandoned as the curtains were undrawn and showed nothing but an empty interior.
“So I’m guessing you are wanting to go inside, then,” the man said matter-of-factly. He moved towards us.
“There’s no need for us now.” Aiden said. The man paid no attention and took out a long key.
“You better come along if you don’t want a wasted trip,” he said. I looked at the other two and saw they were both as lost as I was. We stayed fixed to the ground until the old man grew impatient. “I said that the man was dead. I never said you’re in the wrong place. Do you want to help your captain out or not?”
Finally we were shaken out of our lethargy and clicked onto what he was saying. The man peered around nervously to make sure we hadn’t been followed and then opened the door. We made our way inside and moved into the kitchen, hidden away from the outside of the house, which gave us a feeling of privacy.
The older man took his cap off and put the jacket onto the back of the chair next to the table. He looked to be getting homely as he searched through the cupboards. Eventually he said: “It looks like there’s nothing stronger than coffee in here if that’ll do ya?”
I felt mighty uncomfortable standing in a dead man’s house, especially after we’d been let in by a total stranger. I didn’t say anything to his offer because I couldn’t quite bring myself to be so casual under the circumstances. The other two seemed to share my concern. We waited around and I could tell that Aiden had some questions burning at the forefront of his mind. The man pottered around, keeping busy, until finally his eyes locked onto us and a wry smile came to his lips.
“You needn’t look so tight strung,” he said. His voice I noticed had a drawl sound. “If it does ya, I don’t think you’ll be in a rush to leave here until the morning. That’s if you intend to keep hidden away for the rest of the night,” for a moment we were too stunned to talk until he just shook his hand at us dismissively. “I know who you are and why you came here. Don’t worry. I’m paying a debt back to your captain and he was confident that at some point you all would come here. I’ve been waiting around ever since he was caught. This was always an emergency plan.”
“How did you know we’d come here?” Ollie asked, looking at the newcomer with some hostility.
“Ah. I wasn’t so certain, but the captain had instructed me to stick around. He said that he was sure a certain boy on his ship was a bright spark and would have some funny ideas,” his eyes met mine briefly until I turned away with embarrassment. “You were smart to make the connection with the naval officer, but you won’t be staging a rebellion if that’s your game. Even if he was alive it wouldn’t have worked out that way. The old hack that used to live here didn’t care much for controversy, fellas.”
“So you’re on our side, then?” Aiden asked. He hadn’t made any move to sit down since we walked into the kitchen. Sides. It always came down to one team or the other, just as he had said to me hours ago.
“I’m not your enemy, at any rate. That doesn’t mean I’m here to help you cause more bloodshed. If you go out tonight with that intention I can guarantee you’ll be going alone and what’s more, you’ll almost definitely lose. I wouldn’t bank on it if I were you. What I can give you is…leverage,” the man took a moment to pour hot water into his mug and no doubt basked in our unwavering attention.
Finally he added: “The captain never places all of his eggs in one basket. He knew that he might end up being betrayed. You will find within this house some very invaluable evidence that the woman who holds the captain is in fact the descendant of Virgo. That might not be news to you, but it certainly will be to her followers and the authorities here. By my reckoning that places her in the exact same boat as your captain. If you play your cards right, you might be able to sail away from all of this with your captain in tow – and with no chance of making the same mistake ever again, I trust.”
It dawned on me that the Captain had staged that phone conversation for my own benefit. That must’ve been why he had insisted on closing the door. In spite of myself, I smiled at how subtle he had acted.
The three of us faced one another with enquiring eyes but we knew this was for show because the facts told us we didn’t have any other choice. There was no other option other than to trust this stranger who claimed to know the captain. I wondered if it might be a trap but my feelings told me otherwise, and I trusted them more than my mind.
Aiden pressed his hands on the back of the chair and as if as a sign of concession took a seat at the table. We followed his meaning and did the same to show that we meant to hear out the full story.
“What is this information you have?” Aiden asked, taking control of our end of the negotiations. Ollie and I listened intently though I was happy to leave Aiden in charge.
“There are some very confidential files which exposes Isabelle’s real identity as one of the Eleven. You will know that the Captain has history with this place already and at one time knew the naval officer here well. That’s only half the story,” he said, pausing to take a seat at the table. I was beginning to think that the man thrived upon the theatre of suspense.
He added: “For a long time Isabelle lived here and was well known among people here. During this time the naval officer made the connection and realised who she was. There is not a soul who knows about the information stored away here because it was all looked into out of curiosity. At the time, the naval officer didn’t have anything against Isabelle. He was just a follower of the Eleven. Now you will find the game has changed.
“Once she finds out you have this information I doubt very much she will hand your captain over to the British military. Isabelle will not risk being likened to him and will no doubt be stripped of all her power, and likely even end up in prison. You see it’s been nearly a century since the Eleven appeared together and the authorities won’t stand for some ancient legacy challenging their status. It will be classed as criminal activity. In fact, they may even call them terrorists.”
“Why take him captive when she could have killed him in the shootings?” I asked.
“And risk the captain being branded as a hero? There would be too many implications. For starters, you saw by his demonstrations that the Eleven are quite popular. Some will still see them as the true heirs and more legit than any government. Killing him in plain sight would really damage her reputation – once the media get involved, that’s it, she’s finished,” he said, using his hand to do a throat-cutting gesture. I laughed at this, though the others seemed too distracted to see the humour in it.
“She would also be putting herself at risk because there are some who would try and take revenge. I expect she’d also be in trouble with the government, too,” he said. “It’s far more effective to have him challenged by the courts and publically defeated.”
“Even if she does let him go, that won’t stop the government from tracking us down later.” Aiden said.
“Yes, of course. You were always going to land yourselves in hot water with this venture. I did warn him against it but he insisted on taking the risk, telling me it didn’t matter about the outcome. The difference is getting away gives you time and that might be all you need to spread the word out to the rest of the Eleven. If you get the public on your side, you will be a real thorn in their backside,” the man grinned broadly at this – he seemed to like the idea very much.
“It looks like there is nothing else but to threaten her, then. How can we know that we can really trust you?” Aiden said, eyeing the man levelly.
“You can’t. The way I see it, you haven’t much choice. And you’re going to need to take action by tomorrow morning else you won’t be going far,” the man said. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence he softened the blow by adding: “I could’ve easily dobbed you in by now if I really wanted you dead. If you look around hard enough you might just find you have more friends than you might think.”