Her third week on the ship, when her skin had darkened from the sun, and she no longer flinched at the sailors’ curses, and she had learned to keep her legs steady in the storms, Clarine spilled the wine for the first time.
She froze. Her mouth widened but no sound came forth.
Clarine knelt, desperate to somehow grab it with her hands, to pull it back into the goblet, but it had already trickled down deep into the warped wooden steps.
As she stood still, watching the wood drink the wine away, she could hear the waves crashing against the ship, like a whip against naked skin.
Clarine took a deep breath and tightened her grip on the platter and the cup. She walked down the steps. It was only a little. Hardly a mouthful. No one would notice what was gone. This wasn’t stealing or mutiny. Just a slip of the wrist.
She went through the final doors, the ones far down in the belly of the great boat, right to the edge of the candlelight cast by the sconce on the wall. She slid the plate and the goblet forward into the dark of the cell, as she had every day and every night since she had come aboard.
The candle that burned down there barely illuminated the thrice-locked room, managing to make a circle of weak firelight on the floor, ringed by shadows. But not once since she’d come aboard had she ever changed that little candle, and not once had it gone out, or even appeared to melt.
But not once until that day had she spilled the wine, and not once until that day had there been a voice from the dark of the brig’s cell.
The voice slithered between the wrought-iron grate and across her skin, making all the little hairs of her arms and legs stand on edge. “Your hands slipped today, little girl. I imagine I’ll be quite parched with only half a glass.”
Clarine was not sure if her heart would explode or stop pounding altogether
She looked to the goblet, where she could barely see the level of the wine holding it beneath the candlelight. Her eyes turned from where she was to the total dark of the inside of the cell. How did he know? She swallowed and remembered her job, setting down the meal and reaching for the instructions she’d been given to steady her nerves. Say nothing, the captain had said, staring into her eyes. She’d tried to look away, but he had wrenched her head with a sailor’s strength and forced her eyes to look back. In his stare, she hadn’t seen authority, or order, or a military man. She just saw fear. Say nothing, he said, hoarse and quavering. Just put it down and come back out. You must never speak a word, and never take a bite.
Clarine went to stand up, all too aware of the way her fingers slipped ever so slightly out of the candlelight as she pushed his plate into the cell. She could not tell from where in the cage the voice came from. It was a man’s voice, she thought, but she had not heard an accent like his before. He was certainly not from Britain. It was deep and smooth, something that curled around you softly, slowly. She walked backwards to the door, feet scuffing against the planks, not wanting to turn her back to the iron bars and the man within it.
He laughed. It was cold and echoed in the musty air. It made it seem as though he was behind her and before her, speaking to her face and whispering in her ear all at once. “Did that fool of a captain tell you not to speak to me, little girl?”
Clarine felt as if the heavy iron nails in the boards had reached up and curled around her toes, dragging her down into the floor. He’d said say nothing. She followed orders. She was good.
But she did not like the idea of angering the man in the dark, no matter how many steel bars stood between the two.
So, she shook her head, just barely, just slightly. It wasn’t speaking—it was nodding, She wasn’t disobeying. She had said nothing. She was not breaking the rules. They couldn’t whip her if she followed orders.
He laughed again, like a rumble of a storm far off in the distance. “…and you didn’t say a word, now did you, girl? A good girl. A clever girl. Cleverer than your captain, most assuredly.”
She said nothing. You weren’t supposed to speak that way about the captain. She bit her lip and curled her toes against the insides of her shoes so she could not run away, so he would not see her scared. Assuredly. She did not know what the word meant, but there was nothing in his voice that might hint at it being any sort of kindness.
“Well, I mustn’t keep you,” the voice said. “Run along now. I’ll see you in the morning. Mind your hands are steadier then than they were tonight.”
Clarine took that morning’s goblet and plate and backed away, closing and locking the last door, and the one after, and the last outer hatch. Then she went above deck and out into the warm bright of the setting sun, where every voice had a face behind it, and she could see exactly where they were speaking from. She stayed there until the stars came out, until her skin was as red as her trembling heart.
Her third day on the ship, the captain had caught his stowaway.
Clarine had begged and screamed not to be thrown over, that she could not swim, that the sharks or sea monsters would get her. She knew little of the sea, but she knew enough to be afraid of the water. There were things down there, in the dark and the deep, monsters with a dozen arms and singing sirens and beasts as wide and tall as the masts of the ship.
The old, loud crew hand–Norman, she would later learn—had argued for her. He had said that the girl could be useful. Norman’s argument was simple: the girl could clean for them, but she wouldn’t need a share of rum. “A little cat don’t need much milk, captain,” he had bellowed, “But it keeps the rats away.”
The captain had taken her to his quarters. His first mate slammed shut the door behind him, making Clarine flinch.
The captain words cut through her sputtering. “I don’t have room on my ship for a stowaway,” he said, looking past the pox scars on her face to her watering eyes. “But I have room for a worker. Everything has a price on this ship.”
“Bad luck to have a woman onboard,” the first mate said, fingers drumming the whip that stayed coiled at his belt. He was tall and pale, and in all the weeks she’d been aboard, she had never seen him blink. “She’s of no use.”
The captain was quiet, and for those few moments Clarine readied herself to run and hide if he’d said to throw her over the railing. They would find her, she knew, but she had to try.
“True,” he said after a few eternities, “but she’s not a woman yet. And it’s surely worse luck to kill a child than to keep a girl on-board.” The captain had stared at her, his face sunken and hollow, a short stubble across his round chin. “I don’t need luck any worse than what I already have.” He drummed his fingers on the leather-bound book atop his desk, his eyes widening. “And there is a use for her, besides. One those drunks can’t be trusted with. Leave us,” he spoke to the first mate.
The first mate stayed still for a moment, and as he left, made sure the whip at his belt brushed against Clarine’s shoulder, slamming the door on his way out with as much force as he had on the way in.
When they were alone, the captain had pulled out the rusted key that opened the hatch below deck, the key that opened the door to the room with the voice in the dark, the key that opened the locked cage inside.
He’d asked if she could serve wine, and if she could hold her tongue.
Clarine would wake before the rest of the crew and roll out of her hammock, slipping past the snores and sleep-talkers to the captain’s quarters. He would say nothing, busy poring over his leather book, notes and papers spread across his table, his quill scritching and scratching across them. His eyes were as bloodshot red as the numbers and letters in that journal, but Clarine had no notion of what they meant, and more sense than to ask.
Without a word or a glance, he would push her the plate and the goblet.
She ate jerky and hardtack until she thought her teeth would fall apart down in the crew’s quarters. But that plate she carried to the voice in the dark was heavy with fried eggs, fruit and honey, salt pork and preserves. The silver would glint in the candlelight as she slid it across the floor, making her stomach claw at her insides like a dog pulling against its leash.
And each time as she returned to take the plate away and leave another in its place, she saw there was only ever a single bite eaten. A single sip taken. The lonely candle burned on.
The crew was drunk the night she spilled the wine. They threw dice. The stakes were rum.
Clarine walked past, listening to their talk as she went back to the captain.
“Seems we’re travelling light,” one of them said, drinking from his flask.
His drinking partner nodded, shaking the dice in his cupped hands. “Aye. Ship this size? We’re packed not near heavy enough. Unless he’s carrying diamonds down there, it’s not enough cargo to turn a profit.”
“So long as there’s rum,” Norman had said, finishing a gulp (half of which stayed in his beard, which was the reddest color Clarine had ever seen), “The captain’s profits matter little to me.”
Clarine glanced up, wondering what they meant. The captain wasn’t a holy man that Clarine could tell, so she did not know what prophets Norman was talking about. Maybe it means something else, she thought to herself. She stood still, wondering and listening, but the first mate’s eyes caught her, his hand falling to the butt of the whip. The thought fled her mind and she hurried up around the corner and back to the captain’s quarters.
The days blurred together out at sea. Some days she mended ropes, her fingers burning with calluses until they didn’t burn at all. She learned all the knots the sailors seemed to know by instinct, the words and terms they’d hollered that at first were foreign tongues, but now she knew as well as if she’d been born at sea. Some days she followed the captain, carrying out whatever orders he barked, polishing his silverware, tidying his quarters. Most days she scrubbed, which was the worst of them all. The skin of her knees would break against the rough wood, and as soon as she’d finished cleaning the deck, someone would stagger topside, missing the ocean by a few seconds, and heave rum and bile all over her clean planks. Failing that, a fistfight would start, blood splattering every which way.
Clarine would scramble back with her bucket and brush, waiting for the situation to resolve itself.
Then she was back to scrubbing.
The crew didn’t give her too much trouble. A few were even nice to her—chief among them Norman. The old bear of a man was at least forty or fifty, his chest as wide as the barrels below deck. His smile missed a few teeth, and the ones that remained were crooked, but it was the best thing on the entire ship to Clarine’s eyes. When they all had to watch the first mate whip someone raw for misconduct, Norman would shift to stand between her and the bloody red back tied to the mast. Afterwards, he would slip her spare limes to take her mind away from the sight of it.
She’d been afraid of him the most, those first few days. After witnessing his appetite for the first time, Clarine had wondered if he fought to keep her from being tossed overboard just so he could eat her as a snack.
The girl had accidentally crashed into him the next afternoon, hurrying to scrub down the third seasick mess of the day, and she was too terrified to even spit out an apology to the giant. Norman guffawed, picking her up with one arm. “Girl,” he roared, “Relax! There’s nothing on this ship to be afraid of.”
She gave him a smile, but below her shirt, the cold of the key to the cage pressed against her skin. “Of course not,” she mumbled.
The voice in the cell spoke to her more and more with each visit. He would tell her thank you, or not to stumble on the stairs, or not to let the captain catch her stealing his food–
“I don’t steal food!” Clarine said. He couldn’t say that! They would take her up and tie her to the mast, and the first mate would whip her bloody if she was a thief, they’d slice off her hand and throw her in the water and–
Clarine went still. Oh no.
All the warmth and breath left out her gaping mouth all at once, leaving her cold and quiet as a corpse. She’d broken the rules.
She tried to grab the words out of the air. Her mouth opened and closed as if she could somehow breathe them back behind her lips, but it was like water gushing from a broken vase, like spilling the wine and watching it trickle down, right there before her but impossible to fix.
The voice laughed again, cold and clear, echoing off the walls of the small wooden hold and into the back of her skull. “Of course, you don’t,” he said. She could hear his smile, even though she could not see it. “But you do talk, now, don’t you?”
Clarine shook her head, eyes growing wet. The first mate would know, he would. He could see everything. He could see stolen rations and see through lies and he would see through her as soon as she left the brig. They would throw her off and not even Norman could not stop them this time. She wanted to shake and cry, and she could not breathe, like the dead damp air down in the dark of the ship was choking her from the inside out.
“The cat,” the voice drawled, “is well out the bag. It can be our secret. I do love secrets, little one. They’re the only thing worth collecting.” She stayed trembling. She had broken the rules. If she had just kept quiet, she would have been okay, but now anything could happen to her. “And it’s not like I have anyone else to tell.”
The goblet and platter trembled in her hands, nearly enough to spill all the dinner and drink to the floor. Above there was the whip, but here there was the cold and the dark. She wanted to run as fast as she could away from both—instead she stood still as stone. He was correct. He could not tell anyone. Not so long as she had the key.
“Tell me, girl,” the voice said. “Do you want to see something extraordinary?”
Clarine said nothing, not even shaking her head. She would break no more rules. She hadn’t even meant to speak the first time. He had tricked her. She was good, she would earn her keep, she would do what the captain said.
But she could not leave, either. Something in the dark held her to that spot, like the monstrous anchor they kept to bind the ship in place.
From in-between the bars, she saw a hand extend out, pale and flawless, free of wrinkles or ugly sailor’s scars. There were no prints on the man’s fingertips and no creases along the palm of his hand that could tell his fortunes. The long fingers reached for a moment, a spider of flesh dancing at the edge of the dark. She thought they might keep going and stretching until they seized her by the throat all the way across the room. Instead, they stopped just at the edge of the candlelight. He snapped his fingers, the noise as loud as cannon fire in the small room.
The fire pulled off the candle, right to his fingers. It hovered in the air a bare inch above his touch, glittering and rolling across his knuckles, burning red, then blue, then a white brighter as the sun. It was a tiny star, twinkling and dancing, ripe for wishing.
Clarine’s mouth opened, wanting to scream, but there was no sound left in her to speak. Even as the firelight twisted in the air around his hand, she couldn’t see his face, or any more of him. Just his hand. The fire felt warm against her skin even from across the room. No candle can burn that hot, she thought, feeling dizzy as she stared at the dancing light. Her eyes stung from the pain of the sudden brightness, but she could not look away. There was suddenly a sharp smell she had never known before, something pungent and strong and unmistakably foul.
“Do you want to learn how?” he asked, the voice barely above a whisper. He spoke so softly she realized she had stepped closer to hear without even meaning to. “I could teach you. I could teach you many things. Wonderful things. Terrible things. Anything and everything, little child.”
The metal key felt cold around her neck, even as the candlelight burned hotter. He wants to be let out. “No,” Clarine said. She thought for a moment, of the way his words seemed to twist tighter around her neck. She would follow the rules. This was certainly not what the captain had told her. She remembered what he told her. She remembered the rules. “Everything on this ship has a price,” she said.
He laughed again. The words seem to loosen from around her windpipe, and it was a little easier to breathe. “Clever girl. I like you, girl. Clever, clever. Run back to the captain now. It’s time for bed.”
He snapped his fingers and the fire burst apart into a dozen little sparks. Clarine jerked back, but they had already fallen to the floor, harmless.
She started to hurry back towards the door. A part of her said she should leave, wordless, that she should not break the rules any further.
But this man in the dark knew witchcraft. He knew many things worse than that, she was sure, and yet she knew nothing at all. The first mate may tear apart her body, but a witch could snatch your soul. What if the next time she came down, he set the fire upon her like a pack of dogs, or cursed her until the end of time?
She stopped at the door, the tray quivering in her hands. She knew nothing. Not even what to call him. “What’s your name?” she asked.
There was a moment’s pause—just long enough to think she had made some grievous mistake before he spoke. “Oh child, a name is a powerful thing. A name can be everything. We should know each other better before we start asking for such favors.”
Clarine nodded, chewing over his words. She had learned something. Not much, but something.
Then she took the morning’s plate and the glass and hurried out, the steps familiar even in total darkness. When she came through the bunks, the crew were telling stories. Those near Norman ignored her entirely, but those at the edges of the room saw the food in her arms and turned from the story to watch with a look as feral as the first mate’s dogs.
“And then,” Norman said, swaying, his cheeks rum-flushed, “Right as I went to kiss her, she was back into a fish!” They all laughed—at least those who had not noticed her food did—and Clarine could not help but smile even as her heart stayed thundering in her chest. Someone tumbled over with laughter, knocking over the crate they threw dice on as he rolled on the floor.
She brought the captain his plate and his cup, not meeting her eyes. Each moment seemed to take longer than the one before. If he can tell I talked, she thought, I’ll have to run and jump off the ship. It would be better than the whip, and faster.
But the captain did not look up from his book, etching red number after red number into the lines on the pages.
She put down the finery and hurried away, nearly crying as she cleared the door and leaned back against the wall for a moment to let her heart settle. She had never felt so relieved on so soon after feeling so afraid. The sudden shift made her almost nauseous, but she did not throw up—she was the one who would have to scrub it away, after all. When she came back to the bunks sometime later, Clarine had only half as much jerky as normal for the night. Norman’s stories had run their course, and the sailors had fallen still. She sat, arms folded over her knees, watching the others from her hammock. Their day’s liquor had run out as well, and they were beginning to sober. Norman picked himself up and moved near where Clarine sat, folding his arms over his chest as she finished her meager dinner. All the while, she could feel eyes going between her and Norman and the food in her lap.
“Norman,” she asked quietly enough so only he could hear, “why did she?”
“Why’d she what, lassie?”
“Why’d the woman turn back into a fish?”
Norman paused for a moment, remembering, and for the first time Clarine had a flash of doubt—if all his stories could really be all the way true. He told his stories with so many details it did not seem possible to be made up. She studied his face. Was he remembering or inventing as he looked for his words? If there can be voices in the dark, she thought, there can be mermaids in the sea. “Everything has its limits, girl. Mermaids can’t kiss a still-breathin’ man. Sirens can’t come aboard. And even the devil has to keep his deals.”
Clarine nodded, chewing at the hardtack as slowly as she could stand to make it last longer. Norman smiled and stayed beside her as she finished her food. The hounds and men alike looked away from her with grumbles as she wiped the crumbs from her face.
“Horse shit,” one of the men muttered, gnawing at his dinner with what teeth he had left. “No man alive can live off this little.”
She walked down into the dark place. She looked at the leftovers of the last night.
They were as they always were. One bite eaten. One sip taken.
“You’re not human,” Clarine said. The first words took all her courage to push out, but each one came easier. She knew it was true as soon as she said it, foolish though it had seemed in her mind. “We’ve been at sea for two months. You’ve only…you’ve only had a bite. Every night.” She stared at the glass. The biggest men on the ship could drink and drink and drink and clamor for more. Clarine barely had a tenth of the water they had, but she was small. Surely this man in the cage was bigger than she was. This man in the dark—he had a sip or two a day at most. For months.
The voice chuckled before speaking. “Do you know your fairy tales, Clarine?”
Clarine shook her head.
She could have sworn she could hear him smiling in the dark again. “…ah. What about your Bible stories?”
Clarine said nothing, afraid to nod or shake her head or even move.
“Well then,” he said, soft as could be, drawing her closer, towards the edge of the light, where she could just barely grasp his words. She wanted to walk all the way into the dark, press her face against the steel bars and hear them, hear every melodic note to his voice—but she thought of the pale hand clutching at her throat, and she stayed put. “I suppose I should say I take just enough to be polite. I am a guest, after all. Hosts care for their guests, and no good guest harms his host. You must always mind your manners, girl. A lamb with proper courtesies can dine safely in a den of wolves.”
Clarine did not know if he was speaking about her, or simply rambling. She thought he liked the sound of his voice as much as she did, though it mesmerized and terrified her in equal parts. I’m not a lamb, she wanted to say, but I don’t have a silver tongue either.
The key dug into her skin, suddenly, and she realized she’d been stepping closer to the gate once more. Clarine grabbed it tight. Was he the wolf? Or the sailors? Or even the dogs? She felt her cheeks burn. It was like the tricks the old sailors played on the new ones. He toyed with her.
“Shame,” the voice said. “A girl like you deserves a beautiful gown, doesn’t she? Do you want one? Silk from the Orient, soft as rain clouds? I could weave rubies and sapphires across the collar. I would put the stars themselves along the hem. You could be the most beautiful girl in the world. Is that you want, little one?” He paused, thinking, and she could feel him watching her, picking her apart inch by inch. Clarine raised a hand and clutched at the key, to make sure it wasn’t pulled away by some witchery. “Or a crown? A throne, and a thousand servants at your beck and call? You’d never need polish another plate in your life. You’d eat off them instead. Ah, yes. That’s it. You’re far too young to want a wedding ring or some handsome man to warm your bed. But I can hear your stomach rumbling from over here. It’s rumbled your whole life, hasn’t it? You’re such a frail little thing. So skinny. Is that it, girl? I’d have a feast the Queen herself could not afford for you. More food than you can imagine.”
Clarine bit her tongue to keep quiet. She stared at the plate he’d hardly touched. Each day and night that she carried it in, she thought it weighed a little bit more, her arms tiring out a little faster. That morning, she’d had to stop to wheeze for air twice when she cleaned the decks, her stomach cramping inside her chest.
“…what would it cost?” she asked. It couldn’t hurt just to ask, surely. That was just being polite, after all. She needed her manners, didn’t she?
“The only thing worth having.”
She paused, remembering. “I don’t have any secrets,” Clarine said.
“Not yet. Clever girls seldom stay without secrets for very long. If you’re so clever, then have a riddle to think over. What kind of a man has steel cages built into the cargo hold, and not enough food to feed his men? It’s the only riddle that matters on this ship. Sleep on it.”
Clarine said nothing back. It was not like any riddle she’d ever heard, though he was certainly like no man she’d ever met. She closed the door and walked up the steps. Her arms burned with the weight of carrying the finery, enough so that she had to lean back to shift the weight to her shoulders, but she did not let herself stop to rest. If she did, she feared she would take a bite, and she knew if she took one bite, she would not stop until all that was left on the plate was the reflection of a soon to be dead girl’s face.
When she set them down on the captain’s desk, Clarine looked up at him. He did not notice her or react if he did. She let her eyes go over the yellowed pages, looking at the words she could not comprehend. They were all charted neatly, organized by rows and columns, with numbers next to them, dates, and words. She could not decipher the letters. Names, Clarine realized. It’s a book of names and numbers. That much she could tell, yes. She knew that you made the letters that started a name bigger than the others, and this was a book of only those kinds, all next to numbers. The numbers started black, and then one by one, all turned red.
He blinked and started, seeing her for the first time. Deep bags hung beneath his eyes like sagging sails, and there was more gray creeping up his hair than she recalled him having when she’d first come aboard. The captain stood and took the plate and goblet, opening his window and emptying them into the sea as he did each time.
While his back was turned, Clarine let her eyes fall to the book. The captain’s flintlock pistol rested beside it. Which does he keep closer, Clarine thought? It seemed the sort of book to have a lot of secrets.
Her stomach growled, and the pang of hunger took her mind off the cold of the key against her. Was a secret worth a plate? Two? She cared not for the wine, but Clarine almost felt as though she’d take the whip to keep from having to see the food slip away into the sea.
“Good work,” the captain said. Then he was gone again in his papers, sitting back down and scrutinizing the maps and charts and above all, the little book. Clarine gave a silent nod and left.
That night, she thought of the riddle as she lay down to sleep. From her hammock, deep down in the lamplight of the crew’s quarters, she watched the dogs snap and snarl over a piece of square of hardtack too moldy for any of the sailors to stomach. As one proved victorious, the sailor snapped off another chunk and hurled it to them. A good piece of hardtack was worth a whole flask of rum around the dice table that week.
Clarine watched them fight, drawing blood as they wrestled, barking and lunging. She could count the ribs under their fur. Clarine started to feel sorry for them but did not allow herself the pity. They’ll eat you too if they get the chance, she told herself, bringing the hammock up to her chin.
She watched the dogs fight over what the sailors had thrown away.
“Terrible manners,” she murmured.
There was no jerky at all the next night. Only moldy hardtack was left, and Norman gave Clarine a mouthful of his rum to burn the away. Clarine had thought her throat would burn up to ash, but he’d patted her on the back until the hurt had passed.
The men threw dice, and the stakes were secrets.
“He’s a bloody slaver,” One of them said, leaned in so close over their table that he nearly kissed the man across him. “Or used to be. Or maybe even worse. I’ve seen chains below decks. Manacles. There’s people down there. He’s taking them in secret.”
“Why are we carrying chains and locks and no blasted food?” the other asked. “I wouldn’t give a damn who we kept belowdecks, so long as we had more than this to eat. We’d have to have more food if we was shipping people.”
A third—a small, scrawny man who could clamber up to the crow’s nest as quick as if he had a spider’s legs, piped up. “No slaves—nobody brings wine to a slave.”
“Maybe royalty in secret?”
“I’m sure the Queen’s lounging about down there,” the second man had said. “Bloody fools.”
The first mate stepped down the stairs, eyes picking them apart like a vulture with a carcass. Clarine thought the way their faces looked just then must have been the way she looked when they caught her sneaking aboard.
But the first mate said nothing, only drumming his fingers on the whip, a grimace stretched tight across his face. His face looked thin, his cheekbones sharper each day.
“Well, if the Queen was here, it’d explain why there’s bad luck on this ship,” the first one said. Clarine dug herself deeper into her hammock, but she could feel their eyes on her, piercing through the rough-spun cloth. I’m not a woman yet, she wanted to say. I’m not bad luck.
“We’re stuck in these bloody horse waters. We haven’t moved half a mile in three days.”
For the first time, Clarine locked the doors behind her as she went down the steps with the voice’s dinner.
“Girl,” the voice asked, before she’d even set the plate down. “I have a favor to ask of you.”
“I don’t want a dress,” she said. “Or…or your fire.” She bit her tongue. She could almost taste his last offer.
“…but my feast, yes?”
Clarine could say nothing to that.
“Regardless—how rude, to refuse a guest out of hand. My favor is simple, and I will owe you one in turn. I think that is a fair trade. A fair deal.”
Clarine slid the food and drink through the grate, just as she was supposed to, and then she spoke, just as she wasn’t. “What is it?”
“I just want a little reading material is all. It is dreadfully dull down here.”
Clarine bit her lip. She was never sure when the voice was toying with her or speaking true, but she thought now it was something of both.
“Do you know what a ledger is?”
She shook her head.
The voice clicked its tongue. “…can you read?”
“Yes.” Clarine said.
If the voice saw through her lie, it said nothing. Now I have a secret, Clarine thought, small though it may be. It was something other than a rusted key to hold close to her chest. She could no more read than she could walk across the still water around them, but it was something.
“A smart girl indeed, then. One day you must tell me all about how you came to be a little serving girl on this ship.” The voice paused, thinking. “An orphan, I’d presume. Unless your parents thought to ship you off to the New World and have you work your way across? Ah, how I let myself get distracted. One’s mind has a way of wandering in the dark.” The voice grew more serious, the playful tones melting away like butter off a burning knife. “A ledger is a book. A special kind of book. It’s a list. A list of the names of things that are sold, and the names of the men who sold them. I am very interested in the latter. Very interested indeed.” from inside the dark, she heard the rattle of steel, of manacles brushing against one another. “The captain keeps one. He keeps it close. It has—” he stopped suddenly. His voice filled her like saltwater through a broken hull, sinking her lower into the dark and leaving her thirsting for more, not satisfied, the longing for another half-answer left on her tongue.
“Why do you want it?” she asked. She tried to think. The book had names. He’d said names were powerful—that they would need to be better friends before they knew one another’s. But he hates the captain, they’re not friends at all. Clarine thought. Names had power. With a feeling like a snake was slipping down her spine, Clarine thought of the fire dancing across his hands. She imagined the candle by the captain’s desk igniting like that when he snapped his fingers, scorching through wood, and wax, and flesh. Yet he hadn’t done it already. “…the captain. But you don’t know his name.”
“Why,” the voice drawled, a pinch of pride and amusement sprinkled across every word. “What sort of a guest harms his host?” There was the scrape of silver on wood from within the dark, and a brief sound of sipping wine. “We must observe courtesies, after all. I would never dream of such of a thing. And he in turn treats me well.”
Clarine felt like each word out of her lips was worth more than the silver she held in her hands. She felt like she was beginning to understand. “I don’t eat any of your…your meal, you know.” She took a breath and swallowed the lump in her throat. “That would be rude. To eat after your guest.”
“Terribly so,” the voice said. “And I would hate for us to stop being cordial with one another.”
Clarine took the plate and went back up, the weight straining at her arms as if she was toting a cannonball and not a dinner.
But this time, as she passed through the bunks, she felt a hand grab at her shoulder.
Clarine screamed and ran.
She had slipped past it, but only a moment after, footsteps began to thunder behind her. There was a drumbeat of heavy thuds of sailors coming down from their hammocks, stumbling across the floor to her, to food. There was a shout and another man scrambled after her, seeing the plate, so full, so rich. “Norman!” Clarine shrieked, but the old sailor was nowhere to be found. The room was a screaming pit of hands and teeth and barking dogs and cursing men. Clarine darted below one, around another, half the goblet of wine splashing onto the floor and a hunk of cheese rolling away as she stumbled up the steps into the light of the setting sun. Clarine made it to the captain’s quarters, half-jumping up the steps two at a time as fast as her short legs could go. She came into the room, wheezing and coughing. Even the short run made it feel as though she would collapse, and the edges of her vision seemed to blur in time with the pangs of hunger in her chest.
“What?” the captain asked.
“T-They tried to take the—”
“Sons of bitches,” the captain snapped. He snatched the meal out of her hands and opened the window, hurling the food and the wine into the sea. As he did, the door burst open.
Two members of the crew stood at the door. There was a dead man’s silence, tense and terrible, broken only by the sound of the ship rocking idly in the water. The last of the wine dripped from the cup onto the floor as the captain held it askew, eyes dancing from one man to the other to the pistol on the table.
Outside, there was screaming, but in the captain’s chambers there was only quiet, until at long last one of the men spoke.
“You’ve been throwing away the food?”
The captain stared them down as harshly as he could. It was just as it had been the first day. Clarine only saw fear in his eyes. She slid to the side of the room, looking at the bloody knuckles of the men, the distance between the captain and the desk. And the book, she thought. The book was close. She looked back at the sailors. But they’re closer.
“You,” the captain said, “Were not summoned here. Return to your stations. At once.”
The ship lurched on the waves, but the men all stood still.
Then they all lunged for the flintlock.
Clarine pushed herself against the wall of the room, dropping down low, trying to make herself as small as she could be. There was the clatter of the dropped plate, the sound of the goblet shattering, and then a heartbeat and a half later the gun roared. It was a sound louder than anything she had ever heard, louder than thunder on the open ocean, and Clarine’s ears rang so badly she thought the shot had struck her in the head.
One of the men roared too, though he sounded faraway to the girl as she clutched at the sides of her ears. He fell back, fumbling at the bloody ruin of his shoulder. The air was full of salt and gunpowder and screams, one of the sailors wrenching the smoking pistol from the captain and swinging at his side, again and again.
The first mate came through the doors. He looked between the two men and the captain for just a moment.
The captain mouthed something to him, but whatever his last words were, Clarine could not hear them over the ringing in her skull. The first mate crossed the room, throwing the captain to the ground with the unwounded man following suit. She saw the captain’s legs kicking out as they struck him. The bloodied sailor turned away from them both, his shoulder dripping with blood as he threw open cabinets for wine, for food.
Clarine forced herself to breathe as deep as the tightness in her chest would let her. I’m in the wolves’ den, she thought, looking, thinking. And the wolves have whips and guns. She had seen it just a moment before, the book, the book, the book. She ducked around the men fighting and grabbed the leather book to her chest as tight as she could, hoping it could slow her racing heart as she sprinted back out the door.
The skies outside were clear and sunny, but she saw them for only a moment before she plunged back down into the ship. “Norman!” Clarine shouted, hoping he could hear her.
But as she stumbled down the steps, the chaos was louder than her voice could ever be. Crates were overturned and kicked apart. Any scraps of food found were devoured at once, fine china smashed against the wall, silks ripped apart to search for spices, for anything that could be eaten. The dogs lunged for anyone who was knocked to the ground, and Clarine forced her eyes away, to look for Norman. Somewhere, the quartermaster fired at the mob trying to break past him to the last of the rations. Everywhere around her were screams, screams of pain, of hunger, of excitement, of rage. She tried to duck behind the fights, under punches. Clarine stumbled over a dead man, trying not to look at what was left of his face, to look ahead. If I can get to the brig I can lock the doors, she thought. Her fingers were digging into the ledger so hard her nails cut marks into the leather.
“Where’s that little wench?” one of them shouted. “She’s been storing it all down below! She’s got all the food!”
The mutineers turned to face her, on her scent like sharks set on blood in the water. Clarine tried to keep running, but this time the hand that managed to grab her shoulder held her still. The man yanked her back so hard she thought he’d snapped her shoulder in two.
“No!” Clarine shouted, trying to pull his fingers away, but she was so hungry she couldn’t fight him, so hungry she—
There was no time to think. Clarine brought her head down and bit down into his hand like it was the last piece of hardtack on the entire ocean.
The man screamed and let go, Clarine trying to pick up her speed again as she spit blood and skin from between her teeth. Another mutineer stepped out before her, filling the whole frame of the door to down-below, and her heart stopped in her chest for a moment before she realized it was Norman.
The great old bear punched the bitten man across the back of the head. He did not get up. “Run, girl!” he barked, before there were two men grabbing onto him, then two more before she could cross the threshold. She could hear Norman roaring as she went, but she knew there were too many. There were so many of them.
She ran, she ran, she ran, fast as her cramping legs and chest could take her.
Clarine went down the stairs so quickly she slammed headlong into the door. She did not feel the pain of it across her scalp or notice the trickle of blood that oozed forth. She noticed only the key, but her fingers were stiff and shaking and she nearly dropped it before managing to wedge it into the first lock, twisting it open and slamming it shut behind her. She glimpsed the mob turning the last corner as she did. She turned the key only a moment before they tried to yank it open, and then they were hammering at the door with fists, muskets, anything they could find.
It took only a few strikes for the wood to start to break inwards.
She opened the next door, and the last, locking them both behind her, but she could still the men throwing their weight at the hatches, over and over.
But for a moment, it was just her and the voice in the dark, and the lone candle that flickered above them.
“Mutiny,” the voice said. “Such a terrible thing. A shame the captain reserved so much space for his guest, and not for more practical cargo. I may fetch a pretty price, but I fear the captain will never see the ivory he was promised for my head.” Clarine thought the voice sounded almost gleeful. Even if he was happy the captain was dead—Norman, all the others, the nice ones—they were all dead too. Clarine bit her tongue back. I can’t get angry, she thought. Or I will surely die. If she lost her manners now, he would let the wolves eat her. “I am disappointed. I had hoped to stare into the face of the man who sold me as he left this life. I suppose we cannot have everything we desire…but perhaps you can. Did you bring the book?”
Even as her mind’s panicked thoughts flickered like the candle above her, she tried to understand. He needed the book to hurt the captain, Clarine thought, holding leather pages in her hands. But he said—the captain kept him as a guest. But why? How? “I…I have the book,” Clarine gasped. He was rambling, rambling about nothing, and they were coming in, hammering at the doors, yelling, and shouting. They were going to kill her. They might even eat her. She didn’t have any food, she would’ve given it to them if she did, she would swear it, but they were well past listening.
“That you do,” the voice said. “Let me see it. Let me make sure it is the one. Closer. I promise no trickery. I must know if it is the one.”
She moved toward the dark, stepping fully past the candlelight, just a few inches from the cage. She could feel his eyes on her now, like a hole was burning right through her chest, pulling apart her ribs to see the beating of her heart.
The voice was quiet. Then it spoke with a hunger she had never heard from it before, like the dogs above ripping apart their masters. “What a little thing that kept me in here. Not this cage or these chains, girl. Not truly. Ink. Names. I told you, little one, names are powerful things. And when you hand me that book, I will know the name of the man who sold me.” the voice grew harder, and she felt the air shake, as if the boards of the ship were pulling apart, splintering away. “I will not suffer to live any fool who thinks they can bind me aboard their ship, any man who thinks I can be bought and sold to pay their gambling debts. He and I will spend quite some time together. His pain has only begun.”
But the captain is dead, Clarine thought. What can he do? She looked at the book, at the meaningless scratches of ink. She could not decipher the words, but the lines, the final numbers. All in red. There must be something.
“They’re going to kill me,” she whispered.
“You,” the voice said, “are in quite the predicament.” She could hear the first door shaking, the doors being smashed, the wood snapping and breaking.
“No, no, they’re coming, y-you have to help me.”
“Oh, you ask for much, little lamb. But I promised you a favor. A single favor.”
She stepped away from the cage, towards the candle would not burn out. “I…what…?”
“Do you want your dress now? Or a trick of the firelight, Clarine. You could be a witch—at least to them.”
“Oh no,” The voice giggled. He knew this would happen, Clarine realized, her empty stomach sinking. Even if he helps me, I can’t sail the boat. I’ll still die. “We had a deal. I will keep faith. But you wanted a favor. Not a favor and counsel. Ask of me and you shall receive. But if you want to know what to ask for, you will owe me another favor. Do you care to take upon that debt? Or would you rather let the mutineers fall upon you?”
The second door was groaning, creaking. Their shouts grew louder. She scrunched her eyes. There was no one to help her. They were all dead. Norman, the captain, all of them.
The captain was dead. “Is….does the captain own this ship?”
She paused, taking a full, precious second to think. She had to be smart. She had to be. “Then…if I said it was my ship, it would be?”
The voice took on its smirking tone again. “…I don’t see why not. It’s no one’s. It’s everyone’s. Soon enough it will only belong to dead men regardless.”
Clarine nodded. “It’s…it’s my ship now. Yes.”
The voice was amused. “Quite so, Madame Captain. Though I doubt you will be a captain for much longer. Why don’t you go unlock the doors and order them to return to their bunks? I am sure they shall comply if you ask nicely.”
“I,” Clarine said, trying to be as brave as a captain would be, as a captain should be—as brave as Norman would be. “Want a feast.”
He was quiet. Quiet for too long. When he spoke, disappointment dripped through his every word. “Very well, then, girl. I’ll give you—”
“No,” Clarine said. “I want to give you a feast. On the shore. That’s—that’s the favor. I get to give it to you.”
The second door had broken. There was a giddy scream and something heavy slammed against the final one, over and over and over. She heard shouts, and more gunfire above, each shot less muffled than the one before it. “What shore?” the voice asked.
“I don’t care which,” she said, her voice near breaking. Hurry, she thought, she begged. Please hurry.
“…A curious request. Most curious.”
The door trembled again. Clarine bit her tongue and forced the tears back, forced her legs straight, forced her hands steady. She took off the key from around her neck and placed it on the ledger, sliding it through the grate. Her mind raced as fast as her heart. “And” she said, barely above a whisper, “…as long as there’s a meal on the shore, and I’m a captain, I…” she took a deep breath, “I don’t see why you shouldn’t still be my guest. But those men—they’re not. I never invited them on my ship.” Her breath seemed to shake in her lungs. “They’re…they’re hardly being polite. But we still are.”
The door was splitting. The wood cracked inwards, and the men’s screams broke through with it. She dared turn to look back, saw a hand reach through the smashed-out holes of the splintered wood to pry the boards away.
The voice began to speak, and she could hear its smile wider and sharper than before, “…and I suppose, Madame Captain, you would have to be kept alive to give me my feast on the shore? And you would need good winds to take us there? And you would need to be protected from the rather…uncouth behavior of your crew?”
“I would,” she said. “…otherwise, you couldn’t—you couldn’t keep your deal.” she said, her throat so dry and bare she thought it would crack open, “…and even the devil has to keep his deals.”
The voice said nothing. The candlelight danced.
“And what, little one, is to keep me from ripping out your heart the moment I take the final bite of your feast?”
“The names of things that were sold are in a ledger,” Clarine said, hoping that if everything else was wrong, this at least, this at least could be true, that she could make her tongue silver for just this moment and she’d never ask for anything again, not ever. “…and names are powerful things.”
There was a long quiet from the dark, and then the voice laughed, fuller and harder than she had heard before, a laugh that sounded like keys jingling and pages turning, like blood dripping and bones snapping. “Oh, child. I shall miss you so. Even I can admit that I have not been outfoxed in a very, very long time. But that you have done, and you shall have your feast on the far shores. That you shall.”
She prayed there had not been something she’d missed, some trick, a detail as small as she was.
She had thrown her dice, and she knew the stakes.
“Get the little bitch! She’s right there! The food’s in here!” there was the swing of a hammer and the door caved inward entirely, the wood crushed to splinters. It would be mere moments until they were through, and they were upon her.
“Step aside, Madame Captain,” the voice said.
Clarine grabbed the candle and held it close, staring at the flame. She held it close enough to keep her warm, to blind her eyes to the dark. She had seen enough of dead men above.
There was the quiet click of the lock turning, and then the rusty screech of steel swinging open. Something moved in the dark. The boards of the ship creaked and groaned as the air burned hot as furnace fire, the pungent smell rising and making her eyes water as the candle flame began to dance, and grow, and burn.
“I believe there’s a mutiny on your ship I must put down.”