“One captain to a ship, always, or that ship flounders.” It was good advice... most especially so, in hindsight.
“Found somethin’ for ye below-decks, Cap’n,” the bo’sun told him, with a wink. And thus, with little warning, Solomon Rusk’s last great set of troubles began.
“Something” soon proved a man in rags, enchained, with a possessed saint’s face and a cough that racked him stem to stern, shaking him like a high wind. He attempted to rise as Rusk pushed the door to, barely making his feet before falling back again, panting slightly. This creature’s feverish eyes were the same shade as silver pennies bleached almost to pale green by tarnish; they so well caught the light that Rusk all but thought he might be able to see himself mirrored in them, if he only moved closer—and wanted to, the sudden impulse deep-set, like a bone in the throat.
“You put me at a... disadvantage, sir,” the man managed, after two attempts at speech, both equally exhausting.
To which Rusk replied: “You’d seem to’ve done that yourself, already, given where I find ye.” Continuing, as the man arched a fine-cut brow. “We’ve searched this whole brig and found nothing t’ warrant our investment, save for rats, rot—and one prisoner. Might such an estimation be correct?”
“Having not seen the rest of this ship since they... brought me aboard, I... couldn’t possibly say.”
“Well. And what am I t’do with you, then, exactly?”
The man snorted, setting himself off once more. Then snapped back, nonetheless, far too haughtily for any ordinary prisoner: “As you please, I’m sure! I obviously can’t prevent it.”
A bit too sharp to count as showing proper respect, though since Rusk could only assume the poor bastard was in pain, he forgave it. Yet here the Captain felt his own eyebrows hike, fast as sparks striking from cold flint, and peered closer, suddenly aware how that shadow the man was trying to hide beneath his close-held blanket was, in fact, the rim of a collar—cold iron over puffed scar, with portions of it adhering yet to the sadly tormented skin below.
A wizard, Rusk thought. They’d meant him for Admiralty justice, obviously—been taking him on to the next lawful port, where he’d be burnt or hanged, or both.
The man did not seem to notice; he was deep-engaged in trying not to cough again, pale face flush-blotched with sudden, indignant scarlet. But looked up again nonetheless, when Rusk told him—“You interest me, ‘sir’.”
“I... do not mean to,” the man replied, regaining some sense of caution.
“No, y’wouldn’t, and yet—maybe I’ve not wasted my men’s time entirely, in playing out this lark. For any prize comes wi’ a man-witch already netted in its hold is one well worth the taking.”
Quick-touched by Rusk’s implication, the man perhaps wished to say more—opened his prim mouth to, at least, baring teeth like a cat, a harbinger of equal-sharp words to come. But even as passion undid his better judgment, sheer sickness overtook the rest; those pale eyes rolled up and he fell forwards, into Rusk’s arms.
Frail, and slim, and steely. The man smelled ill after his captivity, but Rusk wondered what lay under that. His cabin had a tub, liberated from some Moghul vessel and sold in the market-place on Veritay Island, back near where his kin had slave-holdings; to fill it with hot water would take more effort than simply sluicing the man with a bucket of brine, but it wasn’t as though Rusk had so much to do that he could entirely discard the notion of entertainment.
So: “Bo’sun,” he called back, through the open door. “Them as takes the Articles may come along; kill the rest, then scuttle her. And make ready t’ cast off sharpish, in good time, that the Bitch not grow restless.”
With that, Rusk hoisted his newest personal possession high, and left—a bad choice, as it turned out, but he wasn’t to know. Not that such foreknowledge ever stopped him, anyhow.
For we must do as our natures dictate, seeing we cannot do otherwise, he would think, much later. And conjure up the bitter memory of a smile on lost lips, so ghostly now—so rendered down by time, along with various other complaints—that he found he only barely remembered just what such an expression should feel like.
Rusk had seen sorcerers aplenty, in his time—they were in no short supply out here, on the very rim of all civilized things, where prejudices of both King and Church held so little popular account: not so much feared as coveted, though treated with the same caution one would accord any other exotic beast. Yet never before had he encountered one collared, which proclaimed that the main error of this man currently still insensibly a-toss in his bed had resided in trying to hide what he was in plain sight, by joining one of the primary institutions which hunted his kind out most effectively.
“Jerusalem Parry, that’s ‘is name,” one of the new recruits offered, when quizzed on particulars. “Ensign, ‘e was, mobbed in at Portsmouth. Comes from some bloody smuggler’s hole in Cornwall, set up smack in the middle of a marsh; well-learnt, too, in all manner of books and languages. ‘E’d’ve made a parson, if the local squire ‘adn’t ruled his mother be ‘ung for... you know.”
A circumspect look, like the recruit expected to find Parry standing in the shadows, listening. “No, though there might’ve been some of that, too; the... same as ‘im, they do say.”
Rusk understood the man’s implication well enough, though from what-all he’d seen, blood seldom told quite as indubitably as most fools seemed to think, in that way. Christ knew, there’d been a scandal of the same sort ’round old Judas Rusk, his clan’s progenitor, born fatherless in the Witch-House at Eye, in old Scotland, with his dam already Fire-bound. There were tales on how, in every generation since, some Rusk woman (or, far less frequently, man) would be able to raise storms or read minds, blast with a word and tame with a touch, dream the future—and he himself had seen it happen so, though never on the white-skinned side of things. Yet if such tricks truly lingered in his own veins, Rusk couldn’t claim a shred of proof for it; his primary skills lay in sailcraft and slaughter, qualities which had gained him his ship Bitch of Hell, amongst other things... young Master Parry, most lately, very much included.
The man in question stayed insensible ’til a week on, however, when he puked blood, and the chirurgeon gave him up. “Iron-poisoned and sick with it, unto the very death: he’ll not survive without help of a sort plain human men can’t give. This wizard of yours is doomed, Captain.”
Moments after, the drunken sawbones dispatched back to his own place, Rusk stood staring down at this fever-thrashing by-blow of uncanniness he’d thought to make a pet of, cursing himself a fool. Thinking: Were this a woman, you’d’ve had her already five times over, consequences be damned; hell, put to port, nursed her healthy, and forced the bitch’s hand in marriage if you wanted, or not...
(The very idea of which, snake-striking him from the side—some neat spinster, hands folded prim over skirts, staring up at him under her lashes with Parry’s same moon-eyes and finding him wanting, contempt immediate as lust—was enough to stick him in some vital point, and twist.)
All right, then.
Rusk put both hands on either side of Parry’s throat, feeling for the collar’s seam with his palms spanning jaw to collarbones, one rough thumb grazing the clavicle. Parry strained that odd gaze of his open, squinted to focus, demanding: “What is’t you... do here, sir? What... are y’about?”
“Your freedom, man-witch. Now shut that pretty mouth, and let me t’my work.”
“I will thank you not to... use such terms with me—”
“Yes, yes. Shush, or I’ll clout ye back asleep.”
‘Round and ’round, over and under, the metal warming beneath his touch. ‘Til at last, he felt some sort of spark prick all ten fingers at once, and knew where best to pull—the collar shivered itself apart, Parry gasping as strangulation’s threat went unfulfilled, and came away in sections, taking an uppermost rind of scar along with it. Thus revealed, the resultant inter-braiding of wounds was red, white and a sort of angry bluish-pink combined, a souvenir Parry might well never find himself rid of, no matter how long his recuperation; he put up his own hand as he fell back, reflexive, and spasmed at the feel, face disgust-contorted—the insult of owning such a Cain-mark far more immediate than any pain, at least for him.
Rusk shrugged, cracking his knuckles. “There—now cure yourself or die, for not one of us here can do it for ye.”
“I...” Parry turned his head for what must have been the first time in weeks, that handsome skull of his flopping ’til his sweat-wet hair smeared the sheet, then found himself too weak to lift it back; the words came haltingly, at cost. “I am not... trained, in such matters. Never knew, for sure... not ’til the finders called me out, and then...” He spat at the collar’s two broken halves, carelessly dropped beside him. “Then, may all such bastards rot in Hell, I... spent every native jot of power I proved to have in keeping myself alive, while they put that on me—”
Rusk shook his head, unsympathetic. “Can’t help ye there, what with you bein’ the cunning one. So ye’ll try and succeed, or try and fail; there’ll be no man aboard my ship don’t earn his keep, either way.”
“God damn you, I don’t know how!”
“An’ you never will, ye don’t damn well shift off your narrow arse and try, ye bloody lazy bugger! So do. See what happens.”
Parry cursed, volubly, inventively, the words triply profane between those lips; Rusk leant forward and watched, fascinated, as he strained to summon magic from his pores, sweating it out like blood while continuing to damn Rusk at every turn. It crept along every limb, polishing his sickness away, burnishing him ’til he gleamed like metal heated too high to touch. His verminous prison-clothes crisped off and went floating away in a burnt husk that sprayed ash everywhere, peeling him dimly naked under a smeared coat of grey. Then cooled again to safe degrees, skin firming and paling slowly ’til he lay there once more in need of a bath, but otherwise immaculate—breath slowing, fever gone. When he opened those eyes again, the tarnish-green tinge was cured at last, leaving nothing behind but silver.
My mirror, Rusk thought.
And: “Done,” Jerusalem Parry told him, only slightly hoarse, each drawling divine’s vowel a bared blade. “Are you satisfied?”
“Not entirely,” was Rusk’s answer. And before Parry could think to stop him, he’d already mashed their lips together, knocking mouths so hard he could fair feel their teeth grate.
Parry sprang as far back as the bed would allow for, slapping Rusk ‘cross the face with enough force it made the Captain laugh out loud; Rusk’d wear the mark some days, and gladly. Spitting, as he did: “Sir! I have not given you permission to use me thus, familiarly!”
“No more y’have. Still, ye do owe me somewhat, my Jerusha—for that’s how I’ll call you, seein’ ye owe me all for pullin’ ye from a straight-made path t’wards stake or gallows, and teachin’ you the use of your own skill, in the bargain.”
Parry gave his own laugh here, less pleased than bitter. “So, are you God, now, pirate?”
“I like that notion.”
“I’m sure. And me with no daughter to kill, on your altar.”
“Aye, well—there’s other payments might be negotiated, easily enough.”
Parry shook his head, abruptly sullen. Said, all unaware of his own ridiculousness: “I swore your Articles, Captain; my oath and my loyalty are yours already, as a Navy man. What right have you to demand more?”
“Oh, none, probably. But them as stay dumb don’t get their will, as you yourself may’ve had occasion t’note. And besides which...”
Rusk watched the man stare up at him, so innocent, in his odd way: This trick-box thing, crammed shut with impossible secrets, a puzzle ripe for forcible solution. It made him smile. Then lean in further—so close his breath might almost warm the man’s tongue—and add, his grin grown all the larger:
“...whoever said I was askin’?”
Foolish as it might ring, given his looks, it soon ensued that Jerusalem Parry—so neat, finicky and otherwise over-learned—had been given pitiful little education, thus far, in fleshly matters; perhaps parsons kept their vows differently in Cornwall than they did in all the other places Rusk had made shore, in that they actually kept them. So Rusk delighted in taking his time with the man’s first few lessons, not least because it so amused him to chart Parry’s responses, those oh-so-winning little gasps and snarls, not to mention the blue- and green-flickering jolts of what he took to be power expelled along with ‘em—magical might as purest product, undirected and aimless, unable to give itself substance as long as he carefully kept its master far too distracted to form spells, even in his own mind.
Licking down along the collar-scar, feeling the wizard’s sex jump in his hand like a fish while he stirred him from inside out, puffed hard himself as any iron stew-ladle by the very feel of Parry’s intactness giving way; Rusk pressed him back down even as Parry strained up, bruise-sudden, seeing him flush with an embarrassed admixture of pain and pleasure combined and thinking, happy: If that‘s your poison, Master Parry, then I believe I can well-afford t’supply your needs... for I do like a bit of tussle myself, y’see, both in bed, and out of it.
After, Parry huffed into the sheets’ rucked nest, gave one long shudder, and made as if to laugh, before thinking better of it. “Do you treat all your guests thus?” he asked, at last.
“Only those as strike my fancy. Ye may call me shark, my Jerusha, with all manner of creatures my meat, once they’ve fallen into my grip.”
“You mistake yourself, sir, as ever; there is no way in which I am yours.”
“Certain parts of your corpus might argue the point, I think, if you’re honest.” Adding, as Parry hissed: “Yet let us not be cross wi’ each other, Hell-priest—I’ve done you some small service as well, after all, have I not?”
“Aye, and gotten full measure for it.”
“Oh, not quite yet—for there’s more than one reason I brought you out of bondage, and we’ve yet t’negotiate those terms. Now tell me: Can you raise storms?”
Parry sighed, turning over, and studied the cabin’s roof-beams awhile before answering. “Apparently yes,” he replied, at last, “since that’s what the finders charged me with, after those Navy sheep branded me a Jonah. It’s instinct—easy enough, even without ritual.”
“Hmm. And a ship—could you raise such as that?”
“One wrecked already, you mean? Perhaps, if you gave me her name, or something from a survivor—I haven’t tried, certainly. But—” He pondered, seemingly glad to have something to consider besides the ways in which he’d just been so thoroughly outraged. “—it seems likely, with preparation enough.”
“A man from the dead, then. Could ye raise him?”
“Not for long, for none can; never permanently, if that’s your aim. Death is the great leveler, the one boundary all magicals fear to cross.”
“Then I know aught you don’t, for I’ve seen whole factories full of men brought back upright and set t’work, mouths sewn shut lest they taste salt, and wake.”
“Yes, well: Those men aren’t actually dead to begin with, in the main...”
Rusk gave a wolf’s smile. “What a treasure y’are,” he said, “well worth the finding, and cheap at twice the price.”
Some more sport ensued, to which Parry—perhaps not seeing the point, given how intent Rusk was on ignoring his protests—raised little immediate objection. After, however, he demanded fresh raiment, then complained (once supplied with the only clothes available, scaled for Rusk’s own long body) that they didn’t fit.
But: “We’re aboard-ship,” Rusk pointed out, blithely, “and even I cannot conjure things entire from the air whilst in transit—not like some.”
It was enough. The next time he saw him, Parry was making ginger little steps ‘cross-deck, arrayed head-to-toe in the neat, well-tailored black he’d once aspired to wear for slightly less nefarious purposes. The breeze lifted his brown hair, untied and disordered; his eyes, narrowed against the horizon, cast back its light like a cat’s. Rusk all but wanted to take him again there and then, right on the fo’c’sle, in full view of any who might aspire to liberate him from their current arrangement.
Yet when he hove in for only the briefest embrace, Parry showed himself unamused.
“Come, don’t be foolish: You liked it well enough last night, same as I.”
“Convinced yourself, have you? And still I say no, nevertheless: you’ve had all you will from me, in that respect—consider my price of passage paid. So I’ll keep my own place from now on, if you’ll be so good as to allow me the privilege.”
“Ship-mates only, eh? And that’ll last, ye reckon? Very well, then, Jerusha, don’t take on so. I’ll require no more... liberties, not without invitation.”
“Which you will not gain, sir, know that now.”
“Ah, brave words. For all things change at sea, Master Parry, as She herself be wont to; the sea is deep, after all, and little-known. You’ll learn.”
Bitch of Hell put in at Porte Macoute, to re-stock and recreate. Parry would have refused to go ashore entirely, but that Rusk promised to introduce him to a practicing sorceress of his acquaintance. This was his “cousin”, Tante Ankolee, who’d helped her Maman nurse Rusk up along with his elder siblings, before eventually buying her way free of the whole familial mess; she and Parry sat and talked, quietly, Parry minding his manners far more with her than he’d ever bothered to with Rusk, regardless of the bone through her blue-lined lower lip and the bells in her stiff-locked hair.
When they were done, she sent Parry off with a serving-wench to pick and choose amongst her wide collection of fetish-objects for seeds to grow his own personal hex-bag from, then poured Rusk a shot of rum, lit it, and watched him sip it down, tenting her clawed fingers. “What-all you know of that man in there, Solomon Rusk, save for he make your trousers tight? That’s some trouble you done brung on, little half-me-blood; may have saved him the rope, sure, but I bet he ain’t thank you for it.”
Rusk shrugged. “There you’d be wrong, big sis—for ’tis my experience thus far Jerusalem Parry always recalls his courtesies, whether he means ‘em or no.”
“Oh, eh? Well, he a pure devil in the makin’, set t’grow up tree-high once he come into his full power, no mistake—but better yet, he hate you bad, now an’ forever. You show him what him nah want t’know, an’ he don’t find you charmin’ for it.”
“Ah, he’ll forgive me soon enough, once he finds there’s no other way; poor creature was raised Christian, after all.”
“’Tis a certainty.”
“Nah, I don’t believe ’tis. ‘Cause that a man of pride you got yourself there, chuck—the sort holds grudges and plots on ‘em too, remorseless, no matter what the way him feel in your bed make you want t’believe.”
“Let him plot! ‘Tis my ship we sail on, no way ’round that.”
“And what you think he care?” She gave a snap, contemptuous. “This much, like any other cunning-folk. ‘Sides which, ’twasn’t always so. Was it?”
True enough. So instead of bothering trying to deny it, Rusk merely demanded—“Tell me how best t’protect myself, then, witch. Or leave me t’my fate.”
“Chain him up an’ sink him deep, that the best way. But you won’t do that.” Sighing, as he shook his head: “Well, then... give me that eye o’yours and I work me will on’t, rub it wi’ the blood we share on me mirror, an’ see what rise up in the reflection. For we do be the same line, after all, wi’ that one ancestress of yours puissant as any ten o’mine; should help, to a point.”
Given how little its loss troubled him, these days, Rusk felt an almost foolish stab of surprise to hear her even mention the gewgaw’s mere existence. But he popped it free nonetheless, and handed it over—ivory inlaid with jet, the skull and crossed bones winking back up at him from his own salt-rough palm. “I’ll wait on the beach, shall I?”
“As ya please,” Tante Ankolee replied, all blissful-unaware how she parroted the same man whose ill-wishes she sought to keep her roguish “little” half-brother safe from.
Rusk lay on the sand, stretched out and warming himself, ’til the sun dipped low enough to turn everything behind his lids deep red. At which point he heard crunching to his right hand and knew without even looking how Parry drew near, his booted steps sure and light as any other stalking thing.
“She has your looks, on close examination,” Parry said, settling himself beside with arms wrapped ’round his knees, “for which, one can only assume, she is hardly to be blamed.”
“A misfortune most Rusks share,” the Captain agreed, still not opening his eyes. “Her dam and mine were bed-mates, of a sort, though seldom sharing the same one at the same time.”
“Ah, so your father kept slaves; well, then. Perhaps that explains it.”
“How you have no qualm treating others thus, free or slave. But then again—if that was truly what you wanted, in my case, you would have done better to leave the collar on.”
At this, Rusk did rise up, casting both his remaining eye and the empty socket a Frenchman’s sword had made of the other down Parry’s way. He saw the man’s fine, lean face even more set than usual, his shoulders stiff, ever-so-slightly a-tremble in the dimming light, and felt something soften in himself, if only for a moment.
“Nay, Jerusha—much as I may covet t’see you on your knees, it’s little use you’d be t’me that way. And while I run no charity, to work a ship, any ship—pirate, Navy, the most mundane-lawful tub ever sailed—is indenture, as all aboard her know, with me no exception, my Captain’s colors aside. For so long as she’s mine to command I’m owned just as sure, by the Bitch of Hell herself.”
For a moment, Parry had nothing to offer by way of reply—and indeed, that moment stretched on so long, Rusk almost thought he had made him understand.
“This is easily said,” Parry told him, coldly, making his own feet and meeting Rusk’s half-gaze straight-on. And turned a black-clad back on him, spine no longer anything but ramrod-straight.
That night, when Tante Ankolee gave him back his eye, Rusk felt it sting slightly as it went in: her “protection”, no doubt, and just as well. For from what he could see, he would probably need it.
The bag Rusk’s cousin had helped him start grew apace, along with Parry’s powers, and he and the Captain settled into an uncomfortable sort of working partnership, accordingly. Since the wizard was learning on his feet, however, this arrangement did not come without dangers: when they ran into doldrums, Parry raised a wind to nudge them free that quick-swelled into a full-blown storm and almost swamped them, whilst a glamour meant to slip them close enough to a prize to board her unawares lit them up with ghostly flame, which had the exact opposite effect, drawing cannonballs like hail.
Still, even Rusk had to own himself impressed when Parry split the ship they’d just been almost sunk by down its midsection like a hot knife with one wave and used the two halves to cobble a new hull from, shelling the Bitch in strange wood; the result dressed them permanently in false colors, making them seem no threat at all from a distance so they might make striking range at double-time, then run up the black flag.
At the revels, after, Parry sat alone and un-drinking, on the very edge of the crowd. When Rusk passed him the rum he refused it: No surprise, there. “I seldom imbibe,” Parry told him, shortly.
“’Seldom’ still leaves me aught t’work with, ye realize.”
Caught unawares, Parry had already half-started to laugh before he could quite stop himself but choked it off a second on, quick enough to rasp in the throat. “To proclaim oneself abstemious entire aboard a Navy vessel would have been foolish in the extreme,” he said, at last. “Assuming you care to know my logic, on the matter.”
“Ah, it always does me good t’hear ye use such large words in casual conversation, my Jerusha; broadens the mind, it does, and lifts me own vocabulary likewise.” Thus rebuffed, Rusk drank the dram down himself, and sighed. “Still, I cannot but think from your manner that ye have not yet forgiven me my trespasses, as that Book you once studied says ye should. What say you?”
“That you may count yourself entirely correct, in such a conclusion.”
“A pity. I’ll leave you to your brooding, then, shall I?”
Rusk sketched him a bow, received a haughty nod in return, and withdrew some few paces, taking up a watchful position. When the fires burnt low enough, his crew began to pair off—some with native girls, some with each other—and he returned, softly, to where Parry now dozed on one hand, his grim head nodding. Then waited ’til even a sharp clap next to one ear was no longer sufficient to rouse him and gathered him up, retiring to what he’d begun to think of as their cabin.
Morning found them both stripped down and well-ensnared, with one of Parry’s fearsome cheekbones dug deep above where Rusk’s black heart beat strongest through the fur of his chest. As far as Rusk could tell, the delights of the night had been entirely mutual, in their moment—but by the time Parry’s eyes opened fully he was angry again, small hairs all over his body fair lifting with painful little blue-green sparks yet generally schooled to a cold stillness almost more frightening to witness than any full loss of control: as though he knew himself far too badly-enraged to give way to his passions, lest they stream from him so strongly they ripped the very ship ’round he and Rusk to shreds.
“I see you have broke your word to me, sir,” he managed, at last, teeth so hard-set Rusk could hear their grind in every syllable. Determined to stay unaffected, however, he merely yawned and stretched himself before inquiring, all lazy charm—
“What word would that be, exactly?”
“That you would trust I keep my oaths and let me do as I list, so long as I bend my skills to support your ventures. That you would not require—this of me, as a simple measure of respect.”
“I required nothing: Showed my gratitude, only, for yesterday’s assistance. And from what-all I saw, ’twas entirely your own idea t’accept the proof of it so... embracingly.”
Parry bared his teeth, silver-penny gaze now gone truly dangerous. “I’m sure! Yet enlighten me, nevertheless: What was it failed to convince you I am no one to be thus trifled with, Solomon Rusk? Surely even a barbarian idiot like you must grasp that small fact about me, if nothing else—”
“Aye, I grasp it, well enough!” Rusk snapped back, rolling them both in one quick twist, so he wound up once more most securely on top. Then added, right into Parry’s face, as the man all but bit at him like a trapped weasel: “Yet I can’t help but note, powerful as y’are, at no point in the preceding did I ever once see you try to stop me doin’ as I wished, not s’long as it was makin’ ye jump an’ sing! So don’t play the re-stitched virgin wi’ me, ‘sir’—’tis hardly my fault I choose not t’believe these lies ye tell yourself, ‘specially when I have such hard evidence t’the contrary—”
—and here he reached down between them, taking hold of the “evidence” he referenced with force enough to make Parry start back, as if scalded. Which Rusk was later forced to admit might not, in fact, have been the best possible way to calm the man’s ruffled dignity, rather than rouse his ire to its furthest possible pitch—
Still: “You will let me GO!” Jerusalem Parry roared at him, springing only momentarily naked from the bed, before a single gesture restored at least the illusion of clothing. “You will leave me be from now on, you bloody-handed bastard, or I will stave this Bitch of yours in and go down along with her, gladly—this I so swear, by every star above and demon below! Do you hear me, Captain?”
His pale face bright-flushed as it’d been during his first fever, lips near shaking, clerk’s hands clawed like some fee-cheated Tortuga whore’s. And how Rusk found himself driven to outright laughter at the sight, guffaws ringing both long and loud, hilariously unimpressed—which again, in retrospect, might well have been a certain grade of error, on his part.
“As ye say,” he replied, finally. “Or perhaps I’ll just wait ’til you’re next in need of a good, long swive and see what happens then, shall I? When ye shut your eyes and lay back, waitin’ for me t’overbear ye—play devil t’your saint and give ye what ye really want, in a way that deeds me the lion’s share of guilt whilst you stay safely clean, my sweet Jerusha, at any cost: all high and mighty, with your vicar’s ways and your Hell-born powers. What a life it is ye’ve made for yourself, man... so sadly complicated, wi’ mine th’exact opposite! Yet if that’s what ye require, I s’pose, ’tis the very least I can do...”
Too much, too far; no time left for any sort of apology to mend the rift he’d just ripped wide with words between ‘em, even had Rusk thought to make one. In the sudden silence, Parry simply widened those eyes at him and vanished, winked out, so fast Rusk thought it unlikely he’d meant to, beforehand.
Snorting at these dramatics, therefore, Rusk turned over into their shared warmth and drifted back asleep again, all blissfully unknowing of events to come, which he himself had already set in motion.
Things did not play themselves out immediately, in terms of Parry’s retribution for what he considered Rusk’s many insults—but then again, they almost never do. In Rusk’s sleep, the Bitch whispered warnings to its master that he did not care to hear and thus did not remember, upon waking; told him how he was trapped and where best to twist if he truly wished his freedom, only to find itself ignored. After which, having done all it could, it creaked a sad song to itself as it cut the water, knowing him fore-doomed.
Far behind, Tante Ankolee felt the Bitch‘s mournings nudge at the corner of her own dreams and stole a quick look through Rusk’s witched eye, shaking her head at what she glimpsed there: Jerusalem Parry, back always kept carefully turned to the man who still thought them lovers, his neat mind deep-engaged in plotting out the arcane mechanics of his revenge.
Hearing Rusk’s voice in her own mind, bluff and hearty, so completely self-deluded: He’ll forgive me soon enough, once he finds there’s no other way. ‘Tis a certainty.
And thinking, sadly, in her turn: But here’s ya worst mistake, little half-me-blood, for that man wasn’t never no true Christian, ta begin wi’. What he knows best he learnt nah from the books he study, Good or no, but at his own witch-dam’s knee, her he saw swung in the wind for wantin’ freedom ‘bove all from the same fat squire got ‘im on her, in the first place. Him in he fancy coat, who sign her death-warrant whilst drunk then don’t even stay ta see her neck snap.
And would I help ya, I only could? For you yourself, brother mine—aye, mayhap. But then I think of my Maman, an’ yours. Of the man made us both, but let you run free soon’s ya told him that was ya will, an’ kept me chain at the neck to raise him other bastards, ’til at last I make enough ta pay him for me freedom....
Between Rusk’s narrowed lids, Tante Ankolee caught sight of Parry looking back over his shoulder, studying the small reflection that moved there with care. Felt Rusk notice and smile, all teeth, as though he truly believed such attentions meant for him—and he did, of course. Of course. Since Solomon Rusk, like every other man of his line, had lived his life thus far in a world where all things bent to his desires, eventually.
Parry too, though—yes, even now, when he thought he’d been taught better. Which was, she supposed, just the sad damn pity of it.
Whites like hissin’ roaches, spreadin’ out all ‘cross this world wi’ no regard for any dream but they own, an’ always thinkin’ they know best. Yet there be surprises ahead for both ya stubborn fools, in this bed ya make together.
No help for it, on her end; those watery miles between would prevent any useful intervention even if she didn’t have other business, which she very much did. So she sighed and withdrew, leaving them to it.
Some days on—a period which had seen Jerusalem Parry shun Rusk’s company almost entirely, except where simple lack of space made that option an impossibility—Rusk noticed a new recruit, close-wrapped in layers of rags, whose looks disturbed him on some level far beyond mere instinct: Squat but hunched, his eight grey-skinned fingers webbed and nailless, pallid skin visibly touched with chill. He did his work clumsily, forever turning a too-thick neck to train first one wide-spaced, lidless-seeming flat black eye on the task to hand, then the other; even what little of the currently sinking sun was left appeared to pain him, making him bare a double-jawful of serrated teeth in an aggressive sort of wince, as though he wanted to take a bite out of it and bring on a far more comfortable flood of dark.
“That man suits me ill,” Rusk told the bo’sun. “Who is he?”
With a grimace of his own, equal-uncomfortable: “Mister... Dolomance, Master Parry says ‘is name is, Cap’n.”
“And is Master Parry engaging hands, now? We will have words, he and I, once he sees fit t’re-evince himself. Where’s this troll of his hail from, exactly?”
“Over the side, Cap’n.”
Now it was Rusk’s turn to frown. “Off another ship, ye mean? That last prize? What was the name—”
“Jocasta’s Sin, and nay, sir. ‘Twas up, he came, that one—from the water.”
Spurred by angry surprise, Rusk turned back to the rough semblance of a man in question, barking: “Aye? And what gave ye the notion you were wanted, fish-belly, t’scale my ship’s sides without due invitation?” No reply; the man barely seemed aware he was being spoke to, prompting Rusk to peer closer, checking whether his ears were over-muffled, slit—or even there, to begin with. “Are ye deaf?” he demanded, raising his voice, with no visible effect. “I am Captain, here: Answer, damn you!”
But: “He cannot,” that same cold voice he’d so often hoped to hear told Rusk, from his elbow. “Nor would he if he could, seeing he works for me, not you—I, who made him thus.”
Rusk looked down on Parry, eyebrows quirking. “Mute, you mean?”
A small, grim smile. “Not as such. But then, his sort has very little use for speech, in the normal way; not here above the water, any road.”
The “recruit” made a creaky, squeaky noise deep in his throat, straightening to the extent his bent spine would let him—half a squeal, half a snarl, and nothing near to human. And suddenly, Rusk knew this thing’s profile, its silhouette, glimpsed often enough before, under very different circumstances; bent ever-so-slightly out of skew through the ocean’s lens, and deformed by threat and motion. How that groove between its shoulders marked where its fin should arch, whilst those awful teeth would fit key-into-lock neat with almost any shipwreck survivor’s wound Rusk had ever seen treated, those men crazed from time adrift and torn everywhere that flesh had touched water, worn down to raw flesh and exposed bone by what less predatory sailors were wont to name the Wolves of the Sea.
Parry crossed his arms and nodded, a satisfied schoolmaster. “Ah, I see you finally take my meaning, sir. Indeed, to quote you yourself, on another occasion—you may call him shark, Captain. With all creatures being his meat, that take his fancy.”
They stared at each other a long moment, during which Rusk could feel the bo’sun—along with every other man on deck, aside from Parry’s creation—cast eyes his way as well, waiting to see what might come of this confrontation. And though the wizard knew enough to school his face, Rusk nevertheless took due note of how his fingers flexed all unconscious, blue and green St. Elmo’s fire dancing between and similar-hued sparks set dancing ‘cross their knuckles as a clear demonstration of just how much they longed to form fists.
“Oh, Jerusha,” Rusk said, almost sadly, his own hand moving to caress his sword’s hilt. “What is’t you’ve done now, ye mad bitch?”
“Freed myself at last from you, I venture, albeit at Mister Dolomance here’s expense. Yes, I teased him up, bent him to my will, re-made him, as you see... slaved myself one of the sea’s fiercest monsters, and without even a collar. For the which he now hates me, true—but then, I require only his obedience, not his affections. He will do my bidding from now on, neat as any devil but without the contract, thus posing no threat to my immortal soul beyond the immediate; guard my body in all matters, most particularly from those who lie, and cheat, and do not keep their promises.”
“By which you mean myself, I suppose.”
“Do you? Well. If the shoe fits.”
Such a wild tone, lurking at these last words’ very back, knit from equal parts despair and triumph; the bo’sun took a half-step back at their sound alone, though Rusk made himself stand fast. Telling Parry, as he did—
“So you’re angry wi’ me yet, as I knew already. But this is my ship, whose Articles you swore to on your honor, as a Navy man. Does none of that mean naught t’you, anymore? What’s your intent?”
“Can you not guess? Then I will be plain: Since you have had your way with me, sir—and on several different occasions, no less—now it is both turn-about and catch-who-can, as the old phrases go. And thus, while the play involved may not perhaps be entirely fair, by some standards, yet it is just enough, to my mind.”
“Mutiny, then. Ye seek the Captaincy, in my place.”
“If the crew agree.”
“And ye think they will, between us—pick you over me, ye bedwarmer, who never went over-side or fought hand-to-hand in your life? Ye sly jest of a jumped-up Cornish marsh-witch’s get, wi’ your fake-vicar’s airs and graces?”
“They’ve little enough choice, considering. As little choice, almost, as you gave me.”
At this last blatant ingratitude, however, Rusk drew himself up full height, unsheathing, while Parry reached for his hex-bag just as fast, whipping it free, aiming it like a pistol. “And who was it popped your lock, Hell-priest,” Rusk heard himself declaim, “when you would’ve died like a sick bloody dog, iron-yoked still, had I not? For which reason alone ye’ll do well t’keep a civil tongue in your head, damn your eyes!”
“I have been civil with you throughout, the more fool me! Would to God I had been less so, seeing all the good it did!”
A man of pride, Tante Ankolee had called Parry, once—and wasn’t it so, Rusk only realized now; wasn’t it, though, by Hell and blast. Pride poison-rich as any stingray’s sac, the sort that’d make a man always more willing to break than bend, no matter what might be gained from doing the latter. Which meant, well though he suddenly understood the full range of his own mistakes, that there’d been no way for him to’ve ever had his will with Jerusalem Parry and walked away after with both ‘em content, let alone happy....
I did have ye, though, sure enough, Rusk thought, meeting Parry’s silver eyes, almost sure the man could hear him. Made ye like it too, in our congress’s fullest bloom. And by the very way you behave, ‘sir’—no matter all your most fervent protests t’the contrary—I’d say I have ye still.
Once more, he watched Parry nod, slightly. Thinking, in return: Perhaps. But where magic is concerned, things go both ways, or so that cousin of yours tutored me. So here is my curse, pirate, my gratitude made flesh for all you gave, and took....
(What you put in me, I put in you; what we share I turn against us both, accounting my own pain of no moment, so long as you suffer. By the bond between us I bind you fast and draw you down. Draw out your life’s root, and sever it.)
So, you admit it: Ye’d have nothing at all, not even t’curse me with, were it not for me.
Rusk felt the spell’s price flare behind his eye, a split coal screwed deep in the empty socket, and knew exactly what it was costing Parry to work it, in that very moment—a sick joke, overall, spurring him to laugh yet one more time, full in the man’s self-sorry face. Scoffing, as he did—
“An apology, then, for givin’ ye what you weren’t canny enough t’know ye wanted? Because I took liberties? Well, be that as it may: in this case, as in all others, I scorn t’defend my actions, except with steel!”
Here he lunged forward, sword’s point aimed straight towards the pale shadow of Parry’s neck-scar, where it peeked from his cravat’s high twist. Only to meet something else halfway, come barreling into him sidelong like a leaping whale: “Dolomance”, Parry’s curst creation, its teeth suddenly all ablaze with sorcerous fire, snapping-to like a trap about his wrist and biting the bone of it through entirely, in one fell chunk.
The pain was so severe Rusk swooned, coming to again in his own vomit, his nauseate agony set to the cracking, snuffling sound of a shark-were at its repast. Spasming, he jack-knifed left and came nose-to-snout with the thing, its bloodstained mouth still unnaturally aflame, and managed, groaning: “Wh-what, wh—why—?”
Standing above, too damnable calm by far, Parry paused to order first one cuff, then the other. “The process,” he said, at last, “Is called cauterization.”
Rusk spit bile. “Because ye... want me t’live crippled, is... that it?”
“Because I want you alive, yes, for now. ‘Til I say otherwise.”
“And just how long will that be, I wonder?”
“A fair question. How long can you hold your breath?”
“No ship can have two captains,” the Bitch‘s former master used to claim, before Rusk overtook him. “’Tis not natural, and the sea bears no unnaturalness.” Which was good advice, certainly, or always had been, before....
That man never had the ill-luck to meet with such as Jerusalem Parry, though, let alone make the supreme error of lying down with him, in both the phrase’s prime senses. And Rusk thought he might well’ve given thanks for avoiding that opportunity, had he only found himself still far enough above-waves to venture a verdict on the matter.
“Others might maroon you,” Parry had told him as the crew’s four strongest members bound Rusk’s pain-stiff carcass, all apologetic, to the Bitch of Hell‘s anchor-chain. “But I am not over-merciful by nature, as you have no doubt noted, and have no interest in giving second chances. This ship is mine, from now on; your death will christen it with blood, as is only lore-ful.”
Oh, aye, Rusk thought, far too wearied by dolor to summon much of a struggle. Still, it would all be over soon enough, if not immediately....
(and there was that vaunted lack of mercy showing through, in the very proclaimed method of his demise—for keel-hauling was one of the illest deaths imaginable, a terror seldom more than threatened, combining as it did all the varied and central terrors of drowning, great bodily suffering and utter humiliation)
Soon enough, yes. Or so he had believed.
“I should thank you, I suppose,” Parry said, while they hauled him up, “for this change my durance seems to’ve wrought in me, since truly—even at my lowest, in that gaol-ship’s brig—I never looked to be so powerful as I am now. Then again, my mother’s marsh was salten, so perhaps I was always destined to find my power’s depth at sea.”
Rusk touched a too-dry tongue to bleeding lips, and eked out: “Hmm, might... be. So... will ye?”
“Give thanks, to you?” Parry cast that cold metal stare his way, one last time, lips pursing in a way Rusk would once have found intolerable for very different reasons. Then, at last: “I think not.”
But this, too, was very little surprise.
“Stay... ever as y’are, my Jerusha,” Rusk croaked while the weeping sailors heaved to, swinging him over the side. “I’ll... miss ye.”
“I cannot say the same, sir,” was Parry’s reply.
Then Rusk closed his eye, and let the water take him. Only to learn that for some unlucky few—himself very much included, it turned out—death was not always as he’d been previously given to believe, prior to shedding his mortal coil.
Now that he was no longer encumbered by the flesh, Rusk could easily see everything he’d never been privy to: lines of power leaking from Parry to Mister Dolomance and back again, a double set of chains; from his own ruined wreck of a body to the Bitch‘s hull, in the brief instant Parry stooped to pluck Rusk’s still-witched eyeball out and slip it in his bag, like spoils of war, before directing “his” crew to shove their former Captain’s corpse off-deck through the scuppers same as so much other rubbish. Or the curse he’d never known he was capable of placing on sweet Master Jerusha bleeding out from that same bespelled item, tainting every other hex-ingredient and entering Parry’s heart through the breast-pocket, where it soon commenced to circulate through his system like any other humor.
Seem you the same sort’a Rusk as me after all, no matter the size o’that piece ‘tween ya legs, or what-all it pull ya fiercest towards, Tante Ankolee might have said, had he ever thought to ask her. Born of bad angels on one side an’ bad men on th’other, a ten-mile-long chain o’ witches, pirates, and pirate-witches—an’ just like that Master Parry o’yours know all too well, t’him an’ your cost both, ’tis never no fit measure ta look only at what a man already done ta foresee what him yet may do, under th’exact right circumstance. Why is’t ya think y’have such a hunger for him, anyhow, but that ya finally recognize y’own kind?
(Which maybe explains it th’other way, too, Rusk’s traitor thoughts would have chimed in, if so. Why he felt the same pull as regards to me, and just as strong, though Christ knows he’d do anything not t’admit it.)
Anything and everything, yes. As current circumstances only went to prove.
When the Bitch returned to Porte Macoute, Rusk’s ghost stood watching from her deck when Parry tried to come ashore, only to start bleeding out at every pore the second his boot-soles touched land. Saw Mister Dolomance drag him into the surf and swim back at double-time, inhumanly swift, that same passage rubbing Parry raw ‘cross the chest and inner arms against the shark-were’s sandpaper skin, even with two separate layers of clothing between.
Later, with Parry cocooned in healing power just like that first night they’d shared together, Rusk stretched himself invisibly alongside and passed a gelid ghost-hand down his beloved murderer’s side, touching each of the wizard’s organs in turn and saving that one he liked best for last. Stroked him once more from the inside out in an entirely different way, sowing gooseflesh over his blood-smeared new-grown hide, and whispered, in Parry’s fever-bright ear:
Shield yourself from me all ye please, in whichever ways ye choose, yet I am here always, nonetheless. The Bitch is my command as much as yours, forever, Master Parry. A sad truth, and one which must drag it down eventually, bringing you along with it....
How it comes I know not, but know this: I will be there that day, that hour, at the very striking of your doom; we will meet again beneath the water, where I will hold you tight, as your own flesh casts you free. I will never let you go.
And so it did come to pass, eventually, but not for years yet. The which is another tale completely, told by one who would never know—or care to know—what you now do: how two equal-obdurate men may always be the death of each other, fast or slow, especially when magic is involved.
Said Solomon Rusk to Jerusalem Parry, licking this last truth—with a wintry ghost-tongue—directly onto the drum: shouldn’t’ve killed me on me own ship, my Jerusha, ye really wished t’be rid of me. And while Parry moaned and tossed in sorcerous sleep, all unknowing of why he felt so cold, the Bitch of Hell sailed on, secure in its two captains’ care.