As both moons shone down from above, I drew my hood down lower and stepped quietly across the street, keeping to the shadows as much as I could. Waves breathed in the distance, and the masts of tall sailing ships stood beyond the jagged, rickety rooftops.
The sun had long since set, but activity continued at the port. Clockwork drudges clacked and whirred as they drew covered carts, wooden wheels clattering against wet cobblestones. I stepped into the tavern, keeping my head down.
Orban was there – an old man now, scraggly white beard and prominent bald patch. He sat in one corner, both hands wrapped around a tankard of beer. Younger men and women surrounded him, hanging on his every word, it seemed.
"Tell us about Scapegrace," someone said.
"That's all he ever talks about," another said, with a sigh.
"It's the only story he has that's worth hearing," the first voice replied.
Orban waited patiently through all this, looking small, old and weary. He seemed almost honoured to be a small diversion for some insolent youngsters. I wondered just what his life was like these days. The gold must have run out. Gambled away, I expected.
"I don't mind telling it over and over," he said. "It plays on my mind a lot. Annabel Scapegrace was the best captain I ever served under, until she got those funny ideas in her head. Sometimes I wonder if she might even have been right."
"Don't get ahead of yourself," one of the young men laughed. "Tell it properly!"
"Okay, okay," Orban said, with an almost toothless grin, "now many years ago, I was boatswain on the Blue Cuttlefish – an honest trading vessel, sailing the harsh route between here and the New World. Long, dangerous journeys on turbulent seas. You were as likely to be pitched overboard by a huge wave as you were to survive to collect your handsome pay.
"On my fifth trip across we got a new first mate, name of Annabel Scapegrace. She was fair, and friendly enough, until you broke the rules, and then she'd make damn sure you never did it a second time. I always worked hard and never made any trouble, so I had little to do with her. I did once see one of the crew draw a knife on her. She didn't even blink, just pulled out her pistol and shot him straight through the heart. Bang!"
Orban aimed his finger at the bosom of the nearest young woman, who raised an eyebrow.
"It was a normal enough voyage out, but when we got to the port in the New World, we were warned by the settlers there that they'd seen a ship flying the skull and crossbones. A huge galleon, loaded with cannon. But by the time they warned us, it was too late. The pirate ship rounded the rocky coast, and the Cuttlefish was too close to the shore to manoeuvre properly. We were a light trading ship, with only a few token guns to protect ourselves. What could we do?"
Orban looked around at the youngsters.
"Fight anyway!" one of them suggested.
"I'm sure they would have turned tail at the mere sight of you, Orban," one of the girls added, slyly.
He laughed. "Perhaps they would have. Fortunately, we didn't have to do anything. Their fire-power was their own undoing. Laden with heavy cannon, the pirate ship scraped its bottom on the shallow water, and ran aground. Before we could get out of range, though, she loosed quite a few volleys at us, taking down our sails and tearing gaping holes in us below the waterline. We limped a short way around the coast, and then had to beach the Cuttlefish itself.
"Now we were in real trouble. The hold took a direct hit, and what little of our supplies had survived were floating out into the sea. That was our food and that we were bringing to the port. There wasn't enough to go around, we realised that pretty quickly. The captain, he was a company man, and his solution was to wait months and months for the next supply ship to arrive. Then we'd get food, and could send word back home about our plight.
"But Scapegrace wasn't happy with this. Right in front of the rest of the crew she asked the captain, 'But how many of us will starve before the next supply ship arrives? What if they don't make it – if they sink on the way here? And what about when high tide comes? What if the pirates get afloat again? Then they'll worry not just us, but any supply ships that make it to us.'
"The captain was stunned. His mouth flapped open and closed uselessly, and then he just said, 'You be very careful Scapegrace. I won't tolerate the merest whiff of mutiny – not even from you.'
"When he said the dreaded 'm' word, absolute silence fell. I didn't even dare breath. And everyone looked at Scapegrace. She gritted her teeth, pulled out her pistol, and shot him in the chest. Bang!"
Orban aimed his finger at another one of the youths.
"He wasn't dead right away, managed to pull out his own pistol, but Scapegrace was on him like a shot. She stamped on his hand to make him drop the gun and turned to look at the sailors around her. She pointed at the captain and said, 'Put this overboard.' And who were we to disobey?
"Scapegrace had a whole different plan from the captain's, and we had to put it into action real quick-like. Before high tide came along and maybe dislodged the pirate ship, we'd row over in our boats and board her. We were going to take the pirate ship from the pirates, and sail back home in their spacious galleon, probably loaded with gold and plunder as well as guns.
"Well, I've never been much of a fighter. I was there, and I cut a few people, but I don't think I did quite as much as I could have. But Scapegrace, I think, felt she had something to prove. She put herself right in the thick of it, and took a jagged wound right across here."
Orban slowly ran his forefinger diagonally across his face. "She always had a scar there, and it made her look like a right pirate. Speaking of which, of course, once we had our pirate vessel, and a few left-over pirates, and a desperate need for food, well, we soon discovered the lure of the trade – if you'll allow the term - ourselves.
"Scapegrace made an excellent pirate. Just like when she was first mate, she was firm but fair. She wouldn't kill anyone who would cooperate, and she made sure that when we stole food, we left enough for the plundered crew to survive on. We also helped to lighten the load of their ships by removing items unnecessary for survival in the harsh New World – gold, jewels and other useless trinkets. Still, if anyone gave her trouble, even if it was a captain who refused to believe she wouldn't harm her prisoners, she was quick to put it down. She cut right through nonsense with her cutlass – and the person producing it as well, you see. And it wasn't just with the people we preyed on, either. If anyone in the crew stepped out of line, she'd hammer them back into it, just like when we were on the Cuttlefish.
"I only tried my luck once," Orban said, holding up his hand, "with one little misdemeanour."
There were quite coos from the listeners as they took in the empty space where Orban's little finger might have been expected to be.
He made sure everyone got a good look, and then resumed his story. "With the pirates that survived our theft of the vessel, we learned how to survive as outlaws in the New World, often mixing with the natives – savages who scraped out a life in the crumbling stone ruins of some ancient civilisation. They were a strange lot, even for foreigners, but the trouble was that the cap'n lapped up their crazy ideas.
"Now, they thought that what made these ruins weren't men or women, but creatures of some kind. They'd show you these crazy figures etched into the wall and claim that was what they looked like, though I could never make head nor tail of it – if they even had heads or tails, who knows. And of course, there was treasure of a sort. Some ancient god that could grant immortality if you pleased it, or dash your civilisation into rubble if you pissed it off.
"Scapegrace liked the idea of this immortality stuff, and, just as we were getting into the swing of the whole piracy lark, she kept taking us off course to look for this monster, this 'Troth' thing, a god of the sea or some mumbo-jumbo like that. It lived, according to the natives, in some deep undersea crevice, and so Scapegrace was always dropping lines over the side to try and map the ocean floor. What a waste of time, we all thought – time that could be better spent 'accumulating financial capital', as you might call it!
"Naturally, we started to get a bit miffed. We tried talking to her. But she was convinced. All this time we was wasting, it was nothing compared to how much time we'd have when we found Troth and won its favour. Working with some copies of the etchings in the ruins and making guesses from her incomplete sea-map, she sailed us right into the worst, most turbulent seas I've ever known, in all my years – never before and never since. She had us dropping lines overboard, trying to figure out how deep it was, and we had to keep the same position as the wind buffeted us about, or the map would be wrong – good grief, what madness!
"So, well, we did the only thing we could, didn't we?" Orban stopped and looked around at the youngsters. The tavern was silent. Everyone seemed to be hanging on his every word, even the barmaid.
"You killed her?" someone suggested, timidly.
Orban ran his finger slowly across his throat. "In her sleep. She probably never knew what was happening. Then we tossed her overboard and resumed our criminal ways. At that point we found out that Scapegrace was known the world over and we had the whole Imperial Navy chasing after us. Those were some fun times, I'll tell you that! We was famous, and it was Scapegrace what done it. A lot of us were killed off, of course, and the rest were captured. I don't think nobody got away. We was real lucky with the war, what with them needing experienced sailors for the navy. I served my time on a warship, in a uniform, all proper-like. So now, if you see my name in the papers, I'm often double heroic – first as one of Scapegrace's pirates, and then as a war veteran."
"Wow," someone said, although I couldn't tell if they were humouring him.
Everyone laughed a little, Orban joining in, and then the kids started standing and stretching their legs, discussing quietly where they were going to go next to kill time. One by one, they drifted off, leaving Orban sipping his tankard of beer. He looked around. Just him left, the barmaid, and me. I got up and walked out myself, then, out the door and across the road. Into the chilly sea air, beneath the starry sky. I watched through the window as he had three more tankards, and then got unsteadily to his feet. From the back of his chair he pulled a coat over his shoulders, and from beneath the table produced a walking stick to lean on. With a toothless grin for the barmaid, he hobbled out and, shakily dismounted from the doorstep.
He started walking down the road, his footsteps echoing through a town now silent. I let him get a way ahead, and then followed after. At the sound of my footsteps, he stopped and turned around, taking in my hooded form.
"Oh," he said, clearly recognising me from the tavern. "It's you. Leave an old man in peace, will you?"
Without waiting for me to reply, he turned his back to me and resumed walking.
I followed at the same pace, stepping heavily onto the cobbles.
Orban turned around again, an uncertain look on his face, and I stopped, keeping the same distance from him.
"What do you want?" he demanded. "I know I play on my history for a bit of company, but if I've wronged you in the past, know that you have my most sincere apologies. Now let's be civil and head to bed, where all good citizens belong at this hour."
I raised my hand, and Orban watched with a frown on his face. Slowly, I drew a finger along the base of my little finger.
Orban took an unsteady step towards me. "What are you getting at?"
"Theft of vittles," I said, "one dry biscuit and associated weevils."
Orban turned white. "Who are you?" he demanded. "Show me your face."
"You don't want to see my face, Orban. It's not so pretty these days. A short stay on the bottom of the ocean will do that to you."
"Sc-Scapegrace? It is you, isn't it?" Orban's face rapidly went through a range of emotions, from horrified to panic-stricken, and then settled on a forced smile. "Well, that's wonderful! We have a lot of catching up to do!"
"Yeah," I said. "In fact, I've already 'caught up' with much of the rest of the crew – those not already dead."
I had been stepping closer to him as I spoke, watching his hands. Now he made his move, whipping out a dagger and plunging it through my shirt and between my ribs.
I laughed, and threw back my hood. Orban's eyes widened and he froze, his hand still on the dagger's hilt.
"My flesh rotted away long ago," I said softly. "Now all that's left is bone and seaweed. No heart for you to pierce, or throat for you to slit, Orban."
He stepped back, releasing the dagger, and I pulled it free of my ribs. I studied the blade in the moonlight. "This will come in handy in a moment," I said.
"Please, cap'n, you gotta understand, we didn't know! We thought you was crazy!"
"Well, patently I wasn't. When you threw my dead body overboard, I found something waiting for me at the bottom of the sea, something quite happy to give me a second chance."
"Troth, right?" Orban said with another forced grin, "and just think, if we hadn't mutinied, you might never have found it!"
I pointed the dagger at Orban. "I would've liked a little more time to try and find it my way. I could've used a second chance from you, Orban. From you and all your treacherous mates."
I stabbed the knife towards him, aiming for the heart. He must have known me too well, though. His other hand shot out, deflecting my blade with his walking stick. While I was unbalanced, he lashed out again, my head resounding with the sound of wood striking bone. I fell forward, onto my hands and knees, and as quickly as I got to my feet, Orban – hobbling at a comical pace – had rounded a corner into dark shadows.
I dusted myself off and pulled my hood back up. He wouldn't escape me for long, in all likelihood. And yet, I realised, I wasn't too bothered knowing that he had a slim chance of escape. Well, he knew the terms of the engagement now, and had a brief reprieve to make his own plans. I would seek him out, and who knew what might happen on our second encounter?
After that, more important errands called to me, a bass note rising from the ground, and up through my bones, like the whole ocean tolling as some vast creature's bell.