(Originally aired 2021/05/29 - listen here)
This quarter’s original story is by Catherine Lundoff. Catherine has a long writing career covering fantasy and science fiction, historical, horror, and (under the pen name Emily L. Byrne) erotica. In addition to writing her own fiction, she teaches workshops on both the practice and business of writing and publishing. This year she’s also the coordinator of the Pride Storybundle, which both she and I will have books in. I’ll have more details about that next week in the On The Shelf episode.
Catherine’s latest novel is Blood Moon, the second book in the Wolves of Wolf’s Point series, featuring a pack of menopausal werewolves who protect their community and solve crimes. The series is published by Queen of Swords Press, yet another one of Catherine’s projects – a publishing house devoted to swashbuckling tales of derring-do, bold new adventures in time and space, mysterious stories of the occult and arcane and fantastical tales of people and lands far and near.
“Swashbuckling tales of derring-do” is an apt description of the story Catherine has for us today. Set in the Carribbean of the 17th century, this adventure features the pirate Jacquotte Delahaye and the courtesan and spy Celeste Girard as they encounter a rival adventuress, known by the code-name “Astrea”. This is the third of the Jacquotte and Celeste stories that the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast has been delighted to host. I love the blend of peril, intrigue, flirtation, clever escapes, and solid historical settings. So set your imagination for blue seas, dark alleyways, and secret messages in “The Adventuress.”
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
“William Byam is the most fawning fair-tongu’d fellow in the world…” Celeste paused to look up at Jacquotte Delahaye over the stolen letter that she was reading from to see if the pirate captain was paying any attention to what she was reading aloud. “She has a barbed tongue, this English lady. But, listen, there is more: this Byam, he seeks to make an alliance with the Spanish king to make himself lord over this English Willoughbyland.” She stumbled slightly over the unfamiliar syllables of the colony’s name.
“Of course he does,” Jacquotte muttered. She was poring over a list of loot that her crew had taken from the English merchantman that they had captured only yesterday, but she looked up with a sigh. So far the only thing of any real value had been the bundle of letters that she had taken from their captain. For a brief moment, she wondered if anyone would pay for this information, at least until she saw the gleam in her companion’s eye.
“If I read her code aright, she says she is in danger, that this Byam may imprison her or worse soon. She must have proof of this connection to Spain—I must go and learn more. King Louis will want to know of this. Do you have pirate business in Cartagena or nearby, perhaps? If not, I can go alone. Perhaps Marie would like to accompany me.”
Celeste tapped her lovely pink lower lip thoughtfully with her finger. She was sprawled on the bed wearing a delightful lace and satin confection that made Jacquotte long to take it off as swiftly as possible. She rose and crossed the wooden floor with three strides that effortlessly adapted to the motion of the waves beneath the ship. “’Pirate business,’ as you so charmingly call it, can be done on the shipping routes that lead from Cartagena as well as those that venture near Port Royal or even Saint Martin. And we can even dabble in respectability. Bosun Miguel is eager to see how well a cargo of tobacco will sell in the markets of Paramaribo and here I can give him the chance to find out.” The pirate captain leaned down and gave her lover a rough, passionate kiss.
“Don’t you need to tell them to change course?” Celeste murmured some time later.
Jacquotte rose with a sigh and began getting dressed. “I sometimes wonder, chéri, who the actual captain of this ship is.”
Celeste watched her leave the cabin with a laugh before she rose and got dressed. Then she went to the desk to begin her own examination of the papers that Jacquotte had been studying so intently.
It was fortunate that it was a relatively short journey from Jacquotte’s hidden island base on St. Germaine to the waters of Surinam, at least from Celeste’s perspective. She wanted to find this English lady before the woman was imprisoned or found a way off the colony and back to England or wherever she planned to go next.
She spent some hours considering the writer’s likely identity, in hopes that it would help her find the other woman more quickly. The signature on the letters had been in code, like many of the references; “Astrea” was unlikely to be her true name. From her writing style, Celeste deduced that she was educated, but probably not a noble. A high-ranking servant like a governess or a companion, perhaps? Or an unmarried lady sent to the colony by her relations to find a husband in the circle of exiled nobles and men of means who had fled Cromwell’s Commonwealth?
They called such women “adventuresses,” among other things, and it amused Celeste to think that she was seeking a kindred spirit. Perhaps they might find some ground for exchanging information that benefitted them both. A shout from the deck interrupted her thoughts and she rose to exit the captain’s cabin in a flutter of long skirts.
Land was clearly visible on the horizon, complete with palm trees and a snug harbor near a beach that beckoned through the glass when she borrowed it from Jacquotte. The captain had her crew strike their privateer colors and replace them with a Dutch flag before they sailed into the shipping lanes where other vessels were likely to identify them. The visible parts of the deck and the pirates themselves had undergone a transformation into a well-armed merchant ship: unusual, but far from rare in these waters.
Celeste had transformed herself into a young colonial lady from Saint Martin and Jacquotte, more reluctantly, was turned into a respectable-looking young man who could be introduced as her brother. Marie and a few of the other pirates who had been servants in their previous lives were dressed for their parts as well and the whole party climbed into one of the small boats and disembarked in the port at Willoughbyland without incident after they anchored in the harbor.
“How much did you bribe the harbormaster?” Jacquotte asked her bosun, just loud enough for Celeste to hear her and flutter her fan up to hide her smile. The pirate captain threw her hands up in a brief gesture of disgust when Miguel answered her question in quiet, courteous tones, as befit a senior crew member on a rich merchant vessel. Having seen Miguel covered in blood with a dagger clenched in his teeth while swinging a cutlass on more than one occasion, Celeste turned away to study the crowd on the wharf to observe what she could of the locals as much to stop herself from laughing out loud at the incongruity.
The wharves were full of sailors, merchants and laborers, like any other merchant shipping port on the sea, but for the fact that so many of them were plainly English. A woman in a plain brown gown walking along the dockside in front of their ship caught her eye just then, despite the fact that the other woman was a drab bird in the sea of color and movement around her.
Their eyes met and the other woman quickly dropped her gaze and hurried away toward a side street, heading away from the wharf. “Marie, “ Celeste said thoughtfully, “ did you see that lady? The one in the plain brown gown who seemed to be in a hurry not to be noticed?”
“Oui, Mademoiselle. She became nervous when she saw you looking at her.” Marie tilted the parasol that she held over Celeste’s blonde curls. “Would you like me to see where she goes? I will meet you at the inn after that.”
Celeste nodded and took the parasol, watching as Marie vanished into the patchwork of crowds that swarmed around them. Jacquotte moved up to stand beside her, “Anything amiss?”
“Curiosity, for the most part. I am hoping that I may have caught a glimpse of our English lady, but it will depend on what Marie sees.”
“You must thank me later for insisting on bringing Marie with us when we left Saint Martin.” Jacquotte gave a throaty laugh as Celeste wrinkled her nose but nodded her agreement. “She will never make a pirate, but you will make a spy of her yet.” The captain turned and ordered their small troop of disguised pirates to pick up the baggage and follow her and they made a small parade of it toward their lodgings.
“What I don’t understand,” Jacquotte said, her voice almost plaintive, “is how, despite only being in port a few hours, you have already obtained so many invitations?” She was sprawled on Celeste’s bed, booted feet dangling off the edge, and looked as relaxed as a pirate captain in disguise could look under the circumstances.
“His Majesty’s loyal subjects are ever vigilant and eager to assist each other.” Celeste gave her a wry grin before she went back to carefully arranging the lace around her décolletage. She had not dressed to appear younger than her actual years in some time and it was proving more challenging than she had remembered. The trick was to look innocent and fresh while still appearing intelligent and witty, thus keeping the invitations rolling in.
“Indeed. And the Cardinal?”
“Is no doubt too preoccupied with his own plots to concern himself with us.” Celeste looked up triumphantly and checked the mirror. “Dinner should almost be ready, Marie is ingratiating herself with the salonnier’s servants, you have already readied several escape plans and Miguel and your crew are representing your business interests in the taverns along the wharf. We can relax and enjoy ourselves while we watch for this Englishwoman to reveal herself.”
Jacquotte stood with a sigh and put her jacket back on. She tidied her clothing and held out her arm. “My sister, shall we go down to dine?” Celeste rose with a light laugh and they exited, arm in arm.
Several hours and some social events later, Celeste found herself wishing that they had not eaten such a full meal at the inn before they left. Her stays creaked a little as their host urged ever more food and drink on them and she stifled an unrefined burp as she looked around the house. At least this one was a Frenchmen’s home and furnished with far more style than the English employed here in this strange little colony.
Jacquotte discussed trade with their host and his merchant friends as Celeste considered what they had learned so far. “Astrea” should be easier to find than she had feared; the merchant’s wives had provided her with a short list of possible suspects. The other spy’s fears were well-founded: Governor Byam was imprisoning and exiling his more vocal critics and his advisors had been making overtures to Spain.
In and of itself, Willoughbyland was too small to arouse concern in Paris, but if Spain controlled it, the impact might be far larger than the physical size of the colony: the wealth of the exiled nobles, coupled with its position on shipping lanes and access to good harbors could help seal off this part of the Caribbean to French ships. And that was not a risk to be ignored.
Jacquotte nudged her foot and Celeste started out of her thoughts and back into the conversation with a quiet apology. Pleading exhaustion from their journey, they left soon thereafter for the inn. “What, if anything, did we learn from that tedious evening? Apart form how charmingly distracted you can become during a conversation with merchant’s wives?” Jacquotte inquired in dangerously conversational tones once they were back in their rented coach.
Celeste tilted her head with an amused, coquettish grin. “Do you long for a night in the wharf taverns, my love? Brawling and drinking and dueling and perhaps being taken up by the Watch? You are better at this than you pretend. I have an idea of where to find our English lady and a much shorter list of possibilities as to her identity. What did you learn from your compatriots?”
“They had some difficulty believing that we were Dutch so I passed us off as being French, but from the Sint Maarten side of the island. Apart from that, I believe I may have found several buyers for Miguel’s beloved tobacco cargo.” Jacquotte reached out and coiled a finger in one of Celeste’s blonde curls. “And I learned that this Byam has declared himself governor for life.”
Celeste raised one eyebrow. “Why not king? Why stop at governor?”
Jacquotte shrugged. “Perhaps because it is already taken? Or because they have too many of Cromwell’s former followers in residence now to accept such a thing? They have been tolerant of religious differences and were governed through an assembly, one that elected the governor, at least until last month. Imagine Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Cavaliers and Roundheads, all living peacefully side by side like the proverbial lion and the lamb.” Jacquotte gazed into space for a moment, then added, “Why, they might be pirates!” She laughed cheerfully at the thought.
Celeste frowned at her in wonderment, trying to imagine how such a society had come to be. “Do they keep slaves for their sugarcane fields then? Or are they too at liberty?”
Jacquotte sobered. “They are not so enlightened as that. For that, they would indeed need to be pirates. Perhaps we should declare St. Germaine to be a queendom and welcome all comers?”
The sound of pistol shots and a woman’s scream outside, together with the carriage rattling to a sudden halt had the pirate on her feet in a moment. Celeste pulled the small pistol that she kept in her reticule free as Jacquotte tugged her small sword out of its scabbard. Celeste leaned forward and looked cautiously out the coach window. “Ah!” She exclaimed and unlocked the carriage door so Jacquotte could leap out.
She followed on the latter’s heels to find a woman in a cloak struggling with two men who were trying to take her off the street. One held her arm while she struck at the other, trying to break free, her breath harsh and heavy in the still night air. Celeste looked at Jacquotte and the other nodded, baring her teeth.
“I do not think that the mademoiselle wants to go with you,” Celeste said very firmly. She pointed her pistol at the man holding the woman’s arm while Jacquotte advanced on the other.
Jacquotte’s opponent muttered an oath in Spanish and drew his sword, while the one facing Celeste merely laughed. “What a charming toy, Mademoiselle! But this is not a game for foolish young ladies. Give that to me before you hurt yourself.” He smirked, the expression devilish on his long thin face. He towered over Celeste and the woman that he still held tightly by the arm and while he wore no coat of arms, his stance suggested that he was a Spanish soldier.
Blades clashed as Jacquotte and her opponent began to circle each other and a shot rang out. The Spaniard gave Celeste an incredulous stare, releasing the woman as his hands rose reflexively to his now bleeding chest. A string of oaths poured from his lips and he yanked his own pistol free of his belt. His hand trembled, but not enough, not enough, Celeste thought as she watched him wide-eyed.
The other woman struck at him, something shining in her hand. He gave a gurgling shout and swung his arm out, narrowly missing her face as she twisted his arm and struck him again. Celeste pulled her own knife out just as the woman yanked her arm free and threw him off balance. The man lurched, staggering and bleeding, toward Celeste, his arms stretched wide to seize her.
Celeste braced herself just as a motion caught her eye. Jacquotte’s blood-covered small sword flew straight as an arrow into the man’s chest and he fell with a final gurgle. Celeste whipped around to see the pirate’s foe on the cobblestones bleeding at her feet. Behind her, the inn’s coach could be heard galloping off into the night. Jacquotte uttered an oath and strode over to free her sword.
At that moment, the woman in the cloak turned and fled, her dress streaming behind her as she dashed up the alley and vanished around a corner. “Chase her!” Celeste demanded. “That’s her! It has to be!”
Jacquotte gave her a look of incredulity, but wiped her sword clean with a swift motion and ran after the fleeing woman. Celeste followed them, moving as swiftly as she could in her more elaborate dress and tight embroidered jacket. When she reached the end of the alley, Jacquotte and their quarry were out of sight and a piratical oath slipped past her lips. She looked around, wondering if she should hide here and hope Jacquotte came back or try to make her own way back to the inn.
After a long few moments, she thought she saw a landmark that she recognized and gave a cautious glance around. She could hear the Watch’s shouts growing nearer so she turned and faded into the shadows, moving in the same direction that the coach had gone.
Jacquotte found herself in what appeared to be a blind alley, her quarry nowhere in sight. She spun around, sword in hand, her gaze darting to each shadow in turn. After a moment, she walked to the end of the alleyway and paused, motionless in the deeper shadows, to wait. After what felt like an eternity, another shadow detached itself from a nearby doorway and slipped away toward the next street.
The pirate followed, sword held carefully against her leg to conceal it from the glow of the moon. There came some distant shouting from behind them: the Watch must have found the bodies. Hopefully Celeste had gotten away and returned to the inn. That dress was not made for speedy pursuits. Jacquotte bit back a smile at the thought of returning in time to help her paramour disrobe.
With an effort, she focused again on her quarry. Celeste thought that this was the woman that they sought, but was she right? Jacquotte did not fancy chasing a random streetwalker through the alleys of a strange town in the middle of the night unless there was a payoff at the end of it. She could, she realized a moment later, simply go back to the inn and say that she had lost the trail. They could look again tomorrow. Or perhaps she could get Celeste to forget this foolishness and they could enjoy themselves here for a bit, then leave for Paramaribo with the rest of the tobacco. The ships were rich in this part of the sea; they could take a merchantman or two while sailing back home.
Just a few more steps and she would go back to the inn…the woman who charged out of the darkness hit her sharply on the head with a stick and Jacquotte reeled back, nearly skewering her with her unsheathed sword. She swore vigorously and caught the woman’s arm as she tried to run away. “You fool! What are you doing? We stopped to defend you!”
“And now you are following me! How do I know that you’re not—”
“A Spanish soldier sent to assassinate or kidnap you? You don’t.” Jacquotte pulled her out into the moonlight. “Are you Astrea?”
Even in the dim light, she could see the other woman’s face pale. Then saw her expression shift. “You’re a woman!”
“Why don’t you yell loud enough for the Watch to show up and find me with bloodstains on my sword, mademoiselle?”
Astrea clapped a hand over her mouth, then dropped it with a sigh. “Very well. Let us suppose that I do use that name. Who are you and why are you following me?”
“Let us say that I am here at the request of a friend. As to who I am, I don’t believe that information would make you feel any better right now. Where are you going? If you mean to return to your lodgings, I suspect that they will be waiting for you there as well. Do you have anything there that you must have?”
“My clothes, some letters…” her voice trailed off and she reached out her hand to rest it against the bricks beside them. For a moment, it looked as if she might faint.
Jacquotte sighed heavily and impatiently. She was a pirate, not a nursemaid or a spy, but she knew that she could not just leave this woman here and return to lie to Celeste. For one thing, Celeste would know, somehow, and for another, well, that was best left unexamined. “Come with me. I will take you to meet the friend who helped rescue you. She can explain everything.”
“Everything?” Astrea arched a dark eyebrow. “She must be most unusual.”
“That she is.”
Celeste was sitting in a chair by the fire waiting for them impatiently when they got back to the inn. She leapt up to greet Jacquotte, then froze when she saw that she was not alone. “Wait, why did you bring her here? Are her rooms watched?”
“We had no reason to assume otherwise,” Jacquotte replied with a shrug. “I assured her that you could explain who we are and what our role is.” She walked over to the chair and dropped down into it, helping herself to a large swig from Celeste’s wine jug.
“You…of course, you did. Very well.” Celeste gave her a quick glare, then switched to English. “Astrea, please sit down.” She gestured toward the other chair. The woman favored her with an intense dark-eyed stare that combined exhaustion and distrust. Celeste walked over and grabbed the wine from Jacquotte’s hands. She handed the jug to Astrea, who took it cautiously and sat down slowly and reluctantly.
“I could tell you that we are a brother and sister from Saint Martin, newly arrived with a cargo of tobacco, but you already suspect that to be false. Instead, I will tell you that we have these and that we know what you are doing here.” She walked over to her trunk and pulled out a battered stack of letters, turning them so the other woman could see the broken wax seal.
Astrea blanched and stared at them in horror. Celeste could see her gaze dart around the room, looking for weapons. She must think they worked for the Spanish or for Byam himself. Celeste held up a hand. “I am Mademoiselle Celeste Adele Girard and I am here in the service of France. This is my br—” She paused as Jacquotte shook her head.
The pirate continued where she left off. “I am Captain Jacquotte Delahaye and I am—”
“A pirate!” Their guest gasped. “But how…why…” She trailed off, looking from Celeste to Jacquotte and back again, clearly seeking answers. After a moment of silence, she raised her hands in a puzzled gesture, then shrugged. “All right, you’re a pirate and a French spy, if I’m understanding this correctly. And you have my letters so I assume that you want information that you think I have. I want to make a trade.” Astrea drew in a trembling breath and crossed her arms.
“Indeed,” Celeste tilted her head and sat on the bed across from her. “One might argue, mademoiselle, that you are in no position to bargain, what with the governor being your enemy and Spanish soldiers chasing you.”
Astrea drew in a sharp breath and glared at her, “My letters were in code! You don’t know everything that I found out!”
Celeste gave her a superior smile, but Jacquotte chose that moment to interrupt them with a heavy sigh and a restless movement. “I would like to go to sleep before dawn so I will simply ask what it is you want in return for the information you think you have.”
The other woman eyed them both warily before finally fixing on Jacquotte. “I want passage to Jamaica. I have…acquaintances there that can help me get back to England. I don’t have the funds to take ship from here and, as you have pointed out, I do not believe that Byam or the Spanish would let me leave so easily. I know you have a ship in port: hide me on it and help me get to Port Royal.”
“So simple and yet so much risk for us. Is your information worth that?” Celeste practically purred her words, but one could hear the touch of menace behind them.
It was the beginning of a short negotiation, longer than Jacquotte liked, but shorter than any of them feared. Astrea provided them with additional information and some of the documents that she had obtained. “But not all of them and not my code, not until you get me to Port Royal. Then I’ll give you copies of what I have; I do need something to give my employers when I reach London.”
Celeste glanced at Jacquotte and got a sleepy nod. “Very well. You may sleep on the floor here tonight and we’ll make other arrangements in the morning.”
Astrea’s lips parted in what was clearly going to be a protest, but she stayed silent at Jacquotte’s frown. She accepted a blanket with ill grace and stayed sitting in the chair with the blanket wrapped around her. “I’ll sleep here rather than have you undo my stays, thank you.”
Jacquotte sighed and stripped out of her outer garments before climbing into the bed behind Celeste. She blew out her candle and while the two spies stared at each other by firelight, closed her eyes and was soon quietly snoring.
Getting the English spy to the ship involved some inventive planning. Marie and one of the men went to her rooms and gathered her meager possessions and spun her landlady a tale about her staying with newly arrived friends from England. Once a few shillings lined her pocket, she helped them pack Astrea’s things.
Then, there was the matter of the tobacco cargo. Miguel managed to sell most of it, though at a lower price than he had hoped. Still, it was enough to make this a profitable voyage and Jacquotte was loath to alienate the local merchants by fighting their way out, as her crew suggested. Their departure would, she thought with a heavy sigh directed at the women across the room from her, have to be done Celeste’s way.
“A pity we cannot easily disguise you as a man,” Celeste said wistfully, eyeing Astrea’s curves. She tilted her head to one side and Astrea rolled her eyes.
The Englishwoman plucked a pillow from the bed and a sash from Celeste’s clothes and proceeded to lash the former to her stomach. “There. A change of clothes, a hat, some dirt rubbed on my face to look like a sparse beard and I am a man, for the nonce. Long enough to get to your ship and even enough to pass inspection as long as no one looks too closely.” She bowed awkwardly over her newly padded middle.
“Convincing enough for me. I’m off to the ship to prepare, but I’ll be back in two hours with a cart to fetch you. Be ready.” Jacquotte nodded in a way that made it clear that this was not a request and swept out the door.
“I begin to feel as if I am in a comic opera,” Celeste said, throwing her hands up. “Very well. We will try what you suggest.”
When the cart arrived, Celeste was accompanied by Marie and a plump, pale man whose head was being eaten by an overly large hat. They were nearing the wharf when soldiers marched in from a nearby street and surrounded them. Jacquotte’s hand went to her sword, but Celeste caught her arm. “Gentleman, why do you stop us? We are simply returning to our ship.”
“And these, Mademoiselle, are part of your crew?” The biggest of the soldiers smirked, his expression suggesting such a thing to be impossible.
Celeste laughed musically. “Oh, you jest sir! No, of course not. This is my brother, my maid and my brother’s servant. We are bound for the Lynx and returning to Saint Martin and home.”
“Indeed.” The soldier swaggered closer to take a hard look at Astrea, who slouched and looked bored. She tugged her forelock under the hat and gave an awkward sitting bow, then spread her legs on the bench and scratched her inner thigh, just below the padding she had inserted in her breeches. The soldiers guffawed. “Got French fleas, do you? Well, take them away. You’re not the one we’re looking for.”
They parted and let the cart through, but the party was silent until they reached the Lynx and unloaded. As they prepared to set sail, Celeste eyed their companion. “You could almost be an actor with such an ability to disguise yourself.”
Astrea laughed. “My thanks, Mademoiselle. I have quite enough trouble being taken for a whore already.” Her face grew thoughtful. “Though perhaps I might claim the anonymity of my pen and write some of my adventures down for the stage. Mercí, Mademoiselle. You have given me an idea.” She turned and began to walk away, her steps leading her toward the Captain’s cabin where she would stay until they reached Port Royal.
“Wait,” Celeste called after her, intrigued by her shift in expression. “What is your name, your real one?”
The other woman turned and doffed her oversized hat. “Aphra Behn. Mrs. Aphra Behn, at your service. Look for it if you find yourself in London in a couple of years.”
Celeste shifted her parasol and gave her an amused sidelong glance. “Oh, I will, Mrs. Behn. I will.” She watched the other woman walk away and tried to imagine a female Shakespeare. Jacquotte caught her eye and she laughed quietly at the direction her thoughts had taken. “Why not?” She murmured to herself and climbed the stairs to the foredeck to join the captain.
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “The Adventuress” by Catherine Lundoff, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.
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