stood on the deck, gasping the ice-cold evening air, sweet as the light that poured across from the west, etching the waves with fire.

He could not remember much about raising a sail, but, as Durban told him what to do, some familiarity from childhood on the northeastern seaboard gave skill to his fingers. One great canvas slowly unfurled, and with their combined weight and strength began to crawl up the mainmast. They lashed it close, straight into the wind, then moved to the second.

Together they went to the winch and lifted the anchor. Monk completed the last few turns as Durban went back to the wheel and slowly turned her to catch the wind in one sail, then the next. It was hard work-and, with only two of them, dangerous. As the canvas billowed out and they picked up speed Monk turned to look at Durban. It was a kind of insane and terrible triumph. They were sailing a drowned ship on a sea of gold, heading towards the shadows of the east and the dying day.

“It’s time you went,” Durban said, raising his voice above the wind and the water. “Before we put on speed. I’ll help you launch the longboat.”

Monk was stunned. “What do you mean? If I take the longboat now, how will you get ashore?”

Durban’s face was quite calm, the wind burning his cheeks to scarlet. “I won’t. I’ll go down with her. It’s a better way than waiting for the other death.”

Monk was too shattered to speak. He opened his mouth to deny it, to refuse to grant the possibility, but it was foolish even as the thought entered his mind. He should have seen it before, and he had not: the sweating, the burning cheeks, the exhaustion, the carefully bitten-back pain, and above all the way Durban had kept a distance between himself and Monk, even his own men, recently.

“Go,” Durban said again.

“No! I can’t. .” They were near the rail; the ship was gathering speed, the water churning alongside them. The words were the last Monk said before he felt a weight jolting hard against him; the rail had caught him in the back. Then the water closed over his head, cripplingly cold, smothering, drowning out everything else.

He fought to hold his breath, to beat his way up to the surface, for seconds the will to live driving out everything else. He broke into the air, gasping, and saw the huge bulk of the Maude Idris already fifty feet away and moving faster. He shouted after it, no idea what he was saying, just bellowing in fury and grief. For an instant he saw Durban’s figure in the stern, his arm lifted in salute, then he moved away and Monk was left to thrash around and think how he was going to make his way to shore without being drowned, run down by another ship, or simply frozen to death.

He had swum only a few strokes, hampered by his sodden clothes, and was already overwhelmed, when he heard a shout, and then another. With a mighty effort he twisted around in the water and saw a boat with at least four men at the oars bearing down on him rapidly. He recognized Orme leaning over the side of the bow, arms out.

The boat reached him, and even though they shipped the oars, the speed of it made it a desperate, arm- wrenching struggle to grasp Monk. It took three men to haul him on board. Then, the moment he landed, they threw their weight behind the oars again, hurling them forwards after the Maude Idris, which was going ever faster as the wind filled her sails.

But she was a heavy ship, and the lighter boat was closing the gap. Monk sat in the stern, shuddering with cold. The wind was making his wet clothes feel like ice on his skin, but he was only peripherally aware of it; all his thoughts were on Durban. Would it help to rescue him? It was the action of instinct, of the heart, the driving compulsion of a friend, but was it really the best thing to do? Did honor and dignity not require that he be allowed to die his own way? Is that not what Monk, or any of these men around him, would choose for themselves?

Did they know? Had Durban told them? No-he couldn’t have, or they might have prevented him, guessing what he might do. They would not believe the enormity of plague, the certain death, the hideousness of it. Dare he tell them now?

They were still closing on the Maude Idris. The lowering sun made her spread sails gleam like the wings of a great bird as she cut through the water. They were clear of the Pool of London and the other ships were behind them. She was heading down Limehouse Reach past the Isle of Dogs, but it was a long way to the sea, with many places where she would have to come about and go on the other tack. Could Durban manage alone, guts apart from his weakened condition; could any man? Perhaps Orme guessed! Was that what these men around him, breaking their backs at the oars, really wanted-to make sure that the Maude Idris did not crash into a pier or another ship, or run aground?

He hoped not; he prayed it was out of concern for Durban.

Durban was struggling with another sail. Slowly, agonizing with the strain, it went up the mast, a foot at a time. Monk did not even realize that he was leaning forward on his seat, his muscles aching with the effort as if he were hauling the great sail himself, putting his own strength against the heavy canvas, the sun in his eyes, the light blinding him off the river. Slowly the ship pulled ahead of them again, widening the distance.

Not a man in the longboat spoke. The oarsmen moved with steady rhythm, faces intent, breath forced from their lungs. Beside Monk, Orme never took his eyes off the ship ahead. Her sails were bellying full now, the white wake creaming behind her as she sped down Limehouse Reach with the Isle of Dogs to the left. Monk looked at Orme and saw the horror and grief in his face, seawater mixed with tears.

Durban was forced to come about clumsily on the bend. For a moment he lost control, and they closed in on him again. Monk ached as he watched. They were within twenty yards of her. They could see him working frantically to control the great booms and stop her from luffing and going over.

Orme was standing up, half crouching forward, his face a mask of passion and despair. Monk did not even realize that he too was shouting.

But Durban took no notice. He succeeded in coming about and righting the ship. All the sails filled again, and the Maude Idris pulled away from them past Greenwich. The sun was low, a pool of fire on the horizon behind them. Only the gathering purple of the evening lay ahead, and the darkness over the Bugsby Marshes, to the south.

Durban was on the deck again, black against the shining gold of the sails. He raised both arms in a signal, a gesture of victory and farewell, then he disappeared down the forward hatch.

Monk clung to the gunwale of the boat, his hands frozen, his body shaking and numb with cold. He could hardly breathe for it. Seconds went by, a minute-it seemed like eternity-then another minute. The Maude Idris was still gaining speed.

Then it happened. At first it was only a dull sound. Monk did not even realize what it was until he saw the sparks and the gout of flame. The second crash was far louder as the ship’s magazine exploded and the flames roared upward, engulfing the decks and leaping up the sails. Soon she was a pillar of fire in the encroaching night, an inferno, a holocaust of burning wood and canvas sweeping towards the deserted mud of the shore, carrying with it Durban, Louvain, the river pirates, and the corpses of the crew.

It was at once a Viking’s pyre and a plague ship’s burial. She lurched into the shallows and stuck, the white heat gone, the light dying red, the water rushing in.

Monk stood in the boat beside Orme, his body freezing and exhausted, his mind burned through to the core with grief and pride. The tears were wet on his face and his hands too numb to feel Orme reach out and grip hold of him in a moment of understanding, a loss too deep to endure alone. He was barely aware of one of the other men taking off his own coat and putting it around his shoulders.

The warmth would come later, in the time still ahead.

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