The Culpepper Question
by Martin Hall

   Captain Luciano di Voltani drew his sabre as hooks bit into the Largo like the greedy claws of a bird of prey. His eyes narrowed as he called out to his men through the acrid and hellish cannon smoke that hung over his ship. Through it, he could see the whooping pirates as they crossed the divide, their cries eerily displaced in the bright morning air. Luciano mumbled a prayer to the Prophets for their blessing and touched the cross under his shirt. He nodded to his mate and heard the order given, repeated along the length of the deck.

   "Repel boarders!" With the first shout, Luciano vaulted forward into the press of enemies, not even taking the time to make sure that they had fallen. The bite of his sabre as it struck home was enough for him. His eyes fixed on the form of the captain, just now becoming driving his men forward like creatures from the abyss. Luciano recognised him instantly: Jack Culpepper. His mouth set in a hate-filled scowl.

   "Culpepper!" he yelled, parrying a thrust and sending his sabre in a perfect arc into his opponents stomach, "You killed my brother! I demand satisfaction!"

   "Did I? I kill a lot of people. Nothing personal, I assure you." Culpepper's cutlass rasped into his hand, and he swung it experimentally as Luciano swept past his men and bore down on him with vengeful fury.

   Luciano's first swing was easily turned aside, but it soon became obvious that he was the better fighter, and Culpepper's heavy blade became slow in keeping Luciano at bay. The sabre slid across his arm, and a dark stain shot across Jack Culpepper's coat. He cursed under his breath and back away, further onto the deck of his own ship. He soon felt the mast at his back, and a Vodacce sword at his throat.

   "Josephina, my dear?" Culpepper called out, sweat pouring from under his hat. "We must make our guest feel a little more welcome. If you please?"

   The pressure in Luciano's hand suddenly became less. He looked down to find that he was holding what appeared to be an ordinary playing card. Of course, he thought, as Culpepper snatched his sword from the deck, the wife. As he spun to face the woman behind him, he saw the pistols levelled at his chest. Too late, he tried to shift to one side. As the force of both shots caught him and dropped him to his knees, the card fluttered to the ground beside the dying merchant. The young Avalon woman coyly blew smoke from the barrels of her guns and tucked them into her coat. "Too bad for you, captain. You never know when your lucks going to run out." She placed the card reverently on his chest and snatched the cross from round his neck. As he coughed his last breaths, Jack stood beside his wife, clutching the wound on his arm.

   "No-one told me the merchant was a bloody swordsman," he grumbled. "We need a new informant."

   Josephina cooed over the cut in Jack's arm. "It's only a scratch, dearest. It'll get better. Here," she said, tearing a strip of Luciano's shirt to bind it with.

   "I know, my love, I know. But it's the principle of the thing!" An exasperated gesture indicated the ruined sleeve of his coat. "You know how much trouble I went to killing that chap without stabbing him through the coat. Poison is such a tricky business."

   She patted her husbands cheek and smiled. "Still, a good haul here, eh? And were almost done." She indicated the Largo, where the fight had become a massacre and the screams of Vodacce sailors were getting fewer.

   "Yes, precious, but they're getting too close to us in Vodacce waters. I think a change of scenery might be more beneficial to our continued business. Time to go home, my pet."

   Josephina clapped her hands with glee and kissed her husband. "Avalon!" she squeaked. "It's been so long!"

   "Now, my dear. Please. Not in front of the crew," Jack Culpepper smiled thinly. "Not in front of the crew."

   Three months later

   The Lucky Lady edged through the chill seas of the north towards its intended victim like a shark. Jack snapped his spyglass shut and turned to his wife. Its her all right. The Highland Piper, fresh out of Kirk itself with a fat load of cargo. Shes doing a dashed good job of making us work for that cargo for such a fat sow of a vessel. He frowned. Dashed good. Tell the men to cut back a morsel on the sail, petal. If we can catch them by night, Ill wager their marines dont know their business as well as the Master of the Tops.

   Josephina turned to the crew, bellowing instructions in a voice that seemed surprising for such a small woman, and the crew skittered through the rigging like eager spiders. The Lucky Lady eased away from the Highland Piper as Josephina flung her head to the wind, sniffing. "There's a change in the wind, Jack. If we come at them from the south they can't get away."

   "Very well, then. I'll instruct the cannon crews to make ready. Pass the message to the men: No quarter. No-one makes Jack Culpepper run for his dues. I was going to let that captain live, what's-her-name but this is just not sporting. Jack bared his teeth in what might have been a smile, but could just as easily have been a scowl."

   "McGee." Josephina plucked the spyglass from the sash at her husbands waist and looked appraisingly at the distant merchantman. "Bonnie McGee. That's the captains name. You were right, Jack. The topsmen really do know their business. We'll have them by nightfall." She playfully tucked the spyglass into her own coat, winking at Jack. Paying no notice, Jack nodded to himself.

   "Yes. Would do well not to underestimate a woman. Heard much." He squinted at the sun as it sagged wearily below the horizon. "Just a matter of time."

   The moon shone down on the deck of the Highland Piper, turning the crews of both ships into silver ghosts as they flew howling at one another. The pirates fought like madmen, flying into McGee's crew without regard for their own safety. One of them had actually run into the point of Bonnie's sword as she parried a swipe from another. Within a minute, she and her crew were fighting back to back in the middle of the deck. She fought with silent and implacable ferocity, laying the pirates down like saplings. As she whipped around to strike at one pirate, the buckler in her left hand was brought down loudly on the nose of another. It was only as she realised that the fight was beginning to die down that she heard the slow sound of clapping and turned to see Culpepper, his wife at his side, applauding her with an arrogant smirk on his face. Her crew were dragging their wounded towards the safe ground at the sterncastle while Culpepper's circled her men. Only a few isolated slashes marred the calm that had befallen the Highland Piper.

   "How very brutal, yet how dainty. Were you by any chance educated at the better Montaigne conservatories? You should be on the stage, captain." Culpepper's sword found itself in his hand and he beckoned to Bonnie. "You have not been very fair to me, I regret, captain, but I am a sporting man. What say you to trial by combat? To the victor, the spoils. The consequences to the loser of this match are not something which needs must be spelled out to such as you and I."

   "Now you listen to me, ye smug bastard! The League have paid me tae take this load frae Kirk tae Kirkwall, and its for the MacDuff himsel, so its goin tae get there. It'll be a pleasure for me tae kick your arse into the bargain." Bonnie raised an eyebrow and swung her broadsword before her. Behind her, a bearded man bided his time and the rune of Villskap sung its sagas within his mind.

   "Very well then!" Culpepper clapped his hands and his crew stepped back. "A wager! Your cargo for stake and your skill with the blade to speak for you in the matter." He adopted a fencing stance and Josephina watched with barely contained amusement. Her eye flickered to the spars of the Lucky Lady, where Edward was taking very careful aim.

   Culpepper nodded to Bonnie. Begin. He lunged forward, and Bonnie's buckler knocked his blade easily aside. She began to pace around him and Culpepper took to skipping sideways, barely capable of concealing his amusement. Annoyed at his glibness, Bonnie brought her sword round for a low slash as Culpepper danced backwards. "Theus, man, stop yer snickering! Im going tae kill ye in a minute, and I like a swine like you tae die wi a straight face!"

   "Quite all right, I apologise" Culpepper said, rattling his cutlass along the length of Bonnie's buckler. He glanced briefly back to his own ship. Bonnie's eyes widened. "Well, I was going to fight ye fair, but Geirmund!" Her blade met Culpeppers, and she spun so that Jack was between her and the Lady.

   For the next few seconds, spots danced in front of Josephinas eyes, and the ringing in her ears carried on long after her vision returned. She saw the fire in the sails, saw the main mast of the Lucky Lady topple drunkenly to the deck and crash through. Stunned, all she could think was, "So that's how they managed to avoid us for so long." The boarding crew of the Lucky Lady scattered in disarray as lightning rained on their vessel. McGee's men swept forward, herding the pirates back to their stricken ship. Josephina stumbled behind a barrel and huddled unseen as a sure victory was turned into a desperate fight.

   Jack Culpepper wasn't laughing as Bonnie's sword flew at him like a banshee, and his cutlass swung around to deflect the blows. "Whits the matter, captain? Not so funny when the odds arent in yer favour?" Bonnie beat down Culpepper's guard, leaving a nasty gash along the back of his right hand.

   "Oh, I have a feeling things are going to get better for me, captain. Josephina!" he shouted, as he barely managed to avoid a nasty slash at his throat.

   Behind the barrels, Josephina thought she could hear her husband through the clamour of battle and the ringing in her ears. She stumbled to her feet, barely conscious of what was going on around her. One of her men was flung across the barrels at her side, and a crewman of the Piper vaulted howling after him. She stared dumbfounded as Jack swatted in panic at McGee. It was clear who was the superior swordsman, and Josephina reached into her pockets. Producing a pistol, she pulled back the hammer and took careful aim at McGee's back as the deck pitched beneath her feet. The click was lost in the roar as the fire took a keg of powder on board the Lady, but the look in Culpepper's eyes spoke volumes to Bonnie. She flew to one side, moving with the roll of the deck, and the shot caught Culpepper squarely in the chest. His cutlass dropped from limp fingers and he slumped to the ground, clutching at the bleeding wound. Josephina shrieked and ran to him. "Damn you, woman Jack coughed. It was simple enough." With that, he fell onto his face as Josephina attempted to drag him to his feet. Bonnie let her drag her husband back to the Lady, shouting orders to her crew. "Cut grapples! Lets be out of here sharp, boys, afore that wreck takes us down wi it!" She shook her head, sighed and looked across at Josephina and her men carrying Jack Culpepper away. "Bad work, pirates. Bad, bloody work." As the Piper pulled away from the Lady, the fire reached the powder room, lighting up the sky like dawn.

   Four years later

   The inn was a bad place in the worst area of town, yet no-one bothered the man at the back. No-one except one woman, who sat down at his table without a care in the world.

   "Mr. Pinchot?" she asked.

   The man sucked on his teeth and glared at his drink as if it had personally displeased him. "Yes?" he said, punctuating the remark with the sound of a faint click from beneath the table. "We haven't been introduced."

   The woman carried on talking as if she were unaware of the pistol. "I hear your, ah, captain is looking for a certain Bonnie McGee?"

   The pistol didn't waver. "Go on. You have my attention."

   "Well, I want to help him find her."

   "Whats in it for you?" asked Pinchot.

   "I want to see her die," chirped the woman, her eyes fixed on Pinchot.

   "This isn't a sightseeing trip, lass," Pinchot sighed, as he lifted his hand from beneath the table. His eyes went wide as the pistol seemed to boil in his hands, and a single playing card dropped from his fingers. The woman reached idly across the table and picked it up. In her hands, it became a dagger. She drove it viciously into the table and turned her attention back to Pinchot.

   "Of course, I want to help." Pinchot looked at the dagger, picked it out of the table, tested the point of the simple knife that had been his pistol but a minute ago. Then he laughed. The woman shrugged, a simple gesture. Pinchot signalled his men, who floated conspicuously nearer. "Welcome aboard, Miss?"

   "Culpepper," said Josephina. "And its Mrs. Culpepper."