With matters of life, death, and matrimony settled, the two ships returned to the island, where the Dragonmaster and his staff made certain that Grimzol was in fact gone for good. They also took into custody those artifacts of religious and cultural significance which needed to be returned to the Prairie Tribe. Mel pointed out that since they had a perfectly good steamship there with nearly empty cargo holds, they should put it to use in recovering the rest of Van Dierken's loot that wouldn't fit on the Fancy. Cheb then pointed out that the Swallow technically belonged to Althena's Guard, and that some sort of transport fee might be reasonable. The negotiations between the three of them involved several hours and a considerable quantity of beer. Since any drinking not done in Pegleg Pete's was a step in the right direction so far as I was concerned, I won a number of points as a kind and understanding fiancee the next day--particularly after Jenna got through with Cheb!

(Incidentally, Cleansing Litany holy magic makes for an excellent hangover cure.)

We then returned to Blue Dragon Key, where we bailed the crew of the Black Fortune out of jail. Apparently, they'd surrendered to Dyne, which was how the Dragonmaster had known where to start looking for us. The second purchase made from the treasure was a new set of masts; apparently Dyne had burned them to the deck with Red Dragon magic in order to persuade them to surrender. Mel didn't blame them, though there was a lot of teasing from those on the Fancy about how we'd stood up to Dyne and fought.

Actual work on the ship did not commence for several days, however, because the recovery of the Cape Matapan treasure became the occasion for, as Patch put it, "the biggest damn party this isle o' freebooters, buccaneers, an' cutthroats ever saw!" The story of the adventure was told and retold over and over again and grew each time with the telling. The skeleton crew became a full-fledged army of the undead, Grimzol went from being an idol to a hundred-foot-tall, fire-spewing colossus, and Mel's duel with Dyne, long enough as it was, had gained hours, then days with each retelling I'd heard until the story settled in at the nice round total of one week of ceaseless battle. My part in breaking up the fight was generally omitted, which was all for the best so far as I was concerned.

Eventually, the party died down, sobriety set in, bribes (or, "taxes on imported goods") were paid, and the pirates got around to the serious business of splitting the treasure. Since Edgars, the quartermaster, had been one of those killed on the beach, Morgan ended up getting elected to the position on account of his education having covered mathematics. Since I was no longer a hostage, I commandeered the services of the local de Alkirk agent and his staff in cataloguing and appraising the loot. He was amazingly cooperative once Jack and Patch had a talk with him about what might be done to win their forgiveness for the ill-fated rescue attempt at Pegleg Pete's. I didn't ask for details.

The process of valuing and dividing the treasure took up the rest of the first week back, so I put the time to good use. Blue Dragon Key was not what one might call the center of civilized life, but with careful searching there were hidden treasures to be found, such as Madame Velessa, a beastwoman seamstress. When told why I was there, she went to work with an enthusiasm I could scarcely believe.

When the treasure was shared out a good half of the pirates retired outright from life at sea. They had made enough money to settle down to a comfortable existence, to buy a house or a plot of land, perhaps a shop, and live without the uncertainty and poverty that had driven them to sea in the first place. Stede returned to command of the Fancy, and with him went those pirates who wished to remain pirates, whether because they were greedy for more, just thieves at heart, or could not give up the freedom of life beholden to no master. The Fancy sailed almost as soon as the treasure was divided; the presence of the Dragonmaster and other assorted representatives of order and justice made committed pirates nervous.

Those remaining pirates, those who chose neither all nor nothing, remained with the Black Fortune. She and her crew were in essence Mel's dowry to House de Alkirk, for they'd signed her up as a privateer. I issued the letter of marque myself, and since I probably didn't have the technical right to do so I once again dragooned in our local agent to countersign it. I pointed out that Father would hardly disagree with making sure one of the most notorious pirates on the Meribian Sea would no longer be attacking our shipping and giving us a cut of the take besides. To this eminently logical reasoning we added Mel's scowl, Dyne's glare, and a few rumblings from Jenna about the state of his soul. Between the carrot and the stick I don't think I've ever seen anyone reach for the ink-pot faster.

With Mel officially retiring from piracy, the Fortune's next order of business was to elect a captain, in which the crew surprised me again by picking Ace.

"Why not?" Mel said when I asked him about it. "He's a good fighter, a good seafaring man, and ya have to have a cool head in a crisis ta makes so many jokes about all that's going wrong."

I couldn't argue with that, and I was happy for him, since it meant he'd now have no regrets for turning down Grimzol's offer, but I was still curious.

"I'd have expected them to pick Jack, though." In truth, I was amazed Jack hadn't gone with the Fancy, but he'd explained that he was staying to "do his bit for the only two (counting Mel) decent nobles in Meribia." That made me feel unaccountably proud.

"Jack? Maybe in another few years he'll make a good captain. Before that, he needs ta get his head straight. He's jest learning ta use his anger, not be used by it, and the crew sees that. Besides, who'd ever take seriously a pirate named Captain Hook?"

Then, at last, the preliminary matters had been gotten out of the way and the true occasion to celebrate was upon us, namely Mel and my wedding. We held it on the deck of the Fortune, it being Mel's last act as captain. I was a bit said that I had only Anne and Jenna to stand up with me, but that slight discontent evaporated at once when the music began to play and Dyne escorted me from the captain's cabin to begin the processional down the length of the deck to the mast. Morgan, Ace, Jack, and Patch looked anywhere from dashing to uncomfortable in their borrowed Guard uniforms (the closest we could get to matching formal wear on short notice), and as for Mel...

I was sure Morgan had taken him in hand for the wardrobe; his immaculate white shirt, breeches, and cravat, the polished black boots, and the midnight-blue coat edged with gold made him look every inch the gentleman outside that I knew him to be in his heart. The expression on his face when he saw me was all I could have hoped for; he looked like someone had hit him on the back of his head, he was so starstruck in amazement.

Madame Velessa's creation was a magnificent combination of formal elegance and barbaric magnificence, a confection in purest white silk and lace. There was no train, but long swathes descended from my wrists as commonly shown in depictions of Althena, and another pair swept back from my lace-collared throat, framing bare shoulders in sweeping arcs that rose, billowing with the sea breeze before descending to my waist in back. The flowers in my bouquet were pale blue to match my eyes. As I came to stand beside Mel, the overwhelmed bewilderment slowly faded, to be replaced by an almost radiant awe.

"Amelie, ya'd put Althena herself to shame," he breathed.

"Every woman is a goddess on her wedding day," I said with sudden shyness, but also pride that I'd affected him so deeply. It was obvious that Mel felt awed that an aristocrat, an elegant lady had "deigned" to fall in love with him, but that emotion cut both ways. Mel was decent and kind at the same time as he was brave and strong; despite a life of outlawry he had retained a sense of honor, and above all he didn't just believe in decency but had the willpower to act on it. He was a genuine, honest-to-Althena hero, and he had picked me, who had never done anything worthwhile in her life.

I didn't believe that it was possible to love anyone any more than I loved Mel at the moment when we spoke our vows, but I was wrong, for love grew day by day, year by year.

And that, my dearest Jessica, is how I came to meet and marry your father. I hope that the telling has helped you understand him a bit better, and why he sees you in the light that he does. And when Althena blesses you with a love in time, you might remind him that there was at least one lady who has never regretted that she chose to marry her pirate.

(It probably won't win him over, but it should distract him long enough to give your boyfriend a head start.)

Forever with love,

Your mother,

Amelie de Alkirk