Captain Petyr Harker. The last time Rose’d seen this conniving scallywag, he’d been cradling the splintered bloody ruin of his hand, the hand he’d always boasted slew Black Bart. Limping away into the fog with a fresh pistol ball deep in his shoulder.
Her pistol ball.
The Truce of the Sinking Soul was a long-standing Bloodhaven tradition. More an unwritten rule than a strictly enforced custom, it allowed rival crews to gather without bloodshed when their captains attended the all-too-frequent funerals of crusty old seadogs. That violent men and women would abide by such an archaic custom always struck Rose as somewhat quaint, and until now she’d always kept it in the if it ain’t broken part of her mind.
An iron grip seized her right elbow and pulled her clenched fist back. ‘Easy, captain,’ Jonny murmured as he dragged her off Petyr. ‘Easy now …’
Part of her wanted to land another vengeful punch, but by now Jonny had hauled her back onto her feet and her anger was draining away like bilge water. She let herself be reluctantly pulled upright.
‘Upon our last descent,’ said a rum-sodden voice in her ear. ‘All gathered heed this oath.’
‘Peace be upon us all,’ she repeated automatically. ‘No harm to body or soul.’
‘No shot nor blade, no serpent nor spell,’ Jonny added.
‘Observe the Truce of the Sinking Soul!’ finished Petyr, scrambling away from her.
Rose sighed heavily and turned to see who else had pulled her off Petyr. A hunched wretch in an expensive kraken-skin coat, fresh sharkskin tie, and glistening stingray flat-cap that was far above the tattered sackcloth he normally wore.
‘Thorne?’ She stared at him, shrugging off Jonny’s hands.
‘It’s Captain Thorne these days,’ he smirked, spitting a phlegmy wad of seaweed baccy to the deck and missing Rose’s polished boot by an inch.
Rose scoffed. ‘You? A captain? Since when?’
Thorne preened like a monkey cradling a freshly stolen mango. ‘Got me a ship now, and a new crew of hearty bilge-rats off the back of what you done to Abel Flint.’ His breath stank like a bucket of rotten clams. Thorne might parade in expensive clothes, but he could never change who he truly was.
Thorne gazed across the moonlit waves to where the distant Wicked Wench lay at anchor. ‘Lookit you, the respectable dame turned pirate queen. I contracted you to deliver cargo on Morrigan’s behalf, d’you remember?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘But you chose to liberate it.’
Rose’s hand drifted to the pale knotted scar on her other wrist, where the faint P brand still ached. An outlaw’s life of piracy and plunder on the open sea, all from a single act of kindness. ‘People ain’t cargo, mate.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘You always were a bottom feeder, weren’t you? Now get out my way.’
Thorne stepped aside with a smirk. ‘Mark me words, Rose Rackham, you’ll get what’s comin’ to ya.’
‘Promises, promises,’ muttered Rose, and in two quick strides she loomed over Petyr Harker. She held her arm out and rippled her fingers, as if flipping a coin along her knuckles.
‘Need a hand?’ she grinned.
‘That supposed to be funny?’
‘It is funny,’ Rose nodded. ‘Look how I’m smiling.’
Petyr squinted up at her proffered hand through an eye already swollen and purple. Despite the obvious pain of his bleeding nose and bruised gut, he grinned crookedly.
‘If I give you my good hand, are you gonna shoot it off?’ he asked.
‘I ain’t planning to, but the day’s still young yet.’
He took her hand and let Rose haul him to his feet.
‘Why’re you here, Petyr?’ she asked.
‘There might not be a Corsair’s Conclave anymore, but traditions need to be upheld, yes?’
‘So I keep hearing.’ Rose glanced aside at Jonny. She pulled a handkerchief from inside her coat and handed it to Petyr. He nodded gratefully and wiped the blood from his lips before handing it back.
‘Keep it,’ she said, then looked him up and down, taking in his tailored clothing, the well-fed cheeks, and the empty scabbard that might have held a fine cutlass. Whatever had become of Petyr after maiming his hand, he’d clearly bounced back well enough.
‘I keep wondering if I should’ve killed you back on that island,’ she mused.
Petyr snorted. ‘I’ve often wondered why you let me live. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you didn’t kill me, but let’s be honest, I’m just the sorta fellow to seek dramatic revenge in some stupidly elaborate scheme.’
Rose laughed. ‘That you are, Petyr, that you are. But if you want the truth, I didn’t kill you because killing you would’ve been Morrigan’s choice, and I always try to be better than he was.’
‘And how’s that working out for you?’
‘It’s a work in progress,’ admitted Rose as Jonny approached, tin mugs in one hand and a large bottle of rum in the other.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘If the Truce is still holding and we’re not gonna start killing each other, then we might as well have a swig of Morrigan’s rum, eh?’
Rose passed a mug to Petyr before taking one herself as Jonny poured them each a dram of the syrupy brown rum. He raised his own mug in a toast. ‘Keep your powder dry and your cutlass sharp.’
‘May all your lookouts be sober,’ Petyr added.
‘And the world will turn,’ finished Rose, and the three of them clacked mugs.
Rose tipped her head back and swigged a mouthful, wincing at the gritty, overly sweet taste. ‘Ugh, that’s bad. That’s really bad,’ she muttered, pouring out the dregs of her rum onto the deck. ‘You sure they didn’t stow Morrigan’s body in the rum barrel instead of the cannon?’
‘Morrigan was famed for many things — being a cruel old bastard, a ruthless captain, and a seasoned killer — but not his generosity in vittles,’ Petyr sniggered, tipping the remains of his rum onto the deck.
‘I didn’t know you knew him.’
Petyr shook his head. ‘I didn’t. I mean, I knew him by reputation, of course, but it’s not like I ever set foot on the Moon Serpent before today.’
‘The man was an enigma.’ Thorne had sidled up to Jonny and was holding out his own mug. ‘A regular man of mystery, but who cares about that? He’s dead, and we sure ain’t.’
Rose shrugged in agreement and nodded to Jonny, who duly poured Thorne a generous measure.
‘Aye,’ continued Thorne. ‘There’s none here gathered who knows much of the man. They say he never came ashore neither. Always sent one of them vicious twins. So, did you hear how he died?’
‘I heard he was stabbed in his sleep by a cabin boy who’d taken one too many beatings,’ said Captain Blaxton, arriving with mug in hand.
‘That’s what you heard?’ Thorne frowned. ‘I heard he drank himself to death on rotgut liquor.’
‘I heard he choked to death on a concubine,’ piped up a passing sailor.
No sound but the creak of sodden timbers and a number of brains thinking fast.
‘I think you mean cucumber,’ Thorne offered.
‘That’s right, cucumber,’ the sailor grinned gormlessly as he trudged away. ‘I’ve never been good at them long words.’
‘Very important difference in a salad situation,’ Blaxton muttered, making Rose snort into her tankard. Then she frowned. ‘I heard he choked to death on a barb-squid that weren’t quite dead in his dinner.’
Jonny shook his head. ‘Nah, that’s just what the cutters on the Slaughter Docks are saying. I heard it from one of the chandlers down the grottoes that he was so drunk he fell overboard. His pockets were so laden with gold that he sank all the way down, straight into the waiting arms of the Bearded Lady.’
Instinctively, they all peered over the gunwale to the ocean depths far below, the slate-black waves swirling around the ship. Rose saw her wavering reflection, splintered by the water and lapping at the barnacled hull. Hard waves broke against the ship — the kind you only saw when something large was rising up from far below.
‘Told you it had an evil cast to it tonight,’ Jonny muttered.
Rose exhaled and tapped her left eye twice with her right thumb, an old sailor’s tradition to ward off evil spirits.
‘Ach, he was an old man, maybe he just died,’ she shrugged. ‘That’s what old men do best.’
‘True enough.’ Blaxton nodded out to sea. ‘Fog’s rolling in.’
A chill crawled through Rose as she saw the fog creeping in from the southeast; cold, clammy, and heavy with the stench of the deepest ocean trenches, briny and damp.
‘Don’t matter none how the old bastard died,’ said Thorne. ‘All that matters is what happens to his ship and his crew. That’s why we’re all here, ain’t it? Every one of us wants to claim that big prize, don’t we?’
All four captains studied one another, each knowing that was exactly why they were here.
‘No one ever found his serpent sigil, did they?’ asked Blaxton.
‘His sigil?’ Jonny scoffed. ‘Likely as not, it’s sealed away in that cannon with him. Doesn’t matter anyway, no one pays any heed to a captain’s sigil these days.’
Rose folded her arms. ‘Maybe they should. Maybe there’d be a lot less bloodshed if you could just claim a ship and crew with the previous captain’s sigil.’
‘Aww, scared of a little blood, are ya?’ grinned Thorne. ‘Ain’t got the stomach for it, eh?’
Rose stepped toward him, hand drifting to her cutlass hilt. ‘Truce or not, talk to me like that again and I’ll happily show you how much stomach I have for bloodshed.’
‘Didn’t mean to go upsettin’ ya, Captain Rackham,’ sniggered Thorne, baring black nubs of teeth and rotten gums. ‘Just wondering how many of ’em here gathered would have even the slightest hesitation of trying to claim Morrigan’s crew if they could get their hands on that there sigil?’
Rose gazed past Thorne at the other captains gathered on the Moon Serpent’s deck, wondering the same thing. Most of them were small fry, with crews too green to make a serious play for Morrigan’s flagship, but the three drinking rum with her … Now that was a motley crew indeed, and any one of them might be a deadly rival she needed to worry about stabbing her in the back.
Before any of them could give any answer to Thorne’s question, Rose felt the deck shift underfoot, a slow roll and dip. She reached inside her coat and pulled out a silver coin, flicking it over the side of the ship.
Thorne watched it tumble down beneath the waves, and for a moment she wondered if he might dive in after it like a hungry gannet chasing a minnow.
‘Why’d ya do that?’ he scowled. ‘This ain’t your ship.’
‘Someone has to,’ Rose shrugged as the Moon Serpent’s tattered sails unfurled. ‘We’re getting underway.’
© 2021 | Tom Burton