The first thing he was told when he boarded the Caspartine was to choose a new name. If Lightening Marshalls did capture any of the crew, then at least they wouldn't have any real names - and that would certainly make it harder for any of the crew to be identified through any family or friends they might have left behind. He didn't actually have any family left, but Captain Ghostmaker insisted. Everyone aboard his ship had a nom-de-plume. What did it matter anyway? He chose the name Skinny without much thought and that was his name from then on.
Shakespeare, Ghostmaker's son and the future captain, didn't make much of an impression on Skinny at first. All he really noticed was the odd name - most of the grunt pirates had names like `Baldy' or - the more creative ones - `Bloodcurdler', though even that generally got shortened to Bloody. Even Ghostmaker's name wasn't that odd, but Shakespeare - it didn't fit somehow. A week or two into his stint on the ship, he'd asked the second most junior member of the crew - Curly, a man who inexplicably had straight hair sticking out from under his cap - about the son. "Quiet," Curly said, splashing water. Skinny mopped it up.
"Where's the name from?" he asked. Curly gave him an odd look.
"Shake spear? As in, he makes the spears of his enemies shake with fear?" Curly's voice was full of distain, and Skinny was certain he'd just made that explanation up on the spot. Instead of challenging Curly on it, though, he just kept mopping. Still, the vigour of his mopping knocked over the bucket of water Curly had been so diligently supervising, and he got punched anyway. He punched back, ducked under the returning swipe, jabbed his elbow into Curly's stomach, and tripped him up. From the floor Curly grinned at him.
"You ain't as lousy as you look," he said. Skinny gave him a hand up and they continued to mop in relative peace, occasionally grunting at each other when it was time to shift the bucket.
In his first month, Skinny got into 17 fights and participated in two scuffles with Lightening Marshalls. He lost only one fight - to Bloodcurdler, a seven foot giant of a man whose muscles where barely contained by his clothes - and he'd gotten a reputation.
He'd sort of expected that to take longer.
Life on the ship was surprisingly easy. Before he'd boarded, he'd worked on a farm, and compared to that, well, cleaning the deck, changing the lightening nets, oiling the wings, polishing windows, inventorying the armoury, keeping watch for Lightening Marshalls, and steering the ship was fun. And certainly involved more drink than farming ever had. His crewmates appreciated a strong fighter, and they liked sarcastic humour (after a drink or two), so Skinny fit in quickly.
Shakespeare was responsible for navigation; he and Professor, an older bespectacled pirate, were often seen pouring over maps and studying the sky. Every once in a while, Professor would say something to Shakespeare, and Shakespeare would draw a line on one of the map, consulting the compass and checking against other maps, before calling out for a change in direction.
Whenever Skinny was at the helm, he'd often watch the sky, trying to predict Shakespeare's orders before they were called out. Watching the skies was complicated - the slightest tint of purple would sometimes be the only sign of a storm brewing somewhere. Shakespeare had a barometer and a compass to aid him, but Skinny kept at it, and occasionally, he'd get it right. Turning the ship a moment before Shakespeare called out was worth the studying - Shakespeare would get an almost calculating look, before smiling grudgingly, and that made Skinny feel even more like part of the crew.
It was this ability to predict storms that led to his first conversation with the soon to be captain. Shakespeare came out onto the deck one night, maps in one hand, barometer in the other. Skinny was at the helm through the night, and most of the other pirates were below deck. Skinny could hear the sounds of laughter and music coming from the quarters. He imagined he could smell rum.
Shakespeare stood on the deck, watching the clouds. He didn't seem to be consulting the maps or the compass, but Skinny decided it was probably worth being on the safe side - there was a darkening towards west which looked promising, purple and black like a bruise.
"West?" he called out. Shakespeare startled.
"What?" he yelled back, and then comprehension dawned. Skinny watched him look towards the cloud cluster and consult the barometer. His shoulders slumped slightly. "West, Skinny," he said, barely loud enough for Skinny to hear. The ship leaned and turned slowly as Skinny steered it smoothly around.
"Can you predict if we'll need the crew?" Shakespeare asked. He had moved to stand below the helm, gazing up at Skinny. There was some humour in his voice, although he wasn't smiling.
"Don't think so," Skinny replied, considering the cluster. "Shouldn't be at the storm for another three hours, unless the wind shifts."
"The captain would be proud of you," Shakespeare said. Skinny didn't know what to say to that, and after a few moments Shakespeare shook himself, and went into his quarters.
After that, Skinny started noticing Shakespeare more. Particularly he noticed that Shakespeare didn't get involved with any of the many scuffles that routinely broke out among the crew. It wasn't that Shakespeare held himself apart from the crew - okay, he didn't drink with them, or eat with them, but he was friendly with the crew and had a few in jokes with some of the older crewmen, and he never shied away from arguing with anyone. His insults were as good as any grunts, probably better - Shakespeare had left more than one man speechless. But it never grew physical; Shakespeare would argue, harangue, insult and intimidate, but no one ever challenged him to anything physical, and he never started a fight.
"Afraid you'll bruise?" Skinny asked without thinking. He was helping Shakespeare with the maps, plotting in known coordinates of Lightening Marshalls, and they had been arguing over the coordinates of their last encounter with the law (though, of course, due to the shifting nature of the lands, coordinates were never exact any way). It wasn't aggressive, but Skinny had been edging closer to Shakespeare, something any other crew member would have taken as a challenge. Shakespeare just backed down.
"A captain doesn't lower himself to fighting with the crew," Shakespeare told him, without looking at him.
"You're not the captain yet," Skinny said. Shakespeare turned and looked at him. Skinny thought he might be trying not to smile.
"Well, the current captain doesn't think it would be appropriate," Shakespeare said. "Perhaps when I take over, I'll change that." Skinny grinned at him.
"Anyway, how do I know that's not just an excuse? Maybe you don't know how to fight." Skinny edged closer without really knowing why. Shakespeare leaned back, almost stumbling, then righted himself.
"You eager for some extra bruises?" Shakespeare asked, smirking. He stepped forward, raising his arms, and it was Skinny's turn to move back a little, almost involuntarily. He turned back to the map.
"Nah, I guess not," he said.
"How did you get your name?" Skinny asked one night, a few weeks later. Shakespeare was teaching him how to read the barometer; without talking about it, really, Shakespeare had started to teach him how to navigate. Professor had been set on land a couple of days before the lessons had started; he said he was feeling too old to carry on and wanted to be a burden on his grandchildren for a while before he died. Skinny had been his natural heir - he was the only man aboard who'd shown any interest in navigation and mapping.
"What do you mean?" Shakespeare asked. "Also, you should consult the compass before mapping the clouds." He pushed the compass towards Skinny, who just looked at him.
"I can see the clouds," Skinny said. "And I meant how did you get Shakespeare?"
"What if it was too foggy to see clearly?" Shakespeare said, "and I thought it sounded appropriately scary."
"Huh," Skinny replied. He was pretty sure that answer was as much of a lie as the one Curly had given him.
"And by `huh', you mean...?" Shakespeare said.
"I just hadn't thought about the fog," Skinny told him, picking up the compass.
"Well," Shakespeare said, and Skinny thought he'd leave it at that. However, a couple of moments later, while Skinny was scribbling down a barometer reading Shakespeare asked, "How did you get yours?"
"I'm skinny," Skinny said, gesturing at himself. "It was that, or Scrappy, and really - do I look like a Scrappy to you?"
He had expected Shakespeare to laugh - he was playing the line for a laugh. Instead Shakespeare said nothing, and the quiet wasn't comfortable as it had been before.
"What's your real name?" Shakespeare asked suddenly, and if Skinny had been easily startled, he would have dropped the map he was holding up. There was something odd about Shakespeare's voice - it seemed higher and lighter, and Skinny felt strangely nervous. He grasped the map tighter.
"I thought revealing names would compromise safety," he said, staring at the docking notations on the map. One of the blue indicators was in the wrong place.
"Of course." Shakespeare sighed and Skinny knew that some sort of moment had been lost. There was another stretch of silence, and then Shakespeare said, "Well, I suppose I'll leave you study this further."
Skinny put the map down and moved the indicator to its correct location.
The barometer wasn't working. It was the only explanation Skinny could come up with - the pressure seemed to be doing nothing, and there were no storms to be seen in the area. It had been more than a week since they'd harvested any lightening, and Captain Ghostmaker had risen from his sick bed to yell and threaten the crew. There had been storms, but damp, cold ones, forecasting snow, rather than lightening. Shakespeare had proposed moving the ship south, but they were due into Market at Oesternor in a week where the captain had a standing agreement with a fence and had to stay in the north.
On this particular night, the fog was thick and clammy; it seemed to be brewing a snowstorm within it, and all of the crewmen were out of sorts, freezing and wet, but no one wanted to give up - even now, laying on his death bed as he was, Captain Ghostmaker was still a fearsome man.
Skinny shook the barometer, trying to get a reading, but nothing was showing. None of the other crewmen seemed to know what to do - most of them could harness the lightening, but they didn't have the sense for finding lightening that Skinny had. Only Shakespeare was better at finding the storms than him, and Shakespeare wasn't on deck.
"Should ask Shakespeare," One-Eye said, "Maybe he could find sommat in all this mess." There was a general grumbling of agreement.
"You might check `is quarters, you's the closest one to him" Bloody said to Skinny. "Eye's right, this fog ain't clearin'."
Skinny gave the barometer one last check, then shrugged, and made his way towards Shakespeare's quarters. They were below the Captain's and on the stairs, Skinny thought he heard music, faint but there. As he approached the door, it grew stronger, he could hear more instruments. He knocked, but there was no answer and the door slipped open. Skinny peered around it, and had opened his mouth to say Shakespeare's name when he caught sight of her.
There was a woman in the room, tall and with short cropped hair. She was swaying to the music with elegant practiced movements, her back to him. Her dress was a deep green, stretched across her broad back. For a moment he wondered when Shakespeare would have picked her up, and then the woman turned slightly.
Shakespeare was dancing with his eyes closed, smiling slightly. His hands held in front of him, as if he was dancing with an invisible partner and he was wearing makeup, his eyes lined in black and his cheeks redder than the warmth would account for. His mouth was moving slightly, either singing or counting beats, and it too was red and wet-looking. Skinny felt a stab of lust in his stomach, stretching and coiling itself inside him as he watched. Shakespeare looked blissful, and his movements were so sure, so unlike the clumsy, big movements on deck. Here Shakespeare seemed happy and confident, and Skinny wanted to stay, watch - he was almost tempted to step into the room, slip his hands around Shakespeare's waist and for a moment he could almost feel the velvet under his fingertips. Then he came to himself; he had to move - Shakespeare might turn at any moment, all that was hiding him was angle and shade and either of those advantages could disappear - and he backed out as quietly as he could, holding his breath.
Skinny stumbled up there stairs, pausing to lean against the wall at the top of the stairs, breathing hard. When he gathered himself, he told the other crewmen Shakespeare had been asleep.
"Go south, take our chances," he said to One-Eye, who had taken the helm. The other pirates grunted, and moved into position. Skinny stared into the mist and hoping it'd clear, and no one would suggest waking Shakespeare
The following week, Skinny couldn't stop thinking about it. Couldn't stop thinking about Shakespeare in the dress, and he found himself watching Shakespeare on deck; looking for a little sway in his step, something in his voice, something that gave him away - or proved that Skinny hadn't just dreamt up the entire scenario. It had been a while since he'd lain with anyone - before he'd boarded the ship, in fact - but he didn't think his dreams would conjure up a dress-wearing pirate. They'd never done before.
There were signs, though. Shakespeare's steps would be smaller, neater, when he wasn't concentrating, and sometimes - particularly late at night, when he was talking to Skinny about navigation, or about the trading next week (Skinny didn't really understand trading, but Shakespeare seemed excited) - Shakespeare's voice would go higher, more - musical. It was odd, but what was odder was that he found it so - interesting. It wasn't the first time he'd found another man attractive; most of the time, he was more surprised to find himself attracted to women. But Shakespeare was - well - he was odd, and quiet and wore dresses.
And yet Skinny had spent more than one night imagining pinning Shakespeare down, and slipping his hand under that green dress. The skin of Shakespeare's thigh would be rough, hairy, and male under his hands, and the stubble on his neck would bite when Skinny grazed it with his lips, but the velvet would be so soft, and Shakespeare's voice would be high and warm, right near his ear. In his fantasy, Shakespeare was moaning his name - his real name. Skinny didn't want to think about what that meant.
"You realise the harbour is that way, right?" Shakespeare asked. He was laughing slightly, and Skinny tried to glare at him. He'd been lost in thinking about, well, the green dress again, and had apparently let the ship swerve slightly.
"Takin' steering lessons from Shakespeare?" Curly called out. Shakespeare made an indignant noise. Skinny clenched his fists around the wheel, and swore once he was off duty, he was going to get Curly. Still, he managed to right the ship and steer it into the harbour. Docking procedures meant chaos on deck, and Shakespeare disappeared into storage with Bloody and Giant. Skinny breathed in and pulled himself together. This was ridiculous.
Oesternor Market was a market like so many others Skinny had been to: vegetable stands to the left, meat stands towards the back, linens and cloths as far from the food as possible, and in between these were drink stands, book sellers, spell makers, metal traders, animal stalls, charm conjurers, as well as jugglers and fools. And, of course, favour-givers. These advertised their wares as brazenly as any of the other sellers. Skinny watched more than one crew mate wander off with a scantily clad woman after they finished trading the lightening. Most, however, headed to the inn - anything they were serving had to be better than Cook's usual fare, and there had been rumours of real ale, rather than the watered down stuff you got at the stands.
Skinny was having an argument with Firestorm about the quality of rum he'd bought earlier ("This is the stuff - I'm gonna be blind drunk for weeks!" "That may have been what the seller told you, but it smells like weak wine to me."), the kind of stupid argument they'd have occasionally to fill time. It wasn't heated enough to induce a fight, but there were a few lookers-on, clearly hoping it might come to that. Skinny got up to get another pint of ale (it really was excellent), and then he saw Shakespeare. He seemed to be heading towards the favour-givers, and without thinking, Skinny left his ale and followed him.
Shakespeare was clearly trying not to be noticed - he walked fast, but carefully, avoiding knocking in to anyone. It wasn't really working. It made him easier to follow, though, and Skinny managed to stay a couple of steps behind, unobserved. Shakespeare carried on past the favour-givers, and Skinny breathed a small sigh of relief and then he almost fell over his own feet trying to stop - Shakespeare had paused and was looking intensely between two stalls.
"Will!" someone cried, stepping out into Skinny's view. It was a man, tall and older than Shakespeare if the gray hair and beard were anything to go by. He went as if to embrace Shakespeare, but Shakespeare stepped back.
"Sorry, it's just - the crew, you know," he said, giving the man a slightly sad smile. "Did you get it?"
Someone pulled on Skinny's sleeve. "Help you, sir?" a small child asked. She was wearing a tunic that seemed to indicate that she was a young spell maker.
"Err," Skinny said, caught off-guard. Recovering, he pointed towards the man who was unwrapping something swathed in delicate material. "Could you tell me who he is?"
The child stared at him. "I could," she offered. Skinny sighed, and took out a coin. "Mathias. He sells books. From over there." The girl nodded seriously and pocketed the coin.
Over there? Skinny had heard of another place - the other side of Wall, a town by the border of the Stormhold - but why would Shakespeare be buying books? He looked up, but Mathias was gone. Instead, Shakespeare stood there, holding the package in his hand and smiling slightly. He started to tuck the book into his bag, looking around furtively. Skinny moved back into the crowd, but he was a fraction too late. He caught Shakespeare's eye.
The look on Shakespeare's face was less shocked than Skinny would have expected. His eyes did widen for a brief moment, but then it fell into a more resigned look. Skinny didn't know what to do.
"Walk me to the ship?" Shakespeare asked. Skinny nodded, and they made their way through the chaos of the market, to the calmer area surrounding the harbour.
"So, you stalk all your crewmates, or am I special?" Shakespeare asked, as they came to the dock.
"I - uh, I didn't mean to - " Skinny didn't even know what he was trying to say.
"I've struck you speechless. My, my, that's rare," Shakespeare said, and it was only then that Skinny noticed that he was using his other voice. It made him nervous and he wasn't entirely sure why.
They boarded the ship without saying anything else. On deck, Shakespeare looked around, and then said, "Come to my cabin? I need to talk to you."
Skinny's hands felt suddenly clammy, and he had a brief moment of wondering whether this was an invitation and if so, how did Shakespeare know? But he managed to follow Shakespeare down the stairs in silence, and into Shakespeare's cabin, which was better lit than it had been last time he'd looked in, and showed no signs of dresses. There was a record player in the corner, though.
"How'd you know?" Shakespeare asked.
"Know what?" Skinny replied, trying not to look at him.
"About this. The books. That sort of thing."
"I -" There was no way he was going to tell the truth. "Your voice, sometimes. It changes - goes like it is now. And, well, you're not like the other pirates, you know. Or your father. You're softer, somehow." It sounded plausible enough.
"I thought I'd managed to rid myself of that," Shakespeare said, collapsing into his chair with a sigh. Skinny glanced at him - he looked tired and worn-out. "I've always preferred books - stories - to all this pirating business," Shakespeare admitted, looking at Skinny. "But you know my father. I can hardly fight him, or deny him his will, can I?"
"He'll be dead soon, though," Skinny said, looking back at Shakespeare. Shakespeare gave a small grunt of laughter.
"You're brave, Skinny," he said. "But even then - who else will captain the ship? No, I'll stay. I am the next Captain." He paused and sighed. When he spoke again, it was quietly. "But I can't be captain like this."
Skinny wanted to protest - Shakespeare was well-liked by the men, respected for his fencing abilities, and his navigational skills. But then, pirates were pirates and he wasn't sure they'd understand books and stories, let alone the whole dress-issue, so he kept his mouth shut.
"I'll need you, then," Shakespeare said. Skinny moved closer - this seemed to be a return to what he'd expected - wanted. "You know me," Shakespeare said, getting to his feet. His arm brushed Skinny's as he rose and Skinny felt a familiar rush of anticipation, almost like before a fight, but not quite. "You can help me. If I fall - if I seem less than captainly, you can catch me. I'll make you my first mate, if you'll accept? I'll need a friend."
And that was it, of course. Skinny moved back a bit. "Of course," Skinny said. "It'd be an honour, Captain."
"Not quite yet," Shakespeare said, but he smiled slightly, and Skinny felt something unfurl in his stomach, some loosening of tension. "And in return for the favour? Is there anything I can offer you?"
Skinny knew immediately, it was almost ridiculous. "Your name," he said. "The real story behind it."
Shakespeare let out a huff of laughter. He picked up the bag and took out the package within. He passed it to Skinny, who unwrapped it carefully. Inside was a book. "The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare," Skinny read slowly.
"It's a good cover, you must admit," Shakespeare said. "My real first name is actually William, as well - such a coincidence, wouldn't you say?"
Skinny nodded. He wasn't really surprised - it fit, after all, and it was - well, he couldn't imagine Shakespeare as anything other.
"I'll be your first mate," he said, holding out his hand. Shakespeare took it and smiled at him, and Skinny told himself he'd just have to get used to the twist of his stomach.
(So, Shakespeare became captain, and there were comments about Skinny's promotion, but mostly everything carried on as usual. If the crew were a little more light-hearted, and the drinking and singing tend to spill out of quarters and on to the deck more under Captain Shakespeare, they were still the most feared crew of lightening gatherers. And so the years passed, until Shakespeare suddenly happened on a nephew (and Skinny didn't think any of the crew were fooled by the theatrics, but it was entertaining anyway, and Tristan and Yvaine were good people). Then suddenly that nephew was King, and his girlfriend was a star, and Skinny found himself at the first coronation of his life.)
The man was blond and, well, pretty, Skinny assumed. If you liked the type. He'd clearly caught the Captain's eye though, and seemed to be returning the interest. Years of watching the Captain almost without thinking about it meant that Skinny noticed him pulling Shakespeare aside, speaking softly. Shakespeare was smiling approvingly, nodding, and Skinny would put money on them arranging an assignation.
Not if he had anything to say about it, they bloody weren't. And after six years of taking care of Shakespeare, making sure he didn't seem too...other in front of the crew and being the one Shakespeare could talk to - well, before Tristan and Yvaine, anyway - he was not about to let some nancy-boy step in and -
He didn't finish the thought, because Shakespeare was subtly withdrawing from the party (he really can't do subtle, Skinny thinks) and Skinny needed a plan. Fortunately, Pretty Boy wasn't withdrawing; maybe they've decided to meet somewhere else, somewhere more discreet. Skinny can hope.
Indeed, Pretty Boy spent a few minutes idly watching a candle burn, and vaguely listening to his wife, before excusing himself. "I need some air," Skinny heard him say. He watched Pretty Boy leave, and counted to four, before excusing himself from the conversation he'd been having with Tristan's father, who nodded good-naturedly and wandered over to congratulate his son again.
Following Pretty Boy was easy - he was clearly lost, which made it all the easier for Skinny to casually saunter up to him and ask, "Can I help you?" Pretty Boy looked him up and down, and - clearly deciding he was a servant - nodded.
"I need to find the west courtyard? It's rather important, boy," he said, and Skinny bit back his immediate response, which was to point out that he was going east and that he was about ten years younger than Skinny and certainly less strong.
Instead he said, "You're on the right track, sir - if you'll just follow me?" And, of course, Pretty Boy did. There was something almost too easy about Pretty Boy's assumption that he was too simple to lie.
"Here we are, sir," Skinny said, gesturing towards a door. "Through that room and into the courtyard." And Pretty Boy stepped through the door, oblivious, until Skinny slammed the door behind him. A bit of improvisation with string and the door was for all intents and purposes locked.
To the west courtyard, then. Skinny made his way back through the winding corridors, trying not to grin. In one of the corridors, he stumbled upon Tristan and Yvaine, up against a wall and kissing. They broke apart as he passed them, blushing and wiping their mouths. Clearly they weren't used to the idea that they were royalty now.
"There seems to be someone locked in a room back there," Skinny said. Tristan looked at him sceptically for a moment.
"Would it be Humphrey?" he asked, giving Skinny a significant look. Skinny just looked back.
"How would I know?" he asked. "Congratulations again, Tristan. Yvaine." He nodded and walked on, trying to hide his grin.
The west courtyard proved surprisingly easy to find, once you knew what direction was west. Skinny was tempted to linger, but he'd committed himself to this now, and so he marched in. Shakespeare's eyes widened when he saw him.
"I - I was just getting some air," Shakespeare said, his voice deep and gruff, not his real voice, and that got to Skinny, triggered something, because the next thing he knew he had Shakespeare pinned by his wrists up against the wall. Shakespeare struggled, but Skinny had more experience with fighting and kept his weight on him.
"If you think, after all I've done - after buying books for you, after all that work getting dresses and making sure you found them - and d'you know how hard it is to make dresses appear as if by accident? - six years of watching you and making sure your reputation didn't suffer - if you think I'm letting some stupid pretty boy sweep you off your feet, I don't even know what to say," Skinny said, up close and watching Shakespeare's face shift from worry, to surprise to - he wasn't sure what this last one was.
"You - all those dresses? The ones at Wall?" Shakespeare asked, and this time his voice was right, high and light and it brought the familiar twist of affection to Skinny's stomach, paired with the warmth of lust spreading through him - he was suddenly, happily, aware of the press of Shakespeare's body against his. It took him a moment to register Shakespeare's question, but when he did, he nodded. "Really? How romantic! It's like some sort of -"
Skinny cut him off, pressing his mouth to Shakespeare's. Shakespeare's mouth opened readily beneath his, and Skinny let go of his wrists to grasp at his face, angle it so the kiss deepened. Shakespeare grasped at his tunic, pulling him closer as they kissed, wet and hot and almost sloppy. Skinny had expected Shakespeare to be more delicate, softer with his kisses, but he was kissing Skinny forcefully, desperately, as if he'd been thinking about this too, all those years. Their bodies shifted, and Shakespeare spread his legs, accommodating Skinny - it was such a wanton move and Skinny groaned into Shakespeare's mouth, before tearing his mouth away and kissing his way down Shakespeare's throat, hands moving downwards, to move against Shakespeare's hardness, and it wasn't like his fantasy - no velvet here, no slow kiss - but that would come later, and for now he was on fire just from the way Shakespeare pressed into him and the sound of his voice, low and desperate next to Skinny's ear.
"Skinny," he moaned, and that was wrong, not what he wanted to hear, so he pulled away. Shakespeare looked at him - dishevelled, open-mouthed and hard - but Skinny gathered himself and said, "Dagen. My name is Dagen." And Shakespeare smiled at him, pulling him back towards him, one hand on his waist, the other moving lower.
"You can call me William," he said, and Skinny laughed, kissing him again.