PART TWO, CHAPTER TWO: In Which Our Hero Survives His First Night On A Pirate Ship, Despite Being Woefully Unprepared, Given That He Is An Aspiring Opera Singer And Not At All A Pirate.
He must have slept, because the next time the barred window clanged open, it revealed blinding sunlight – and the barrel-chested form of Captain Carew.
“Rise and shine, sleeping beauty,” called the captain. “Did you survive the night?”
Had he? Everything around him was too strange to be real, and Leo wondered if he had died on the island after all. Perhaps the heat had gotten to him, or some kind of animal...
Crew rattled the bars. “I asked you a question.”
“Yes!” Leo said, his voice cracking. “I’m here.”
“Not anymore.” Swift as a sea breeze, Carew swept into the tiny room and grabbed Leo’s arm, digging his fingers into the flesh. He hoisted his prisoner up in the air, so that his toes barely brushed the floor – the captain’s preferred style, Leo realized – and began to walk.
Leo tripped along beside Carew, realizing, as his head ached and throbbed, that if he had indeed slept, it had not been for long enough. The salty wind stung his eyes, and as the ship pitched to and fro on the waves Leo was nearly grateful not to be supporting his own weight.
Blinking rapidly, Leo tried to take in the scene around him. The night before, he had been too convinced of his own death to focus on anything but the pounding of his own heart, trying to guess how many beats were left. But now that he had made it through at least one night, he tried harder to piece together his surroundings.
The ship had seemed massive when it was moored, swirling in the ghostly mist of the island’s shore. Here on the deck, though, it seemed almost crowded with seven crew members dashing to and fro, calling out and swearing and laughing. It was an impressive ship – smooth teak boards, pristine as if they’d been hewn the day before. He was being guided towards the stern, where two of the men were roughhousing.
The biggest, hairiest one – Bloodbroth, Leo remembered suddenly – brandished a potato peeler at the short, stocky sailor with a protuberant nose, who tried to knock it away with a cane-sword. The two men swiped back and forth, taking turns drawing small amounts of blood and laughing maniacally. A sheet of skin wafted to the floor, and the shorter man’s eyes darkened.
“I’ll carve you up, Bloodbroth, do you hear me?”
“Yars, yars, I hear yeh – I hear yeh and I dare yeh,” the grungy giant growled back.
“Bloodbroth! Birdbrain!” Carew snapped. “Please refrain from disemboweling each other before I’ve had my coffee, yes?”
The two men immediately dropped their weapons and looked down at the deck.
“Yes, Captain,” Birdbrain mumbled. Bloodbroth jabbed him with an elbow, but then saw the captain glare at him and added, “I’ll get yer coffee straigh’ away, Cap’n.”
Carew kept walking, and Leo tripped along after him. He felt Carew’s fingers knifing their way through his arm, edging between the muscles and burrowing into the marrow.
“This,” said Carew, not looking at Leo or betraying anything with his voice, “is where you will stay now.”
It’s a trick.
Leo knew it must be, because the room was too sumptuous and too light. It wasn’t all that much larger than the brig where he had just spent a damp, dark night, but instead of crates and casks lining the walls, there were rich crimson velvet drapes over stained-glass windows. An overstuffed feather bed lay directly before him, with a canopy that added even more unexpected elegance. Curio cabinets – many, many curio cabinets, all full – held bizarre trinkets and aggressively brilliant gems. The floor was absolutely stacked with exotic, plush rugs, patterned in geometric shapes with colors splashed about joyously. It was all so beautiful that Leo forgot where he was for one precious second.
Of course, Carew couldn’t let that happen. He shook Leo violently. “Nice, eh?”
“That’s all you’ve got to say? It’s magnificent, isn’t it?” He stopped himself and turned to Leo. “And it’s mine.”
He let go of Leo’s arm suddenly, and Leo tumbled to the floor. Carew strode over to the curio cabinet and pulled out a dried puffer fish with emeralds where its eyes had once been.
“I made this myself, you know. I’m quite crafty – but, then, I assume you knew that.” Carew chuckled. Leo did not. Carew whipped his head around and stared Leo down until Leo let out a weak laugh.
“I’ve made many, many of these, but they get stolen or destroyed during our raids. People take the gems and don’t even stop to appreciate my work. Sad, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Leo felt the glare again. “It’s very, very sad.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking lately that I should have someone to protect all of the things that are mine and mine alone. Then you came along.”
“I thought -” Leo swallowed. Don’t say anything, don’t say anything, he willed himself, but his curiosity overcame him. “I thought you were going to kill me.”
Carew rolled his eyes. “My dear boy, if I let you live an hour, you’re going to live longer than that. Surely you could have guessed that.”
Leo hadn’t, but then, murder- and hostage- logic had always been hard for him to follow. He began to allow himself to breathe a bit more slowly and a bit more often.
Carew continued. “Last night, I locked you away, of course, so you wouldn’t go mad and try to kill us all. I’ve had that happen before; it’s a nasty business, really. So I thought perhaps I might have to kill you during the night, and I would have to get up when it was dark… I got so frustrated thinking of all the ways in which you could inconvenience me that I made up my mind to just kill you ahead of time.”
He stopped and snapped his head so he was looking right at Leo. “Do you remember the stew that you got last night?”
Leo’s stomach certainly did; it rumbled at the mere mention. “I – yes, I do.”
“Well, that was about the time when I came down to slash your throat. But!” Carew turned and stared out the window, a manic gleam in his eyes. “Then I thought of something! I had decided to get rid of you because you were dead useless, but I realized last night that you were even more useless dead. So I told Bloodbroth to make you something to eat so you would last until morning.”
He looked to Leo expectantly. Leo, not knowing how to react, didn’t move.
Carew continued, unperturbed. “I can’t have any of the men take care of my quarters – they’re too valuable, not to mention too untrustworthy. But you! You can stay in here and clean up and protect all of my belongings… it’s perfect!”
Leo eyed the man warily. There was something quite hopeful about the idea, but something quite unhinged in the delivery.
“How – uh, Captain, how shall I defend your quarters if there is an attack?” Leo asked. He had never shot a gun, never even picked up a real sword other than a wooden one he had played with as a child.
Carew threw his head back and guffawed. “Not with a weapon, if that’s what you’re thinking! Think you can outwit me, eh? Make me arm you for an attack? Give you the sword that will carve out my innards? Not a chance!”
“It wasn’t that!” Leo swore as Carew advanced. “I- I- I just didn’t- I don’t know how to shoot a gun, and I-”
“Never shot a gun?” Carew mock-shouted, stepping back. “What a dear little daisy you are. Well, perhaps one day you will. Until then-” he pointed at the red velvet curtains and, with his other hand, thrust a handkerchief into Leo’s hand- “-clean that window, won’t you?”
Leo accepted the handkerchief and walked over the window. He had never seen stained glass before, and he marveled at the way the sun cast such rich colors through the air. He held up one hand, and, though it was still etched with splinters and caked with droplets of dried blood, the ethereal rainbow-laden glow on his skin was soothing.
The scene on the window was of a knight and a dragon. The knight was brandishing a sword and holding up a shield bearing a red cross on a white background, blocking the dragon’s mighty breath. The effect of the fire was astonishing – jewel-bright flames licked the metal, creating a dazzling white-hot starburst, while the orange and red and yellow seemed to pulsate –
Reflexively, Leo jerked back from the window, catching his foot on the rug and falling rather heavily onto his back and letting out a gigantic “Oof!”
“Ah!” said Carew from his bed, where he lay polishing a pistol, “he’s home.”
Carew sauntered over to the window, stepping nimbly over Leo’s splayed-out legs He opened the latch and pushed against the dragon’s acid-green belly.
The window banged open, and a large gray flurry of feathers flew into the captain’s quarters, bounced off two curio cabinets, and tumbled violently onto a polished mahogany perch.
“Feathers. Feathers. Letters. Feathers. SQUAAAWK!”
“This is Merc. You’ll be taking care of him as well,” Carew said, striding over to the bird. His face melted into a cooing pout. “Who’s a pretty birdie? Who’s a pretty birdie?”
“SQUAAWK. Merc is. Merc is. Merc is pretty birdie,” the parrot replied, ruffling its ashy feathers and extending its misshapen head to be petted, which Carew obliged.
“Merc,” Carew said to the parrot, “I’d like you to meet someone.” He snapped his fingers and flapped them at Leo, who got up as quickly as he could, wincing as his back screamed bloody murder at him.
“This is-” Carew stopped. He turned to Leo. “Who are you?”
“Um-” Leo hesitated, not sure if he should be attempting some sort of secret identity. “Leonard Nordegraand, sir.”
“That’s a very long name for Merc to say. He will call you Leo,” Carew sniffed.
“If that’s what you want, sir,” said Leo, relieved.
Carew turned back to his avian companion. “Merc, say hello to Leo.”
“SQUAAAWK. HELLO LEO. HELLEO LO. LEOHEO,” the bird cawed.
Carew smoothed the bird’s rumpled neck feathers. “Good job, Merkie. Now,” he said to Leo, “Merc has been neglected lately, and he has a lot of needs. He should always have something to gnaw on, or he’ll start in on my cabinets. When he preens his feathers, you must pick up the ones that come loose and put them in this sack.”
He picked up a brown heap of burlap. “When the sack is full, you can make a pillow of it for yourself. You’d best hope he’s molting soon, because you’ll be sleeping on the floor right here,” he added, pointing to the floor by the foot of his bed.
“However.” Carew’s eyes darkened. “Do not let him pull out his feathers. And if I catch you pulling them out… well,” he grinned, “I can always let him gnaw on your bones.”
Leo gulped. “No feather-pulling.”
“Get closer. Say hello,” Carew ordered him.
Leo stepped towards the freakish-looking parrot. It fixed its beady little eyes on him, the irises flaring and shrinking in rapid succession. The effect was ghoulish.
Leo swallowed and tried to sound normal. “Hello, uh… Merc.”
Merc continued to stare, pupils pulsing. He began to bob his head, jerking it forward and back, until he stretched out nearly horizontal and vomited prodigiously all over Leo’s legs.
Carew smirked. “You’ll get along just fine.”