Hand over hand, Rose and Jonny climbed up to the Moon Serpent’s deck.
A pair of grim-faced twins in leather breeches and pale grimy shirts took Rose’s weapons and Jonny’s marlinspike dagger as soon as they clambered over the gunwale. Both women were heavily muscled and angrily sober, no doubt wishing they were ashore partaking in Morrigan’s rum-soaked wake instead of forming a skeleton crew for a bunch of captains who would sooner dance a jig to see one another dead.
One of the twins wore a scuttle-crab helmet and matching patchwork shell armour, while the other’s face was festooned with tattoos of unblinking eyes. When she grinned over Rose’s finely-crafted flintlock pistols, her mouth glinted with teeth prized from a razorscale’s jawbone.
Rose followed them as they made their way to the quarterdeck, and marked which of three chests they stowed the confiscated weapons into — cannonball dent on the right side.
An enormous bronze cannon sat on a carved ebony gun carriage just in front of the chests. The weapon’s flared muzzle was sealed with wax, and the sail-shrouded corpse of Captain Morrigan would be entombed within, pickled in rum, vinegar and camphor for its final ocean voyage down to the seabed.
‘Shame to send something so beautiful off to the deeps,’ Rose sighed. ‘The cannon, I mean.’
‘Aye,’ Jonny agreed. ‘A finer thirty pounder I’ve yet to see, but it’s tradition, and ye don’t go messing with traditions, right?’
‘Riiight,’ Rose deadpanned. ‘Lady help us if we ever bucks tradition, eh?’ She turned her attention to the broad-shouldered figure standing immobile next to the ship-wrecker. He was swathed in a robe of iridescent scales with a wide-mouthed shark-head hood ringed in razor teeth. He carried a tentacle-wrapped billhook, and Rose’s eyebrows rose. ‘A rare honour to have a serpent caller at a Captain’s Requiem.’
‘Amazing what enough gold krakens can buy you, eh?’ Jonny smirked, eyeing the newcomer. Within his jagged hood, the shaman wore a twisted coral mask over his mouth and nose, his eyes and forehead obscured by a dried squid’s body with crudely cut eyeholes through which his glinting eyes roved over the gathered captains. The wide deck was thronged with a host of Bloodhaven reavers in all their finery: long greatcoats, sharkskin boots, floppy tricorn hats, and archaic scraps of armour that would surely drag them down to the ocean floor if they fell overboard. Rose saw a wealth of gold and silver sigils alongside medals, fishhook amulets, and lucky talismans to honour the ancient leviathans of the deep.
Some captains she knew from fighting or drinking — often both — while others she knew only by reputation. They all knew her, of course. With her flowing blood-red hair tumbling to her shoulders, lithe creamy skin crisscrossed with battle scars, and confident swagger, Rose Rackham was a hard woman to miss in any circumstance, but on this ship she was indeed a wild rose among poison thorns.
‘Quite the gathering, eh?’ Jonny’s flinty grey eyes drifted over the crowd.
‘Nothing like death to really bring folks together,’ muttered Rose.
Jonny nodded sagely, ‘Now I know how a fat wave-rider feels when it has itself surrounded by a pack of hungry longtooths.’
Rose patted his back, grinning. ‘You got it backward, old salt. I’m the longtooth here.’ She strolled across the quarterdeck and back, adjusting each stride for the sway of the ship. Just as every pistol had its own unique character, so too did every ship; its own way to crest the tides and heed the wind. She moved with the anchored ship’s roll and sway, letting the creak and groan of seasoned timbers tell their secrets from her boots upward.
‘A shallow-riding wallower,’ she said. ‘Surprising for such a wide-beamed vessel.’
‘I likes ’em broad in the beam,’ Jonny grunted, instinctively widening his stance.
Rose winked. ‘So I heard.’
‘Ain’t as nimble as a cutter,’ said Jonny, ignoring her jibe, ‘but I’ll wager a bottle of Myron’s Dark she’ll clasp you tight to ’er bosom in rough seas.’
‘That she will, Jonny,’ said a slender woman dressed in a long blue overcoat, with gold cuffs and bronze-fringed epaulettes. ‘She’s a grand old dame, right sure. Sank Darkwill’s Glory and even poked a few holes in the Wicked Wench afore the Mudtown fogs closed in and saved its cursed hide.’ A salt-stiffened bottle-green bicorn flopped at a rakish angle on the woman’s shaven head, and her dim eyes — two poached eggs wobbling in a bowl of fish chowder — told Rose she’d been going ten rounds with a bottle of rum already. And losing. Her skin had the waxy, yellowish pallor of someone recently returned from a long choppy sea voyage.
‘Cap’n Blaxton.’ Jonny tipped his hat. ‘I heard you was dead.’
‘Rumours of my death wash around Bloodhaven with every sunset,’ Blaxton grinned, baring grimy crooked teeth. ‘Men weep at every tale, and their wives curse the morn of their falseness. I assures you, I’m in the rudest of health.’ She bent an elegant leg and bowed to Rose before offering her a hand. Taking it, Rose’s hackles prickled; despite Blaxton’s drunken appearance and clammy feather-light grip, she felt hard-earned calluses and powder burn ridges on Blaxton’s palm. A gutter-rat fighter through and through.
‘Marla Blaxton at yer service, Cap’n Rackham,’ Blaxton drawled, releasing Rose’s hand. ‘Recently returned from a year of raiding the Amarantine Coast, where the sea’s forever clear, the sky cloudless blue, and the coastal settlements fat with more gold than a captain could spend in ten lifetimes.’
‘How wonderful,’ Rose snarked. ‘Why would you ever choose to return?’
‘Good times only last so long, y’know. The islanders had some strange notions about ‘ownership’ and ‘not being dead’. Also, they was able to summon some curious mage-types who turned the sea an’ sky ’gainst me in ways I ain’t never seen before.’
‘Ah. So you lost all your ships,’ grinned Jonny.
‘A few,’ allowed Blaxton, waving a dismissive hand. ‘A temporary setback, Jonny. One from which I expect to bounce back any day now.’
‘Perhaps with a new crew and a shallow-riding wallower of a brigantine?’ suggested Rose, elbowing her in the ribs.
Blaxton laughed. ‘Anything’s possible.’ She gave them another graceful bow before rejoining a group of captains gathered around a leaking barrel of rum by the foremast.
Rose’s heart jolted as she glimpsed a face she recognised, an enemy face.
Jonny saw him too and gripped her arm, pulling her away.
‘Remember the Truce!’ he hissed urgently.
Rose didn’t answer, razor-focused on the man before her. She wrenched her arm free and strode blank-eyed toward him, her frozen mask hiding the hatred sizzling within.
Blond hair tied back in a rough ponytail, that loose strand artfully hanging just so over his handsome, clean-shaven face. He looked up and met her gaze, his eyes widening at her approach. ‘N-Now Rose,’ he stammered, opening his arms wide. ‘Look, I know we —’
Rose hammered her fist into his gut without even breaking stride. He buckled over as if struck by a twenty-four pounder cannonball; his handsome face met her rising knee with a sickening wet crunch of bone. He keeled over backward and Rose pounced on him, straddling his chest and clawing for her pistol before remembering too late it was locked tight in a chest beside the mainmast.
Cannonball dent in the right side.
Instead she hauled his lolling head up by the collar and drew her fist back for another punch. He coughed blood and raised a maimed hand, the last two fingers missing.
‘P-Please,’ he wheezed through a broken nose and a mouthful of blood.
‘Hello, Petyr,’ she growled. ‘Been a while, hasn’t it?’
© 2021 | Tom Burton