The stench of Bloodhaven always hit you first. Like a gut-punch that ripped the wind right out of your sails. The stink always seeped deep inside your bones, making you feel like you’d never scrub it out even with bucketfuls of lye and fingernails bloody from scouring.
An overwhelming reek of gaping whale bellies, dripping caverns of entrails you could crawl through, and weeks-old offal plastered to the wharfside cobbles like gory mortar rotting under scorching sunlight. Mixed with the birdshit of ten thousand seagulls and the piss buckets from the Slaughter Docks’ bloodied workers, and the queasy smell overturned even the strongest stomachs. You might wear a bandana soaked in enough rum to souse the Bearded Lady herself, and it’d still make you weak at the knees.
Yes, the stench was awful, but Rose Rackham loved what it heralded. The smell of plunder, a plentiful catch, and fresh bounties well-earned. A red tide ensured people’s pockets bulged with coins, ready to spend them in the quayside taverns, gambling dens and fleshpots that all paid a cut of their takings to Rose. Prosperity, yes — but by the Bearded Lady, it was still the worst smell across all Seven Seas.
Her small rowboat eased out into the sludge-choked harbour, its flickering prow lantern marking passage through the darkening night. Lounging in the stern Rose draped her hand over the gunwale, trailing her fingertips through the fatty scum on the oil-slicked water.
‘Even fer you, that’s pretty damn reckless,’ Jonny grunted, straining back and forth on the oars. A crusty salt-bitten veteran of Cragtooth Isle, her conscience and right-hand bosun had seen pretty much every dark nook and cranny Bloodhaven could hide. His wrinkled face, long-flayed by seaspray and pitiless winds, hid a razor-keen mind the rum hadn’t dulled the edge off yet.
Rose quirked an eyebrow. ‘How so?’
Jonny’s scowl deepened. ‘They’s ripper fish an’ flaying lampreys lurking just ’neath the surface.’
‘Aw,’ she teased, ‘scared I’ll get me fingers bitten off?’
‘Can’t pull a trigger without yer fingers.’
‘You worry too much, Jonny.’
‘That’s me job, worryin’ about them things you ain’t worried enough about.’
‘Like this boat ride out to the Moon Serpent?’
‘Exactly,’ Jonny muttered. ‘I have a sayin’, and it ain’t steered me wrong none since I heard it at me pa’s knee: If it smells bad, leave it damn well alone, ye idiot!’
Rose shrugged. ‘Everything smells bad out here.’
‘P’raps so, but that don’t change the truth of it.’ Heaving away, Jonny glanced over his shoulder into the mist coiling across the water, where the Moon Serpent lurked ahead like a dark nightmare. ‘The sea’s an evil tint tonight.’ He shuddered. ‘Feels like hungry eyes starin’ up from them deeps.’
‘Your old knucklebones whispering to you again?’
Jonny rattled the locket around his wizened neck. ‘Ye mock me, lass, but I been listening to ’em for more’n forty years now, an’ I’m still alive, ain’t I?’
‘Ease up, cully,’ Rose sighed. ‘It’s a Captain’s Requiem, I have to attend. And if I have to be there in this ridiculous getup, then my second-in-command should be there too.’
Said ridiculous getup consisted of a — literally breathtaking — whalebone corset of cobalt blue and gold-rimmed lace beneath a long-tailed scarlet frock coat. Along with her pale breeches tucked into thigh-length black leather boots, Rose cut a rakish figure sauntering through any crowd.
An absurdly impractical outfit, but in a gathering of captains it wouldn’t do to look anything less than obscenely wealthy. A poor captain was a weak one, and like every other predator, Bloodhaven reavers ruthlessly preyed on the weak. Jonny hadn’t escaped the smartening up, either; under duress (and threat of demotion) he wore a too-large coat of sealskin leather, a moleskin waistcoat whose buttons threatened to burst from their seams with every oar-stroke, and a dented stovepipe hat with a rakish tentacle headband.
‘Looks like a clown, I does,’ he grumbled. ‘I might have to be there, but that don’t mean I gotta like it.’
‘True, but I need you to watch my back,’ Rose assured him. ‘Morrigan had a large crew, and with him dead every captain will be circling like a searat in heat. Last thing I need is his old crewmates slipping over to a rival captain or falling in with those marauding Jackdaws or Butcher Blades.”
‘Aye, there’s that,’ admitted Jonny. ‘Lot o’ powerful captains be here to see Morrigan off to the Bearded Lady, but d’you really trust all of ’em to abide by the Truce?’
‘Not even an oyster’s fart,’ Rose grinned, opening her coat to reveal a pair of ivory-handled flintlock pistols holstered beneath each armpit, before patting the basket-hilted cutlass on her left hip. ‘But it ain’t like I’m going in unarmed.’
‘They’ll take ’em off you, sure as eggs.’
‘Please, d’you think they’re the only weapons I’m packing?” she smirked, tapping her forehead.
‘Fair enough, but this still feels risky.’
‘Sure is, but what’s life without a little risk?’
‘I’ll remind you o’ that if this plan sinks pronto.’
Rose winked. ‘If’n it does, I promise you can haunt me forever from our watery grave, skipper.’
Jonny crossed himself and shook his head, but resumed rowing. In deference to Jonny’s superstitions, Rose lifted her hand from the water and flicked the scum from her fingertips. Something toothy rippled the surface and Jonny smirked. Told ya.
Far behind them, the ramshackle crags of Bloodhaven shimmered in the fog, flickering anthills where people – her people – lived upon the flotsam and jetsam the ocean vomited forth. Its structures clung to the rocky outcrops like persistent barnacles neither storm, Harrowing, nor the occasional imperial war-galley could ever entirely dislodge.
Like Rose, this stinking cesspit was a survivor.
Since her first command, she’d fought the unquiet spirits of the Shadow Isles and survived countless attempts on her life. Consolidating her rule over Bloodhaven had been a messy, bloody affair, her grip still as shaky as an apprentice rigger on their first clamber up the rigging. But she was still alive despite all the venom – and weapons – aimed her way.
‘Ship ahoy,’ Jonny grunted.
Rose gazed past him to see a looming shape emerge from the rising mist. Much like its former captain, the Moon Serpent was an old, unsubtle brute; broad-beamed and festooned with dozens of hooded lanterns hanging from its many masts. The brigantine’s reinforced timbers were thickly caulked and carved with scales like a snake. Crusted salt in the grooves shone silver in the moonlight, and its ramming prow figurehead was a fanged serpent forged from the melted-down slag of enemy cannons.
Rose’s breath hitched. ‘By the Bearded Lady, I always forget how big it is.’
‘She’s a beast, sure enough,’ Jonny admitted as the brigantine’s cold shadow towered above them.
‘How in the world did a tight-fisted miser like Morrigan pay for this monster?’ Rose frowned. ‘That cheapskate bastard never paid a silver kraken if he could spend a copper sprat. I heard that skinflint always skipped out on his dues to the ocean, never even a drop of rum or a bronze coin for the deep’s lords ’n’ ladies.’
‘And ain’t that yet another reason for me to turn about and not set foot on its deck,’ Jonny muttered. ‘If even a smidgeon o’ that’s true, then this ’ere’s a doomed ship. The ocean needs its due, every captain knows that.’
Rose nodded. ‘I gifted a tri-barrelled carbine to the waters off White Harbour after claiming Abel Flint’s bounty.’
‘Aye, I remember.’ Jonny shook his head morosely. ‘Ye promised that beauty to me.’
Rose smiled. ‘Decent craftsmanship too. Weren’t a Rackham Manstopper, but it was pretty nice.’
Jonny scowled. ‘Eugh, now yer just bein’ cruel.’
‘A queen must be cruel to be kind, daaarling,’ Rose drawled in mock snootiness, as Jonny eased the rowboat up to several others moored beneath a wide cargo net strung from the bow. The tarred hull of the Moon Serpent rose up like a black cliff; dark silhouettes moved through the lamplight high above.
‘She’s sittin’ mighty high in the water fer such a big ship,’ Jonny remarked, nodding toward the mottled green tidelines staining the ship’s hull as he secured the boat.
Rose grinned. ‘Her holds will be empty and most of the crew ashore getting three sheets to the wind on whatever cheap rotgut Morrigan’s left them for his wake.”
‘Lucky buggers,’ Jonny grumbled, pulling the oars in from the rowlocks and lashing them along the gunwale. ‘You sure about this?’
Rose stepped over and gripped the cargo net, peering upward.
‘Nah, not really,’ she admitted. “But given the choice of going forward or back, a wise-woman once told me it’s always better to go forward. So c’mon!’
© 2021 | Tom Burton