The Mermaids’ Tea Party
Cassandra’s frozen hands slipped on the on the slick rocks and she kicked her legs weakly. Salt water filled her mouth, chilly and bitter. Unable to lift her head, she gagged.
One of the mermaids — the blue-eyed one with the sharp nose and the straw hat with sodden paper roses — noticed her and grabbed her by the back of the neck, pulling her up over the wet, rough rocks. She felt skin scrape off her knees, but was too cold to register the pain.
The mermaid dropped her on the sharp wet rocks of the little islet, which surely must be submerged at the high tide. With a graceful flick of her blue-green tail she turned back to her companions. One, with dark red hair to her waist that matched the rippling highlights of her tail, was perched on a nearby outcrop. She wore an officer’s cap on her locks and a jet-beaded pelisse about her shoulders, her red-tipped breasts peeking out. The sight of the pelisse gave Cassandra a pang. It was her mother’s. And Mama was dead.
The third was submerged to her chin in the water just before the red-headed mermaid. Her dark hair floated about her like seaweed. She caught Cassandra’s gaze and grinned, teeth yellow and sharp between perfect, rose-red lips.
Cassandra panted, her ribs bruised by the knots of basalt beneath her. Miss Murchinson floated just the other side of her, face down in the salt water, bobbing gently up and down. The governess’ pale blue dress ballooned around her, and one foot still retained its shoe. The other was covered only by a grey stocking, made ragged by time and circumstance, one bluish toe peeping forlornly out. It seemed to Cassandra that Miss Murchinson was floating lower and lower in the water.
She could still see a few remnants of the Marguerite floating atop the white-streaked water: some squarish shapes that could be boxes, some of the larger boards. There were white specks that Cassandra thought might be people. None of them moved of their own volition.
The floating mermaid giggled as the blue-tailed one cursed — she’d dropped her saucer and the fragile porcelain shattered against the rocks, the elaborate gold and pink enamel alien against the black surface. It was an expensive set, better than the one Cassandra’s mother kept for best. It probably belonged to one of the richer passengers that floated out amongst the wreckage. The mermaid poked at the fragments irritably, retaining her awkward grip on the cup, and some of the seawater slopped out. The red-haired mermaid smirked, holding her saucer on what passed for her knee in a horrible mockery of gentility, pinching the handle of the cup between two sharp-nailed fingers, one pinkie crooked out. A ruddy slit pouted up the front of her tail, just where a woman’s legs would meet.
Cassandra closed her eyes against the glaring sun. How long she’d been here, watching these nightmare creatures play at teatime with salt water in Sevres china while her governess and two hundred men and women drowned around her? She licked her salt-cracked lips and thirsted.
“I’m bored,” declared the red-haired mermaid. She poured a long stream of seawater from her cup into the water beneath her. “And tea is no fun at all.”
“And I’m hungry,” said the submerged mermaid, still looking at Cassandra. Her stomach knotted and she shivered despite the merciless sun. In her fear, she saw a way to live for a while.
“You’re not doing it right,” she said faintly, her tongue thick. Only the blue-tailed mermaid, the one with the hat, heard. She bent over and seized her by the back of the neck again, as if she’d been a naughty kitten, and pulled her upright. Cassandra struggled to hold herself up; she felt like a rag doll trod over in the mud.
“That’s not real tea,” she managed. “It’s just pretend. Only little children pretend. There was real tea on the ship. Rare tea from India in beautiful chests; I heard Mama talking about it.” More salt, not from the sea, choked her and she closed her eyes and fought for breath.
“Where?” The mermaid’s strong fingers tightened. Cassandra winced.
“I don’t know. In the Captain’s quarters, maybe.”
“I’m still hungry,” said the swimming mermaid. “And there’s a shoal of herring past the wreck. Let’s get it before the dolphins do.”
Cassandra couldn’t help glancing to the side, where Miss Murchinson had been bobbing. There was no sign of her governess.
With a powerful flick of her tail, the mermaid holding Cassandra propelled herself off the rocks and launched into the water, dragging the girl effortlessly behind her. She was dragged under the skin of the water and shut her eyes against the stinging salt. There was no strength in her limbs; should the creature push her under or let her go she would be powerless to resist or even swim.
The mermaid pulled her along with her head enough above the waves to breath now and then. Cassandra was dizzied by the speed, and the powerful thrusts of the undulating tail. The water churned behind them; the movements of the sinuous body were unseemly, she was sure.
They were moving through some of the detritus of the wreck, and the mermaid dodged to the side occasionally to avoid a floating spar or box. A cluster of splintered boards, lashed together by a fraying rope drifted by, and Cassandra only had time to glimpse a white and bloodless hand clutching a fragment of wood. And there — floating on its back: a slim figure in a printed dress. Cassandra turned her head in case it was Mama.
She closed her eyes against the sun and the water and thought about twisting her way out of the creature’s grip and sinking into the cool embrace of the sea. She doubted she had the strength, however. Fearing sleep, she opened her eyes in time to see the fishy gaze of a dead man bobbing just ahead of them. She opened her mouth to gasp or scream and gagged for the hundredth time as salt water filled her mouth.
Closer and closer came the bloated dead face. The sailor had grasped a fragment of a spar in his final extremity and it was locked under one arm in his rigor; the other arm floated limp and free. At the last minute, the mermaid served around the corpse and Cassandra felt the limp hand brush against her body in a mockery of a caress. She was torn between horror and pity. And the body and the scattered detritus of the wreck were behind her, smaller and smaller in the distance, left to wash ashore or sink with the other ships that disappeared, year after year. The sea must be full of them by now.
Further and further they went, and just as Cassandra decided that the creature was going to drag her forever across the broad surface of the water until her skin and flesh wore away and her bones fell, one by one, to the murky bottom, she saw a flat yellow mound rise in the distance. An island, rising like a shallow wart out of the water.
The mermaid barely slowed her breakneck pace as she approached and ran herself halfway up a yellow beach, belly-down and arching her back so her torso was almost upright. At the same time, she flung Cassandra casually upon the sand, half-knocking the breath out of her. Cassandra gulped for air, then scrambled as best she could up the beach, out of reach of the mermaid’s grasp — or so she profoundly hoped.
The mermaid watched her and made no move towards her, a nasty grin on her face.
“I’ll find the tea, and you’ll make us a party,” she said. “Then, maybe, I’ll bring you some food.”
Cassandra stared. Then the import of the creature’s words struck her and she looked around, beginning to panic. The island was perhaps a mile around and very flat, save where white ridges were raised above the surface. A large wave would have swamped it. A few trees she recognized from picture books as palms clustered off-center, a green haze underneath them. There was not much else.
Nothing to eat, certainly.
The sand clung in a fine film to her dress and bare legs, and itched. Miss Murchinson would have been scandalized.
The mermaid was humping backwards into the water. Suddenly Cassandra didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to be alone on this fragment of waste land in the middle of an indifferent sea.
“Stop!” she cried, crawling forward. “When are you coming back?”
The mermaid glanced back.
“When I find the tea,” she said, blandly. “Ask the pirate for food and water.”
Cassandra stopped, astonished. “The pirate?”
The mermaid flashed her sharp teeth in a grin.
“If he doesn’t eat you first!”
She laughed, a harsh, seal-like bark, flipped into the water, and was gone with a splash. Cassandra was alone.
But she wasn’t, was she? She stared, nervous, at the almost barren expanse behind her. Somewhere out there was a pirate.
She didn’t want to be eaten.
The sand was soft enough, but as she walked inland it became more and more filled up with rocks, which bruised her bare feet and made her long for her slippers, although those would soon be shredded here. Miss Murchinson would never let her run barefoot, telling her that her feet would become calloused and hard: unladylike.
“But men will never see my feet,” Cassandra declared, and Miss Murchinson had blushed, and said that didn’t matter, and never mind that, and that in time she’d know.
Cassandra wished that her feet were calloused and hard now.
She walked towards the strange figures of the palm trees, and the green haze beneath it resolved itself into a thin undergrowth of equally unfamiliar plants. She supposed that had they reached Antigua and her father’s plantations she would have seen similar.
She was flanking one of the raised white ridges; within it, small white crystals glittered. Curious, she brushed a hand across it — it was harder than the sand, more crumbly than the rocks. She took a grain to her mouth. Salt.
The inside of her mouth felt so puckered with the salt water that she could barely taste it. This must be one of the salt islands her papa had written of, back when he wrote frequently and the post brought his letters sometimes weekly, sometimes all in a heap after several months and mama had to sort them out and dole them forth, day by day. Back when good news came from the plantations and mama’s eyes still sparkled.
In her father’s letters the West Indies seemed fantastic as her books. Forests of sugarcane, and the burning of it in season, and the caramel taste to the air. Islands of salt, and dark-skinned folk shoveling it out like diamonds. When she was allowed to read the letters when her mother was done she’d take them to her room, hold the edge of the thick paper between her teeth and dream of the taste of salt and sugar.
Plants with upside-down leaves like daggers, and fringed with sharp spines, grew at the edge of the ragged green oval before her, and within there were bushes of a softer green with small scarlet flowers depending from them. These were clustered at the base of a small rock outcrop, not big enough to be called a cliff. The rock was dark grey, with black seams of moisture.
That must be why the plants could grow.
Her salt-split lips were puffy and painful, and her tongue swollen from thirst. She started for the plants; maybe there was a pool at the bottom of the rock. The thought of a long, cool drink of water made her throat ache.
She saw it a fraction of a second before it hit her: a long figure, moving like lightning. Then it struck and she was down, rolled on her back in the sand, the breath knocked from her ribs. She gasped with the pain of it, and thought she was drowning all over again.
Someone straddled her, and the weight on her legs prevented her from sitting up and recapturing her breath; she wondered if she’d suffocate. The sun was bright overhead, and the palm fronds whipped across it, and leaning over her was a dark shape that had attacked her.
Something sharp pricked under her chin. The thing pinning her barked, or roared; she couldn’t tell. She closed her eyes against the light, trying to suck in air between her bruised and battered ribs.
Words that didn’t make any sense bounced in the darkness inside her head, and the pressure on her chest was unbearable. She pawed at the weight that bore down on her; her wrists were grabbed and thrust roughly to either side of her. She was spread like a butterfly in a collector’s box, and still the air would not come into her lungs. Her ribcage felt like a brittle wooden crate, as broken and useless as those that floated from the wreck. Bright points of light flashed in the darkness, and there was a roaring in her ears, besides the meaningless words. She was losing consciousness. Or she was dying.
Then the weight was gone and she could suck sweet air inside, sweet as the cold rose-lemonade she’d had two summers ago, at a garden party with father only one year gone and Mama fresh and beautiful, when they still had all the money they needed. Her ribs still ached, but that didn’t matter. She felt a warm breeze on her face, and heard the leaves of the palms thrashing against each other.
She blinked against the light, and found that if she turned on her side, she could raise her knees to her chest and breathe a little easier. This took a hundred years or so. Another hundred years, and she could roll onto her knees. Another, and she could sit up and open her eyes.
A man crouched a yard or so away from her, clasping his knees and rocking back and forth slightly, clutching a short, broad-bladed knife. A scruffy beard covered his cheeks, and the skin beneath, and his arms, and all she could see of him was burnt a dark dusky red. He wore trousers, very shabby, with holes at the knees and, as far as she could see, naught else but the remains of shoes, little more than leather soles somehow lashed to his feet. He stared at her with wide eyes.
She paused, because it hurt to talk.
“Are you the pirate?”
He frowned and tilted his head, so much in that instant like Mrs. Kincaid’s spoiled little pug that she had to stifle a laugh.
He was a very dirty man, Cassandra thought.
She passed a cautious hand over her bruised ribs. “The mermaid said there was a pirate.”
“I thought you was one of them.”
His voice was hoarse, as though unaccustomed to speaking.
“No,” she managed, not knowing what else to say, not knowing who “them” might be. Her mouth felt dry and swollen.
“May I have some water?”
The pirate didn’t move right away, and his eyes narrowed.
“Is that their trick?” he said, harsh and abrupt, and yet it seemed as if he was not talking to her. “Send another, with water scarce enough for one and the greenery, the poor greenery, all to wither with this one to guzzle it up like wine?”
The words fell out of his mouth barely grabbing onto one another, trying to make sense of themselves. He was talking over her: she was sealed inside a glass globe while the dirty pirate mouthed at her, dry as the dried roses under glass in mama’s parlor.
“Please,” she said. “Please, water.”
He merely frowned a long moment, then twisted sideways, startling her with the speed of it, twisting out of view. There was a stir in the greenery about the trickling waterfall. She closed dry lids over dry eyes and breathed, slow and painful.
Then someone beside her and a tickle on the back of her neck: his rough fingers steadying her. Something brushed her lips and she grasped at it. A porcelain cup with a broken edge she could feel, gritty against her teeth, and water, cool and green on her tongue.
She tried to gulp it down but he allowed only small sips, pulling away the cup every second or so. His fingers tangled in the hair on her neck, keeping her upright, their warmth against her skin a comfort after the mermaid’s clammy touch. When the sharp edge of her thirst was blunted and she could hold the cup herself he let her, but his hand on her nape stayed.
She opened her eyes and saw his eyes close, their pale leaf-green made pebble-smooth by the tanned, wrinkled skin around them. He stared at her, and his hand on her neck stroked and smoothed a tangled curl.
“Why,” he said, leaning close enough that she could feel his breath on her face and then withdrawing, scooting a few feet back and crouching, frog-like, on the sand. “Why, you’re naught but a child.”
“I’m twelve,” she retorted. “I’m not a child.”
Without his touch she felt unsteady, and clutched the cup closer until she regained her sitting-balance.
She drained the last few drops, restraining herself from licking the bottom of the cup, as if her mother could still see her and scold her for bad manners. She held it out to the man, who still crouched at a distance. When he didn’t move she turned the cup uneasily in her hand — it was a teacup, with a smudged pattern of pink roses, and the handle had broken off, leaving stubs worn blunt.
He was staring at her intently and she tried to smile, her gaze faltering before his. She leaned forward as far as she could and placed the teacup on the ground between them, twisting it in the sand so that it sat upright. Crouched like that, with his head lowered and the muscles straining across his shoulders, he reminded her of a half-tame dog.
With the same sudden speed that took her by surprise before he darted forward and grasped the cup. She flinched back as he ducked into the foliage, rustled about and re-emerged a few seconds later, without it. He smiled at her sheepishly.
“I have to hide my things, else those fishy bitches might take it,” he explained. “It’s rare they come up this far, but they can do it.”
“Those — you mean the mermaids?”
His lip lifted in a snarl. “What else?”
“Did they bring you here, too?”
He moved forward in one of his strange animal-like quick starts-then-stillness, and she felt cold sweat prickle down her spine.
…if he doesn’t eat you first…
He could, Cassandra thought. She had a sudden odd vision of Cook breaking apart a roasted chicken by the joints at home, the sickening sound of the bones cracking and the good, rich smell of the meat. She was at once hungry and nauseated.
He was motionless, perched on the balls of his feet, save for his left hand that swung casually as if broken at the wrist.
“Fishy bitches broke the ship apart at the belly,” he said. “Brought the whole catastrophe down. Men below, and cargo…” He swallowed, closing his eyes. “They had not a chance, only us topside, and in the sails. Fishy bitches sang, so pretty, while they did it.”
She hadn’t realized before. But how stupid — of course they did it. It was a clear day, and the sea calm; she was allowed to walk about on the deck of the Marguerite and stand by the railings, looking at the water; it was that safe. She was seasick for weeks but not this day. And then those queer cracking noises from underneath, and the crewman beside her stopping, feeling the ship through his heels. And a terrible lurch sideways. And an officer shouting at all to get belowdecks, get out of the bloody way, damn you, as the deck tilted the opposite way. And the mad scramble for the stairs, the passengers clumsy and falling over one another, like dogs on a wet slate floor.
She saw Miss Murchinson peering about in her short-sighted way, calling for her as a crewman half-helped, half-shoved her down the hatch. Cassandra knew she should follow, obey her governess’ summons, but something made her pause, and slip unnoticed beneath a fold of canvas sail piled neatly on the deck.
Then the ship shook like nothing she’d felt on the journey, not wind nor rough sea, but in a despairing way, as if it was a great creature that was dying.
It was shivering apart, she saw now, and the shouting, desperate men unable to save it. She didn’t wish to see and pulled the canvas over her head but the sounds penetrated: the grind of broken timbers, the booming, despairing calm of the captain’s orders, the snap of ropes. The she was falling, everything was falling, the water shocking cold, her limbs churning instinctively. Grasping a timber, splinters tearing into her hands. Shouts turning into screams. A small, cruel hand on her neck.
She looked at her hands. They were torn and bruised, and long splinters still stuck purple beneath the skin. Her hands were so soft. What right did she have to be alive, being so soft?
“Murder,” she whispered. “They murdered the ship, all those people. My mother…”
Her breath caught. She remembered lying awake on a summer’s night, a warm breeze soughing through her curtains, wishing so hard that she might, one day, see a mermaid. A faery. Something extraordinary. Thinking, with all her then-six-year-old might, how dreadful it would be of there was no magic in the world, after all.
The man tilted his head. “Aye, they kill like picking flowers, until it bores them. Who knew, with all the tales of siring a school of porpoise on a mermaid bride, they had such a taste for death? And your mam drowned, poor little thing, and your pa as well?”
She was crying; she wiped her nose on her sleeve.
“Not father, no,” she said. “Mama and I, and Miss Murchinson, we were bound to meet father, in Antigua. He sent for us, to come to his plantations.”
“Ah, a planter’s get,” he rumbled soft. “He’ll be waiting, won’t he? Longer than he knows.”
“Sir!” She couldn’t stop her eyes from prickling, her whole head was hot and leaky now.
“Nay, they must be patient in their kingdoms of cane, their salt islands,” he went on, ignoring her indignation. “For delays are the way of the sea-trade. He’ll wait for word from the harbor, and when it never comes he’ll go thereupon, and watch the sky, ‘long with the rest waiting for cargo, family, word of home. Unless he finds comfort in dusky arms, long and lean and strong from chopping cane or stirring the pot, have I the right of it, Missy?”
He grinned with his yellow teeth and Cassandra balled her fists.
“Pirate,” she snapped. “Dirty pirate. I don’t care if you eat me.”
Her face was warm and snotty with grief and anger and she didn’t care now. On impulse, she swiped at him with her small, chapped paw, missing him entirely. He scuttled back a few paces, ducking his head.
“There you are, Missy,” he said. “Remember to be angry when you can. That saves you in this place.”
She bit her lip and curled in on herself, feeling the grit of the sand on her skirts on her forehead, smelling salt and fish. She pressed her face into her knees until it hurt just enough.
“There,” he said again, closer now, but she wouldn’t look. “Cry what you must, but no more. There isn’t enough water here to feed your grief, so let it end this night.”
She felt the slightest of touches, just at the end of the hairs that curled and fell past her cheeks, almost as if a faint breeze stirred them.
When she looked up he was gone, and the red sun was dipping into the sea; there was just of trace of cool in the air. She scrubbed her face as clean she might with a reasonably clean part of her hem and, mindful of the pirate’s words, cried no more.
He’d made himself a nest as deep in the green oasis as he could, padded with large flat fibrous leaves and dried grasses. It reminded her of the hollow places in the woods one could find of a morning, where the deer had hid their young for the night.
“There you can sleep,” he said. “And I’ll bunk beyond, here.”
He pointed at a thick green cluster between two thick palm trunks. Cassandra squinted. The bushes, if that’s what they were, looked too regular.
He saw her watching and his voice grew rough. “And don’t be disturbing me in the night, or prowling around there. I’m like to kill you in my sleep, in the midst of my dark dreaming. Let not me mistake you for a nightmare, lass.”
She was too tired to do anything but nod, and kneel into the bed he’d made, made smooth by the weight of his body over how many nights? How many years?
He didn’t frighten her, not really, but the weight of his exile did. Cassandra had no shoes to place beside her bed. She made herself as comfortable as she could in her hollow, in her salt-stiff dress, pillowed on her forearm. Overhead the stars were sharp and bright, in unfamiliar patterns.
Exhaustion took her quickly; as she drifted off she thought she could hear the pirate singing, except it sounded like many men, chanting together, soft and husky in a box at the bottom of the sea.
In the morning she woke to a blazing blue sky and a dry, cracked mouth. She could barely move for stiffness and every joint ached.
The pirate (and she was beginning to believe he wasn’t a pirate, after all) brought her water in the thick chipped cup, and a chunk of brown, salty dried beef.
“Let it soften in your mouth,” he advised, settling on a flat stone beside her nest. She eased herself upright, careful not to spill a drop of water. The beef was hard, and difficult to chew, and she had to sip more water to even start to work on it.
“The mermaid said you were a pirate — but you couldn’t be, could you? There aren’t any pirates any more,” she said, after she’d masticated a mouthful to the consistency of soup and swallowed it down. Her belly cramped a little, but it felt good to eat something.
He smiled slightly, still looking towards the beach. In the days to come she learned he never took his eyes of it long, as if fearing attack from that quarter.
“Ah, but I am — Handsome Jack of Madagascar, out of Libertatia, as fine a gentleman rogue that ever served under the bonny black flag.”
He grinned, showing teeth spotted here and there with decay. “That’s what I told them, anyway, and they didn’t kill me like they did the rest.”
She took another bite and concentrated on chewing, her jaws sore. She knew she must eat, no matter how it turned her stomach to think on the rest, the sailors, the passengers, poor Miss Murchinson with her forlorn blue toes, sinking beneath the waves or worse.
The man was still talking.
“…four-and-twenty blackbirds, ready for the baking,” he said in a sing-songy voice. “One hundred twenty blackbirds, actually, all trussed up belowdecks like fine fresh fowl, roasting-ready, bound for the canefields, bound to shovel salt.”
Cassandra’s swallowed. Her belly felt leaden.
“Ten dozen blackbirds down to the bottom, with thirty crew with them,” he continued. “Singing in their chains, screaming as the water gushed in. I could hear them, all the way down.”
He closed his eyes tight. “I still hear them. All the way down. Ten thousand leagues from Africa.”
He opened his eyes suddenly and his gaze struck her like a blow.
“What is your name, my lady?” his voice sharpened, sane and direct.
“Cassandra,” she said, and the mad look in his leaf-green eyes made her suddenly reckless, and she continued: “Miss Cassandra Willows, of Ladymere Park.”
He stared a full minute at her without blinking, then barked suddenly, a startling sound. She realized he was laughing.
“Your blackbirds, then, child, or at least your sire’s. What, Willows of Southbend Plantation, sugar cane and salt fields out beyond the shore? Aye, his name on the manifest, along with others, I’m sure. Poor little bitch, with dog-sire bereft of his blackies and dam-dog sunk beneath the waves, cheek by jowl with the cargo.”
He threw back his head and howled.
She bolted, not towards the shore, for she couldn’t bear to look, not yet, at the endless blue waters and what they might contain. She ran deeper into the oasis, weaving between the trees, feeling the sharp leaves of the undergrowth tearing at her arms. The rock outcrop where the water trickled was before her and she huddled at its foot, knowing she couldn’t hide, that he’d find her whenever he choose but praying that for a while at least he’d leave her alone. A sour taste rose in the back of her throat and she squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated on not vomiting, keeping everything down inside her because the meat was precious and worse, if she puked and puked like a mewling babe, the thirst…
…oh God, how she feared the thirst…
She breathed deep, and everything settled slowly. The bile in her throat receded.
Cassandra opened her eyes. She was alone; he hadn’t followed. In the distance she could still hear him howling.
Turning towards the rock, she found herself staring into the hollow eyes of an ivory skull, perched on a natural shelf that jutted from the dark grey rock. It grinned at her companionably.
How he laughed when he found her, balled up on the sand next to the skull, and tried to pull her to her feet but she took his advice and embraced her anger, striking out at him until he withdraw, still chuckling. He retrieved the skull and sat with it in his lap, stroking it like a puppy, until Cassandra could listen.
“Perkins, Perkins, Percival Perkins,” chanted the pirate, rubbing the top of the skull, which Cassandra could see was polished smooth. “He was a good swimmer. He made it to the island too, ‘long of me. Crawled further than I could, far past the highwater mark. They can hump themselves that far, and higher, even up to the green, but they don’t like it. Hurts their delicate bellies, I suppose.
“Can’t blame him for leaving me by the water, for he had barely the strength to haul himself, and I was so much dead weight. He told me, later, when he saw that dark one, with all that green tail, flop out the tide beside me — he thought I was a goner.
“It was evens that she’d duck me under for good but the whim took her to slap me awake and take a look at me. They get bored, you see, way out here with no-one to talk to but dolphins and naught to eat but fish. That’s why they take the ships down, sometimes. It’s naught but play to them, and their hearts are cold, cold as arctic ice. I saw that in her eyes, the boredom of a spoiled child.
“So I told her I was Handsome Jack, Prince among Pirates, with a load of blackbirds for Lafitte, the Pirate King of Louisiana. Remembered that from an old book, I did. And she didn’t drown Prince Jack, like she would’ve plain John Brendon. She left me be, and later brought her devil-sisters, and they gave me food for stories. A case of dried beef, and bananas floating from the wreck. A barrel of water, even, only a little briny, before we found the spring yonder. Enough to share with Perkins.”
“What kind of stories?”
“Oh, how Grace O’Malley and myself stole Bess of England from her men and entertained her in Ulster-way for many a day, and so treated her that she would not hear of harm upon a single hair of our heads.”
“Grace O’Malley, girly, Sea-Queen of Ulster. And how I was wrecked with Gentleman Clarke upon an island of the Caribs, and found the ransom of Sheba, and lost it again. And how we lived in Libertatia, all men free and equal under God’s own sun and flag.”
But she’d heard that name — Libertatia. No, she’d read it. And Grace O’Malley, and more. Anne Bonney, and another pirate named Margaret. A book, an old book, back of the lowest shelf of her father’s library, so old the leather smelled of mildew. Pyrates. She remembered smiling at the spelling. The Most Notorious Pyrates.
“The stories I told and all half-lies, but they know little of the land. And Perkins — he couldn’t tell a tale to earn his beer or save his life but he was a handsome fool. And they’d call of nights, sometimes, singing at the shore. They’re cold-hearted bitches, and murderesses, and not worth a poxy doxy in the mud out back a piss-hole, but ah….”
He closed his eyes and leaned back his face to the sun. “Ah, but they can sing so sweet, like angels, enough to tear the heart from your body. It hurts not to go to them.”
He opened his eyes and looked at Cassandra, and something passed across his leaf-green eyes, something she’d seen before, like a transparent film, a second eyelid, not quite human. He made her feel strange when he looked at her like that. He blinked and it was gone.
“One night — ’twas the full moon, as bright as daylight — all three came, singing to each other and the moon, and Perkins couldn’t take it anymore. He was a randy sort, begging your pardon, couldn’t keep him off the black women o’ times…”
Handsome Jack looked at her sideways, and swallowed, as if he’d forgotten whom he was talking to. She knew she should be offended, but offense was for far away, for England and the drawing room, and cups of tea and hothouse flowers, but not this place.
The pirate cleared his throat. “I watched him pass, for I must listen too, though I ground my nails into my fists to stop from going to them, and I hissed at him to stay but he laughed at me. He went to them, and they pulled him down in their arms, that scarlet wench first, pulled him out to the water. The moon was like a great lamp; I could see all. They kept him afloat at first, kept his head above water, while took their turns. I could hear him cry out as he tupped them, one, two, three. God help me, I almost went down to them myself then.”
He looked down at his open hands, and she saw the small bloody crescents when his nails had dug into the calloused skin.
“And then, when they’d drained him, when they’d had their pleasure, they pulled him under. He bobbed to the surface now and then, screaming when he had the breath. They laughed like so many girls.
“I watched all night in case he made it to land. When the moon went down I saw something thrashing offshore, like a heap of sharks feeding. Wasn’t until a day later, two, when the tide brought pieces of him high up on the sands.
“I took what came and buried it deep as I could — ’twasn’t much at that. But when his head came — fish had almost polished it clean — I kept it. To remind me next time they sang. And to have someone to talk to.”
He rubbed the skull carefully with the tattered sleeve of his shirt and replaced it carefully in its perch.
She sat on the sand and watched the skull. Hunger stirred in her belly, and the beginnings of thirst, and she knew that they would be constant, save when they rose and overwhelmed her, and that this was the all-and-all of her life now.
“I am please to make your acquaintance, Percival Perkins,” she said. “I suppose one may be properly introduced on an island as well as anywhere else.”
“True, that,” remarked Handsome Jack, and barked again, deep in his throat.
Cassandra learned how much water she was allowed to drink, and how many pieces of the dried salt beef they could have each day. She let her petticoat dry in the sun until it was salt-stiff and then beat it to soften it, finding the overdress too heavy to bear in the heat. John Brendon — or Handsome Jack, as she thought of him, although he was not at all handsome, all burnt by the sun with his scraggle-beard; the only handsome thing about him was his eyes — treated her with a strange, remote courtesy, showing her where she must sleep, where she must relieve herself and bury her leavings, when to gather the pale green, oblong fruit that grew sparsely in the oasis and when to leave them to ripen. Ripe, they were soft inside with a mild, tart flavor and a brown center that tasted a little of rot; unripe they were unbearably sour and made the inside of the mouth pucker painfully.
“And those,” he indicated a white flower with a pink blush faint down its throat. “Mind you don’t take to eating those if the fancy strikes you. You’ll die of belly-cramps, and it won’t be pretty.” He reached out and beheaded the twig, snapping the flower off with his thumbnail.
“See?” A thick drop of white sap grew on the raw edge of the woody twig. “A fair dose of that and you’ll hunger no more, thirst no more. I tried just a little, a-testing of it, and it made my tongue numb and my gut twist so I knew what I heard of it before was true.”
He tossed the white flower aside and wiped his fingers on his trousers. “One day I’ll boil a mass of them down and drink it up, when I can’t stand it no more, and let the fishy bitches find me on the beach. Drive them mad to think I’d done it myself, without their say-so.”
Finally he showed her his two great treasures. One was a big clot of honey, the remains of an ancient, extinct hive, still buried in the bole of a tree. It was dark brown and crusty, but in the sun she could smell its sweetness. The mottled surface was chipped hollow, and with an indulgent smile he worked off a tiny morsel with the tip of his blunt knife. She let it melt on her tongue, and it filled her with a musky sugar tang.
“No more than that,” he said. “We’ll need it later, for strength, when we take the boat down to the water.”
“Boat?” Hope stung painful in her chest. “You have a boat?”
He put his finger to his lips, but smiled pridefully.
“Hush — they mustn’t know,” he said, as if the mermaids could hear him from beneath the sea, and maybe they could.
He led her to the green cluster between the palms, where he’d forbidden her that first night. Covered by bushes and palm branches, a small boat grew, almost complete. Long, multi-colored lengths of wood made up the siding, and she saw how he must have gathered the precious flotsam of years from the shore, carrying them here and shaping them together, bit by bit.
“It’s my second,” he said. “I had another — ’twas a lifeboat washed up after a squall, with all hands over, and nearly complete — only needed a little patching. One of ’em — that sandy bitch with the blue tail — found me hauling it from the shore and smashed it, smashed it to pieces with her tail, laughing the whole time.”
He stroked the side of it proprietarily. “I don’t know how long she’ll hold without leaking — I’ll tar her best I can — but maybe long enough to get to Antigua.”
He shifted the branches over it again. “If you find a handy piece of lumber washed up — sometimes it’ll take a wreck years to break onshore — bring it here, but quiet-like. Or tell me if it’s too heavy for you.”
“How will we get by them?” she asked, as he finished covering it. “They’ll see us, won’t they?”
Jack’s jaw clenched.
Something perverse made her persist. “Won’t they? There’s three of them. One’s bound to see, and they’ll smash it again. With us in it.”
Cassandra knew she should stop but she couldn’t. It felt cruel, but then he was cruel, wasn’t he, showing her a way out that would never do, letting hope flare and fade again, but not fade completely, faint and persistent like honey on the tongue.
“How long have you been building it? Years? And they’ll catch you thirty yards out.”
His fist balled and she dug her toes into the soft sand, ready to flee or take the blow; she didn’t know which.
“Get out of it,” he growled.
“Filthy pirate. Slaver,” she replied.
He raised his arm to strike her and froze there, they both froze, while the sea breeze, warm and constant and salty, played over them.
He struck, but turned aside so his blow lashed to the side, hitting nothing. She squeaked, a little-girl-squeak, a ridiculous sound, but she couldn’t help it.
He barked once, his queer bark that was half a laugh and left her standing by the boat, mounded over in its hidey-spot. She felt, obscurely, that she should apologize to it.
Cassandra found Handsome Jack sitting before Percival Perkins’ skull, holding a broken branch of the poisonous flowers. A thick string of while sap trailed from the stem.
She stared at the blooms clustered on the branch. They weren’t very pretty, she thought. There was something hard and waxy about them.
Something sparked in her head. A wicked thought. A mean little thought. It felt good.
“No, you shan’t poison yourself,” she said, and her voice sounded as if it were coming outside of her body. “No, not that.”
Handsome Jack squinted at her.
“What are babbling about, missy?” he said. “I’ll poison myself in my own good time, and none can take that from me.”
“No, but listen, Jack.” She sat beside him, trying to control the excitement in her voice. It was important to explain. It was important to make him understand.
“They wanted a tea party, the mermaids. The fishy bitches.” She covered her mouth and felt like giggling with the daring of it. He smiled at her, still not understanding.
“They said they were going to find some tea — there was a box of it aboard, I heard the captain say, and I told them. They were going to bring it when they found it. Don’t you see, Jack? They want me to make them a tea party. If they find it, if they come, if they don’t forget or get bored…we can make them tea. And they’ll drink it.”
He squinted at her.
“Don’t you see? We’ll give them their tea party, and poison them.”
“Oh, child.” He threw a furtive look over his shoulder, as if one of the mermaids could have somehow snuck up behind him, before turning back to her with a conspiratorial whisper. “Do you think? Do you think they’ll do it?”
“They drank seawater. They live in seawater. And we’ll make it sweet — with the honey, you have enough left.”
“It won’t work.” He twisted the branch between his rough fingers, as if he would eat it down right there. “Like the boat. It won’t work.”
“The boat will work. They’ll be dead. And I’m sorry, Jack. It’s a beautiful boat.”
He stared down at the crumpled blooms and straightened one out with a brown finger. “She is, ain’t she? What will we call her?”
“A pirate name. The Grace O’Malley.”
“That’s a fine name, lass. Very well. The Grace O’Malley.”
They came when she was hunting the shore for wood, the red-haired mermaid with her red-gold tail and the blue-tailed one that had worn the hat, and at first she thought they must know about the boat.
But they laughed together and smiled sweetly at her, heaving between them a big wooden chest, well sealed with wax.
“Look what we’ve found!” called the red-headed one. “Come and see!”
And despite her misgivings Cassandra went to them, where the sand was solid-packed and wet, her bare feet wringing out the salt water in pale crescents beneath her.
The mermaids parted and let her examine the chest. The print of a seal was embedded deep in the wax.
She scrabbled at the top with her broken nails, knowing she couldn’t open it by herself.
“Here.” The blue mermaid with the light brown hair pushed past her impatiently. Cassandra could see that her long fingers terminated in nails that were long and sharp, more like elegant talons that anything human. She ran them along the side of the chest, finding the groove where the lid sealed, and with barely a grunt she popped it open and thrust it aside.
Cassandra bent over the open chest. Unmistakable, the fragrance of tea rose from the bags, still dry, that lay inside. With a shaking hand she reached in and took a pouch. She didn’t need to open it to know what it was. It smelled like the inside of a vessel used to import spice must smell like, redolent with the perfume of the East, of India, of everything exotic and fine, brought home to be brewed in her mother’s china.
“Is it good?” said the red-haired creature, sounding younger than Cassandra in her eagerness.
“Yes, very good. The best,” she replied, replaced the pouch and reaching into the chest. There was more, nested between those precious bags, wrapped in soft cotton. She grasped something the size of her fist and unwrapped it.
It was a cup, pure white, impossible white, impossibly thin, rimmed with gold. She rewrapped it, trembling slightly, and grasped another. Another cup, miraculously unbroken. The finest set of china she could imagine, fit for the Regent, fit for Empress, fit for the Pope.
“We can have our tea party?” The brown-haired mermaid showed sharp teeth in a feral grin.
Mastering herself, Cassandra nodded. “Tomorrow.”
“No. Now.” The red-haired one sounded petulant.
Cassandra shook her head, telling herself to show no fear.
“It’s too late in the day. You want to do it right, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said the other, with a glare for the redhead, who hissed at her.
“Listen!” Cassandra put every once of command into her voice. “You must come when the sun is there.”
She pointed to a place in the sky several inches over the highest palm tree.
“You must not be late. And you must…you must wear hats.”
She had to make it sound good, like something desired, something to keep their interest through the morrow. A ritual.
“Hats?” The redhead sounded dubious.
She tried to sound like Miss Murchinson. “All ladies wear hats to tea.”
“Then we will!” The mermaid with the blue tail grasped her companion’s hand and pulled her into the water.
Cassandra stood beside hundreds of pounds worth of finest Ceylon, watching their wake subside. The tide was coming in fast, licking at the foot of the chest, and she feared there was no time to get Jack to carry it inland for her. In the end, she took three of the pouches and four of the beautiful cups, without saucers, in the skirt of her petticoat. She imagined the high tide washing the great box with its imperial seals out again, onto the bosom of the waves, tea leaves spreading across the water, thin, gold-rimmed china sinking to the bottom where the drowned slaves sang, beautiful cups for their elevenses.
The tea was dreadful, of course, boiled in the same old tin pan they’d boiled the sap of the deadly flowers in, but they didn’t (she prayed, she prayed) know what it should taste like. They’d softened the honey in the sun all morning and she dripped it, long and brown and slow, into the concoction.
“I hope it’s enough,” said Jack, glancing nervously at the sea as the sun rose higher. “I hope it’s strong enough.”
It hadn’t occurred to her until now that that maybe the liquor of the poison flowers might not be strong enough to kill them — or maybe it would have no effect at all. They were big, and strong, and half-fish — they weren’t human.
It was too late to worry about that. She wrapped the horrid thought away in a dark place in her mind.
At the assigned time they came, all three of them. Cassandra watched as they thrust their way out of the water and up the sand, strangely graceful for all they were out of their native element. She understood Jack’s fear, then, that they could enter the very heart of the oasis, the secret place where he kept his boat and every hope he held.
She steeled herself, straightened her back and walked out to greet them, carrying the cups and the pan with extra tea on an old salt-leeched board as an improvised tea-tray. She was Miss Cassandra Willows of Ladymere Park, damn it to Hell. She would play the lady for them.
Seeing them up close, she had to stifle a giggle. They had followed her instructions about wearing hats. The brown-haired one had somehow retained the hat with the paper roses — very tattered now — from that first day. The redhead wore a sailor’s cap at a rakish angle. And the third — the dark-haired one, with a tail so dark green as to be almost black, had wrapped a length of seaweed around her head like a demi-turban. It looked as elegant as anything she’d seen in her mother’s parlor.
Cassandra curtsied stiffly and carefully placed the tea-tray on the sand, kneeling as she did so. She picked up one of the cups, ready-filled with tea and honey and poison, and handed it carefully to the brown-haired mermaid.
“It’s a beautiful day, is it not?” she said, remembering childish play-parties. One always talked of the weather.
The creature giggled as it took the cup. “Oh, very lovely,” she replied, ready to play. She sipped at the concoction noisily.
Cassandra handed another to the redhead. “Her Majesty was telling me the most amusing story the other evening…” And one always took tea with the queens and princesses of the most exotic imaginable lands. The first mermaid had finished her tea and thrust out her cup for more. Cassandra smiled as regally as she could and filled it from the battered pan, her hand only shaking a little.
“Tell us!” said the redhead, holding her own snow-white cup with both hands.
“Well,” continued Cassandra, taking the third poison-cup and reaching out to the chestnut-haired creature and her turban of seaweed. “You know that the prince had been captured by the notorious pirate Lafitte…”
The mermaid took the cup delicately and paused with it half-way to her lips, smiling sardonically. Cassandra took her own cup, the one with brownish water and nothing else, the one with the handle turned back towards her hand, the one with the chip out its side, so she could say, if questioned, that the hostess must take the marred china. She lifted it and drank, tasting nothing, not daring to look away from the mermaid before her, hearing the others slurp away and laugh together.
“…and Queen Bess had sent to Grace O’Malley and Gentleman Clarke to rescue him…”
Finally, the mermaid sipped.
Cassandra babbled on. “Grace was fighting the Monster Napoleon, and so she told the Queen…”
There was a speculative expression on the mermaid’s pretty, clever face and she looked at Cassandra over the gold-rimmed lip of her cup, dark eyes narrowing. “Why is it so bitter?”
Cassandra swallowed. “Tea is bitter, didn’t you know that? It’s supposed to be bitter, if it’s good. Here — have some more honey.”
She held out a chunk of the dried honey, dark brown and gritty beneath her fingers.
The red-haired mermaid cried out, clutching at her belly above the intersection where the scales of her tail gave way to flesh. The cup fell from her bloodless fingers, empty. The flat paddles of her tail beat against the sand; the lower part of her body humped and doubled until it seemed she must break in two. She vomited, and a great foul mass of half-digested matter, little bones like fish in it, splashed in the sand.
Behind her, Cassandra could see the brown-haired mermaid with the blue tail, sprawled still on the sand, a broken teacup and its contents trailing from her hand.
The mermaid before watched her companions, still holding the handle of the delicate china cup. Now she turned back to Cassandra, her upper body swiveling like a cobra, teeth bared. Her left hand darted forward with irresistible speed and grasped her throat and she squeezed, hard, her dark eyes blazing.
Cassandra, too slow, grasped the mermaid’s arm in her turn, trying in vain to pull her off. Black dots swam before her eyes, and she seemed to be watching herself, in tableau, herself and the mermaid in intimate joinure, far below on the yellow sands. Everything was silent, but beyond the horizon a great roaring rose. And still the creature held the cup, elegant as a duchess, without spilling a drop.
Another roar, harsh and guttural, close by her ear pulled her back into her body. A bulky something, shouting — Handsome Jack. He carried a long spar, narrower than a mast with a crudely hacked point, carried like a lance, charged past her where the mermaid held her immobile and thrust it at the base of the creature’s throat.
The sharpened pole went through her, and her body bent back. Suddenly Cassandra could breathe and she fell to her knees, gulping the air, sweet as water, as rose-lemonade.
Jack yelled something incoherent and thrust again, pinning the creature into the sand. Dark blood, almost black, gouted from the base of the pole in her throat. Her head was bent too far back for Cassandra to see but she still clutched the broken pieces of the cup in her hand.
Cassandra gasped and clutched at her throat; it felt on fire and her limbs felt weak. She couldn’t get enough air in. Blackness still ringed her vision and she concentrated on keeping it back.
The mermaid was writhing like a worm stuck on a hook. By luck or skill her tail slashed up and struck Jack hard in the side. He staggered back, almost losing his grip on the spar, and then grasped it again. With a cry he yanked it from her throat and swung the blunt end round, hard as he could, across her temple. There was a horrid wet crack. He did it again. Again.
She wanted to yell at him to stop but nothing would come from her ravaged throat.
Jack paused over the body. The green tail twitched and was still.
He threw down the spar and sat beside it with an ungraceful thump: the fisherman and his unnatural catch.
Tea-time was over.
Sometime during the night Cassandra woke. The stars were hard and bright through the palm fronds, and the sky between them black as sin. Her neck still burned; she could feel each individual mark the mermaid’s cruel fingers had made. Handsome Jack was gone, and a brief panic fought with her exhaustion, and the lassitude in her tired limbs, curled up warm and snug in her nest.
Somewhere beyond the slight trickle of water something was making a sound, some animal perhaps — panting or grunting rhythmically. It reminded her of mama’s cough two years past, a cold she couldn’t shake and tried to suppress, stifling her spasms at the tea table, lips resolutely closed, a soft steady barking sound the result.
Cassandra tucked her knees further beneath her chin and went back to sleep.
The mermaids were still sprawled on the sand in the morning. It wasn’t hot yet, but the still air stank of fish.
One — the brown-haired one, the one that had swum her to the island — seemed to have split a ways vertically beneath her belly, well into the area where scales replaced skin. It was where she’d seen the pink pouting slit that had seemed so queer on the red-haired mermaid that first dreadful day. But this was longer, and scarlet as sunburn. Curious she went closer. The creature’s arms were spread out to the sky, her face flaccid, her open eyes clouded over like a fish after market-day. There were milky-white streaks across her scales, and more leaking from the ruby opening, as if someone had spilled roe on her. It was not unlike the white sap of the poisonous flower.
“Come away from that,” came Handsome Jack’s voice sharp behind her, and she almost jumped. He was tugging the Grace O’Malley out from under its — her — shelter of branches and fronds.
He frowned at her, his face red beneath its bristles. She trotted over to him, and helped him pull the craft out from the little hollow.
They pushed it over the sands, careful of rocks that could tear the bottom.
“Jack,” she whispered. It hurt her throat to talk. He grunted, focused on the boat.
“Jack, what if there’s more out there?” Her voice was husky and sounded older than she was. “What if it wasn’t only these three?”
He laughed humorlessly.
“Then, my Lady, we will die damning God and His angels for such a cruel trick.”
He’d already packed up what beef remained and what fruit was ripe, and all the water they had containers for. The Grace O’Malley was watertight for the nonce, and as she sat carefully balanced in the stern and Jack wielded the long, thin boards he’d improvised as paddled Cassandra watched the yellow hump of the inland recede, and wondered if they’d killed the only mermaids left in the world.
A small shower passed over them that first day, enough so they could drink their fill and replenish their containers. But that was all the luck they had, and the days were long and hot, and if she thought she was thirsty before it was nothing to it now: thirst crueler than pirates, than slavers, than mermaids.
A hard hand under her neck and the lip of the water bottle at her lips.
“Don’t spill a drop of it, or I’ll kill you sure,” came Jack’s sun-harsh voice. “A bit at a time, ’til it’s all down you. Inside your belly’s the best place to store it, and that way, that way…I’ll not be tempted.”
Then, a whisper. “Months I stayed away from you, dearie. For all my sins, they should remember that, God and His cruel angels. I did stay away.”
She didn’t understand, and didn’t care, the slow pulse of warm water down her aching throat felt so good. Nothing could ever taste so good again, nothing so sweet, no food, no drink, never in her long life of eating and drinking. For whatever happened here, she would live long. That’s what the water, trickling its way down, meant.
He coaxed a last drop in. “There. All gone now. I wouldn’t curse a rainstorm, even if we overturned. Quicker that way, anyhow.
There was a sound like a shifting body. “I’d dive down now, dive deep and loose my air, but I’ll none of their Kingdom. Sooner dry out like a fish on a plank.”
He was quiet a long time, and Cassandra fought to open her eyes, but her lids weighed a hundred, a thousand pounds and it was no use. Her lips cracked so she kept them still, but inside her mouth her tongue and throat were wet, a lush meadow, a wellspring. She could hear the water lapping the side monotonously, and the occasional groan of the boards when Jack moved. Once there was a fumbling close by her ear and the light through her eyelids darkened: blessed shade.
She must have dozed for she woke to damp spreading beneath her body, through her petticoat. Had she wet herself?
Jack was whispering nearby, long soft stream of curses. The shade went away and the harsh light beat through her eyelids again, and she stirred and moaned. Blinking, she saw nothing but a blaze of light beating from the water, white light, painful, and the thin black silhouette of Jack.
“Begging your pardon, Missy,” he said. “But needs must, for the seams are springing and we’ll go down to the blackbirds nonetheless.”
She closed her eyes against the stabbing light and whimpered, hating the sound she made. He shushed her absently, as one might an injured dog. The damp stopped spreading.
A long time later she became aware that he was whispering at her ear with a voice low as the creak of stone on stone.
“Remember for me, lass. Libertatia, where all had the freedom of the seas, and the times we toasted Grace O’Malley and Bess with Lafitte. The Republic of Pirates. It might have been, angels forgive me. I might have loosed their chains and taken the ship, and we would have lived a while, free about the islands. Should’ve done it. God knows I thought of it often enough, hearing Perkins grunting on the women o’ nights. Taken Antigua and the Caribs, raised the flag of Grace and Glorianna high. What a kingdom it would have been.”
None of it made sense but it went on and on, until the thirst rose again inside her and drowned all else.
Hours later, when the sun was not so high and cruel, she watched the rim of the boat and the flicker of water beyond, no strength left to turn her head and look for Jack. She blinked and saw slim fingers grasp the side, with nailed that terminated in sharp talons. A muscled arm flexed and sapphire-blue eyes, indifferent as a bird of prey’s, watched her.
Between blinks it vanished, and might have been a dream, that, and the plash of a long tail, and a salty giggle.
A shadow bent over her, blocking the cruel sun but ah, her head pulsed with the pain of it as she was lifted away from the Grace O’Malley. Strong arms around her, and about her, the voices of many men.
“Is the child dead?”
It was strange to hear so many different voices, so many men’s voices, when she had become accustomed to Jack alone.
There was a pause, while she was pressed closed against a felted surface, something round and cold biting into her cheek, and beneath that the regular thump of a heartbeat.
“Alive, just,” called a voice just over her head, and she winced from the loudness of it.
“Luckier than the other, then. Get her below and get her some water — not too much at first. Gods, look at the marks on her neck. Think it was this poor bastard did it?”
“Perhaps,” came another voice. Was she ever between so many men before? “But I’d wonder why she wasn’t dead, then. Maybe he tried for the last of their water, and hadn’t the strength to do it.”
“Sew him up and heave him over, then. I don’t want to bring a corpse to Antigua.”
No, she tried to say. Don’t send Jack down to the mermaids, to the singing blackbirds. But nothing came out, and she was cradled in canvas and lifted up, swaying from the end of a rope. Forcing her crusted eyes open, she caught glimpses: tall sails sheeted in the wind, ropes crossing them, and men flickering back and forth about their business.
So solid, so confident and sure, but a mermaid’s fist could bring you down. Be grateful we killed them between us, Jack and I.
She was hauled on deck and lifted again.
“Survivor of the Marguerite, do you think, Sir? There’s been none other found.”
“Perhaps.” A gruffer voice came from behind, and the arms holding her jerked from side to side as if they were going downstairs.
“But where she would have been — she and that other, had the look of a sailor about him — for two months, I can’t think. Maybe washed up on one of these islands, God knows there’s a passel of ’em about. We’ll know when we find out her name.”
She blinked her eyes open again and saw, dimly, a room, lined with wide boards, and light glinting through a window. A pink blur of a face hovered over her own.
“Now then, lass, you’re a lucky one for sure. What’s your name, then?”
She stared at the man’s watery blue eyes while Jack’s words roiled inside her. Remember the Kingdom of Pirates.
A word would take her home, to her new home, to her father, to his plantation on Antigua. Did he still stand at the dock, looking out to sea for her? Or did he take comfort amongst his slaves?
I heard Perkins grunting on the women.
Handsome Jack, once John Brendon, lived a while by telling stories, and it didn’t matter that they were lies. A world of possibilities opened before her. Was this how Pirate Queens were born?
Cassandra opened her cracked lips to answer, tasting sugar, sugar and salt.