The first thing Tavros did when he rejoined the land of the living was peel back the bandages on his wrist where the mermaid had bit him to make sure that everything that had just happened wasn’t a dream. The punctures were barely starting to scab over, which meant that in the last forty-eight hours, he really did desert the most infamous crew of pirates in the seven seas, he really did survive a storm in a rowboat, he really did meet flesh and blood merpeople, he really did catch the Freedom without a second to spare, and he really did kiss Vriska. That last one made him want to hide his face in a pillow and never look back up. He must have been out of his mind. She had punched him for it, albeit on the shoulder and not very hard (and possibly while fighting a smile, he couldn’t be sure), and then pulled him back to the ship that had since dropped anchor and was now speeding off to the horizon once more.
Once on board, Tavros was forced to tell his story between mouthfuls of porridge. He summarized it, and much to his surprise was immediately bombarded with questions for details. Vriska sat beside him the entire time, her interest giving Moonpaw’s a run for her money when it came to the part about Mindfang, though her expression was a strange one. Tavros quickly made the decision not to mention the merpeople, instead claiming the bite was just a bad scratch from falling on some rocks. It was bandaged by then, so most bought the story. Slick on the other hand, stayed for the entire tale before announcing he didn’t believe a word and left. The rest stretched through a range of various shades of belief, but it didn’t really matter to Tavros since he wasn’t out to have anyone believe him. If anything, he would have preferred to not suddenly find himself the center of attention, and it wasn’t until it came out that he hadn’t slept since he nearly drowned that he could break in the topic of possibly letting him leave.
As soon as he could, he hung up a hammock and collapsed in it. That had been when the sun had just cleared the horizon. It was dark now. If it weren’t for the familiar floorboards and the red bird sleeping on the rafter, Tavros might as well have dreamed the whole thing up, and for that matter, could still be dreaming. It certainly felt that way.
The ship was silent save for the creak of wood against murmuring waves and the taps and scratches of Tavros making his way to the deck. His every muscle protested the movement, but he was used to aching and knew it went away with use. He was glad to still have his cane, especially for the stairs, though he couldn’t think what could have possessed the captain to let him keep it even when he offered it back. He had, after all, admitted to losing track of it for nearly a year, and in the hands of the Empire at that.
The night was clear and the waxing moon lit up a lone figure staring off at the water. He didn’t turn when Tavros approached, which meant there was only one person it could be. Tavros leaned his elbows on the railing beside him.
“I, uhh, have a message for you,” he said after a long silence, unconsciously rubbing his injured wrist as he did so.
Twineye glanced down at it from out of the corner of his eye. “From Feferi?”
Tavros blinked at him, wide-eyed. “How did you know?”
Twineye said nothing but pulled up his sleeve. Curled along the blend of his elbow were a full set of teethmarks, top and bottom, as if something had managed to get its entire jaw around the inside long, long ago. He pulled the fabric back over it before Tavros could get a better look than that.
“What did thee thay?”
“Oh, uhh,” Tavros scratched at his own barely healed injury. While the message was simple, it felt too personal for his mouth to form it easily. “That she, uhh, she loves you, and also that she says hi. But, uhh, not in that order. She said it the other way around.”
He watched the water as he talked and still managed to mangle the sentiments, as he knew he would. He’s be doomed if there ever came a time in his life when he’d have to tell someone something of great importance. Risking a glance over at Twineye, he noted the man was also looking out at the sea with a faint smile on his lips.
“Also,” Tavros remembered,”the, uhh, seahorse guy she was with, he says, uhh, ‘fuck you.’’”
Twineye chuckled. Tavros waited for him to say something else, but nothing came.
“Why did you tell me that they, uhh, looked like people?” he ventured.
“If I remember correctly,” Twineye replied, “your quethtion wath what they looked like athide from being half fithh.”
Tavros had no idea if that was correct; his memory didn’t stretch that far. Even if it were true, in his opinion Feferi was a little too creepy to be considered exactly half human; she had to be at least two thirds deep-sea horror.
Twineye didn’t seem to even notice his silence, or really, anything for that matter.
“I think, uhh, your shift is over,” Tavros noted from the position of the stars. “That is, uhh, if the captain hasn’t changed how many watches there are in a night.”
Twineye sighed heavily, patted the wood of the railing. “Mermaid bites take a long time to heal,” he announced with a last longing glance at the sea. “See me later. I have a salve that helps.” Tavros nodded but wasn’t sure the other saw.
“You don’t have to, uhh, wake anyone,” he called after Twineye as the man stared down below deck. “I can take over.”
He wasn’t sure if he had been heard either, but he realized he probably should have spoken sooner or louder when footsteps joined him a few minutes later, accompanied by a flutter of wings. Tavros couldn’t help but grin at the familiar weight of Tinkerbull on his shoulder. He scratched his feathers and the bird pecked at his hand in search of seeds.
“What are you doing up here?” Vriska asked as she set a handful of them down on the railing. Tinkerbull attacked them immediately.
“I can, um, leave, if you want,” Tavros stammered. Her resemblance to Mindfang was frightening, not in the way they were so in common is incited fear, but in the way that what they had in common made Tavros want to tack ‘ma’am’ onto everything he said to her.
She frowned at him like he had said something she was not expecting and was not happy about. He watched her for an answer and with a scowl she turned to lean on the railing and stare across the deck.
“You’re fine where you are.”
Tavros relaxed his shoulders without realizing they were tense. It did nothing to diffuse the uncomfortable atmosphere that had suddenly settled over the two of them. Even Twineye’s silence was easier to bear than this. Tavros scratched Tinkerbull’s head and started to thank Vriska for taking care of the bird in his absence just as she began to say something, too. They both cut themselves off.
“You first,” she said.
“No, uhh, that’s okay,” Tavros replied. “You can go.”
She glared at him again. He wished he knew what he was doing wrong.
“Tell me more about Mindfang,” she relented.
“Like, uhh, like what?”
Tavros wondered where to begin. Vriska rolled her eyes dramatically.
“What was she like?”
“Well, um, she was...” There wasn’t a word Tavros knew that could describe that woman, and he was not enough of a poet to be able to string together more than one. She was beautiful and terrifying and brilliant; she knew exactly what she wanted and what to say to get it, and how to say it, and when; she was not kind, but she was not unkind; she was not merciful and expected no mercy in return, but she wasn’t outright cruel; she had an intangible way of bending the people around her to her will. No matter what word Tavros grasped at, everything came up short.
“Weeeeeeeell?” Vriska drawled.
“You don’t know?” She deadpanned. “You don’t know?”
“No?” Tavros answered, but it came out as a question. “I mean yes?”
He could feel himself shrinking under Vriska’s gaze. “Well which is it?” she snapped.
“I, uhh, don’t know,” Tavros repeated in a wavering voice. His brain simply refused to produce anything else under the pressure.
Vriska positively glared at him now, wrinkled her nose, and looked away.
“I changed my mind,” she announced. “I do want you to leave. Get lost.”
Tavros glanced up at here, then down at the floor, then over at Tinkerbull. After coaxing the parrot onto his hand, he turned away wordlessly. When he looked back just before disappearing below deck, Vriska already had her back to him.
I can't say I'm exactly happy with this chapter. I blame a combination of some nasty writer's block with starting college, but at least we have plot happening now? Almost? Expect the main plot next chapter, though I can't make any promises as to when that will be.
On a happier note, fanart!! By one of my favorite artists, too. http://akitsu-47.tumblr.com/post/9851725743 I linked to this at the end of the Steps, but I wanted to mention it here also.
Anyway, here goes nothing.
More odd still was her behavior around Tavros in general. Early on she tried to strike up conversation, but by the time two sentences had left Tavros’s mouth her mood soured. Intimidated, he usually left her alone after that. As time passed she didn’t talk to him unless she had to, as if he had personally insulted her in some way, but Tavros never scraped the courage together to ask. It was a little upsetting, but he was probably silly for expecting her to think anything of him anyway. Who in their right mind would? He wasn’t even a whole person. And yet, as much as he should have let her go, he couldn’t help but let his mind occasionally drift to the afternoons they spent talking during her recovery.
After months of silence broken only by the rare furtive glance, Tavros was surprised when on a brief stop to investigate rumors of treasure and acquire supplies, she skipped up behind him and looped him by the elbow.
“You won’t believe what I just found,” she whispered in his ear without taking her eyes off the road. On Tavros’s other shoulder, Tinkerbull took off. Tavros half-wished he could do the same.
He glanced over at Vriska, his mind churning as to how to respond. “Well, uh, I don’t know if I really know if that’s true, seeing as, uhh, I don’t really know what it is that I wouldn’t be believing--”
Vriska cut him off before he could entangle himself too thoroughly in that sentence. “This way,” she murmured as she pulled him onto a side street. Her eyes were flashing something wicked. Tavros had no choice but to be tugged along.
Several turns later they were at the edge of town, and even then Vriska didn’t let up, leading the two of them straight into the jungle. Twice Tavros asked where they were going and twice she assured him he’d see when they got there. What he was supposed to see he didn’t know, because she stopped him by a tree seemingly identical to the rest. Upon further inspection, however, a rope ladder hung down along its trunk.
She prodded him toward it. “Ladies first.”
Tavros examined her over his shoulder. “But, uhh, doesn’t that mean that you should--”
“Just go,” she rolled her eyes. “And hurry up. I’m right behind you.”
He glanced again from Vriska to the misty leaves above him before reluctantly tucking his cane into his belt and taking up the rope ladder. He gave it an experimental tug, and when it proved sturdy enough, he pulled himself up. His legs dangled uselessly beneath him, but the ropes held his weight. Arm over arm he proceeded upward until he felt the ropes shift beneath him, meaning that Vriska had begun the climb up behind. He froze, but the ladder showed no sign of strain under the added weight.
“Go already!” Vriska shouted behind him, and he did.
It was a much longer climb than Tavros was used to. By the time his arms started to ache he could only hope he was closer to the top than to the bottom, but even if he were wrong, there was no turning back with Vriska in the way. Even falling would probably kill them both, and with that in mind he forced himself onward. When the ladder finally ended on a small platform, Tavros was in no condition to pull himself another inch. The most he could manage was dragging his weight to safety and collapsing as he lay. Vriska joined him on the platform faster than he would have liked.
“Could you have been any slower?” she teased as she stepped over him. “How did you ever do half the shit you claimed with this stamina? Get up already!”
Tavros turned his head to where she stood. Something was screwed into the trunk of the tree above them, and from it a rope stretched off into the distance. From the rope hung a set of wooden handlebars suspended from a pulley at about her eye level. Vriska had one hand wrapped around a handlebar, and her hook looped over the other.
“Get up!” she snapped.
Pulling his cane back out, Tavros did as he was told. Vriska immediately shoved the handlebars in his chest.
“Take it,” she instructed sternly. “I’ll hold this.”
Without waiting for his input, she snatched the cane away and wrapped Tavros’s hand around the old wood. His arms felt like jelly after the climb, so his grip was hardly sturdy.
“Just like that. Other hand, too. Hold on tight.”
He had a pretty good view of what was below them, but the ground was not one of those things. Beyond the edge of the platform was an expanse of mist and leaves.
“Are you sure this is, uhh, safe?”
“That’s what you’re going to find out!” she grinned, then pushed.
Tavros’s legs gave out and the pulley slid forward, yanking him along with it. Instinct forced him to cling on, but a second later it was not a wooden platform below him, but a leafy chasm. Rushing wind filled his ears. He screamed, and his arm muscles screamed with him. If he stayed on for one second, it was by pure adrenaline and luck, but even all the luck in the world couldn’t have kept him from plummeting to the ground.
Whether it was a miracle that saved his life, or the several dozen leaves that smacked him in the face to break his fall, neither managed to spare his legs. The wood shattered into chips, surfacing nasty memories of his real legs suffering a similar treatment. His head tingled a little, but when he put his hand to it, it felt wet. He resolved not to move, which in retrospect was a terrible idea, because it if wasn’t for Tinkerbull he likely would have died there from head injury alone. He didn’t remember a whole lot of what happened after. What time he didn’t spend sleeping was fuzzy in his memory. Everything hurt more later and there were a lot of bandages involved, but by far the worst part of the ordeal was realizing that the largest part left of his legs could fit in the palm of his hand. Until Darkleer could make him a replacement set, he was bedridden.
In a way, it was lucky Tavros didn’t set foot into port over the next several weeks. News began to reach those living on the outskirts of the law that the Empire had doubled, nay, tripled, nay, quadrupled their patrol efforts. At first, it was hardly a problem; pirates had long ago found ways around the Empire’s usual haunts. The challenge arose when the Empire began to push past their normal hunting ground, far into the sea where they really had no business being. They seemed to grow bolder by the week, going to far as to attacking smaller ports. Their cannons were numerous and powerful, and their soldiers armed with guns of the latest design. Thus far, no fleet hand managed to stand up to them and live, and each victory gave them more confidence. Several times the Freedom just barely escaped before their arrival. Speed, not one of Tavros’s strong suits, was of the essence.
The result was that pirates began to avoid small ports and came to their larger ones far out from the mainland; they had no choice lest they wanted to starve out at sea. Such concentrations, however, only drew the Empire’s attention. The pirates were playing a losing game, and talk of the end of freedom from the law floated in hushed whispers everywhere they went.
Crabclaw continued to preach hope, of course, and life went on. The idea of the end of piracy was so foreign, it was difficult to dwell on it for too long when the daily routine continued as usual. Unfortunately, that delusion came to a crashing halt.
It was not long before Tavros would get his replacement legs that he was awoke in the middle of the night, or perhaps just before the crack of dawn, by the desperate clanging of the bell on deck. Tinkerbull flew around the room in a tizzy, his wings creating too much noise for Tavros to be able to make out much of anything except the footsteps of the rest of the crew. Above his head, several voices were shouting something he couldn’t make out. Crabclaw’s voice was among them, but if the ship were under attack, he would be issuing orders to and the others would keep their mouths shut. Something else was awry.
More footsteps, and Darkleer nearly took Tavros’s door off its hinges as he burst inside. He still had his nightshirt on, but with his usual pants looking out of place underneath. Sweat shimmered on his brow in the scarce light from the porthole.
“Get dressed,” he ordered. “Hurry up.”
There was an edge in his voice that told Tavros not to ask questions. Before he even had a shirt fully over his head, the other hand grabbed him around the middle and hoisted his over his shoulder. Tavros scrambled to grab onto Darkleer’s shirt, but even that didn’t shake the distinct impression that he was going to fall over backwards. Fall he did not, though not without nearly having a heart attack as his shipmate sprinted up the stairs. He put him down against the mast none too gently and hurried off to the railing where Ghostcult was screaming something into the turbulent waves. Her usual calm demeanour was completely absent, filled in with a thick accent Tavros could only compare to that of the gypsy people that sometimes came through the port back home. It took him a moment to decipher her words into a name. Geminate.
Tavros spun his head this way and that trying to spot the man she was yelling for. The young pirate could make out the silhouettes of Vriska and Moonpaw leaning over one railing, and Slick and his brothers on the other side. Crabclaw hung from the shrouds a way up with a telescope pressed to his eye. The rest of the crew was scattered around as well, but Twineye was nowhere among them.
With a loud thud, a shape with wild hair dropped down in an awkward heap next to Tavros.
“Gamzee!” the crippled boy gasped. ”Wh-where’s Twineye?”
“The strong motherfucker’s lady friend says he up and jumped into the watery motherfuckin’ deep,” the other boy groaned as he rubbed his head and sat up. “Said some weird shit, too. Forgot what it was.”
Tavros bounced between looking and Gamzee and looking at Ghostcult and Darkleer. She was still yelling out to sea while his hands hovered awkwardly around her like he feared she might also fall overboard at any moment.
“He jumped?!” Tavros coughed. “But, but, uhh...” Twineye was moody, sure, but not suicidal. Although, he did spend an awful lot of time lately staring at the sea and saying nothing. On that note, Tavros didn’t even remember him and Ghostcult saying a word to each other since he’d gotten back from his adventure, and now that he thought about it, he couldn’t remember Twineye and Darkleer willingly being in the same room together since he’d met them.
“Sure is motherfuckin’ strange,” Gamzee agreed. “Anyway, message was for you, brother.”
Tavros snapped back around to look at him. “Huh!?”
“Damn, I wish I could remember what it motherfucking was...” As the boy trailed off in thought, Tavros watched Ghostcult again. She wasn’t stepping away from the railing any time soon.
“Hey, uhh, Gamzee,” the he butted in. “Can you take me other there? Uhh, please? This message might, uhh, be kind of important, maybe.”
“Sure thing, brother!” his friend beamed. Although it took them a few tries, a few future bruises later Tavros managed to cling to the pirate’s back. As they got closer, Darkleer gave them a somewhat relieved look, but Ghostcult paid them no mind. Tavros wasn’t even sure what language she was speaking at this point, but he didn’t need to to know she was swearing.
“Um...” he began uncomfortably. She didn’t hear him. Tentatively, he reached out a finger to poke her shoulder. That did the trick, though she was arguably more frightening than Mindfang and Dualscar combined when she rounded on him. Any semblance of words lodged themselves permanently in Tavros’s throat.
“What?!” She shrieked. Her hair and eyes were wild, giving her the appearance of the demons from ancient paintings. Somehow, Gamzee remained unscathed.
“Tavbro here wants to know what that dead motherfucker’s message for him was,” he chirped as he hoisted the boy higher.
Ghostcult looked like she wanted to choke him, and probably would have if Darkleer’s plate-sized hand hadn’t show up on her shoulder. Her eyes flicked to the sea once more before she sucked in angry breath, puffed it out, and turned to back to Tavros.
Through gritted teeth, she replied, “he said to tell you,” --a pause to swallow and steady her voice-- “that he hopes you will meet again.”
Tavros blinked stupidly. “But... uhh... he’s...”
“I know!” Ghostcult snapped. “I know!” The second was more of a sob, really, but before anyone could comment she paced away to search the sea surface from elsewhere. Darkleer gave Tavros a look that was impossible to read before following her.
“That was motherfuckin’ weird,” Gamzee declared.
“Yeah...” Tavros agreed absentmindedly as he rubbed his bitten wrist. “I guess it was.”
In the water, a clump of seaweed slipped below the waves and didn’t resurface.
It was the captain that sulked the most of any of the crew. The following morning, Slick temporarily took over managing the daily minutia of the ship. He wasn’t exactly efficient at it, and his fuse was regrettably short. It was something Gamzee did--either the part where he got the lines tangled and almost ripped a sail or the part where he dropped a keg of gunpowder overboard by accident and prepared to jump to go retrieve it-- that was the last straw. After several colorful threats, Slick stormed across the deck, shot the lock of the captain’s quarters, and disappeared inside.
Stories on what happened next differed, but almost everyone agreed that Slick slapped their captain across the face. Slick’s younger brother later assured Tavros that there had only ever been two men (and one women) that could do something like that and live, and two of them were currently dead. Regardless, Slick lived, though probably not for long. When Crabclaw emerged not a minute later, he proceeded to ream the crew for wasting daylight just standing and gawking like they were collecting seagull shit in their mouthes. The anger in his voice reached Tavros with crystal clarity all the way down in the kitchen. After the incident, the crew was pushed to work harder than ever, though no one really complained since work was preferable to idle mourning.
That didn’t stop Ghostcult of course, who never did quite return to her old self. While quiet, she didn’t carry her usual composure, and often appeared deep in thought. Even Darkleer didn’t know quite what to make of her now, to the point that Tavros really wished he could just have his legs back so he could leave whenever he was in the same room as the two of them.
Unfortunately, the excess workload delayed the completion of his legs for several more weeks. The wait was worth it, however. His old legs had been nothing more than sticks made with the intent of fitting anyone who would buy them; these new ones were fitting with great scrutiny to his proportions, and rather than narrowing at the bottom, actually resembled something like a wooden boot. They were heavier for it and did not bend at the ankle, but from the moment Tavros first strapped them on he couldn’t stop beaming. Even finding that he had to learn to walk all over again didn’t deter his mood. He practiced relentlessly, sometimes with the cane and sometimes with Gamzee’s help, thrilled just to be able to stand again, and with better balance than ever at that. His concentration was enough to blind him to nearly everything around him, but try as he might he couldn’t ignore Vriska.
She wasn’t always around. In fact, she was hardly around at all. She hadn’t visited Tavros once after the accident, and hadn’t looked at him since, much less said more than a few words at a time. He could only resign to assuming she was angry at him for failing her. She probably thought he was a huge loser for not being able to do the one thing she asked of him, and she was probably right. No, she was definitely right, and Tavros reminded himself of that every time he looked at her whether he wanted to or not. To make matters worse, knowing she was watching him always made him a stumble if he was lucky, or fall down a flight of steps if he was not. For footing reasons among others, he soon learned to keep his head down when she drew near.
It would be two months before Tavros mastered his new legs enough to gather the courage to ask to come ashore with the crew to get supplies. He planned the request for weeks, and when he finally blurted the question out with eyes squeezed and fists balled, the captain merely shrugged and allowed it. Even the problem of Vriska was solved when she sped off ahead on her own without anyone so much as noticing, a true thief through and through. Even though the port was so crowded they had to dock nearly a mile away in a smaller bay, the walk over couldn’t have been more perfect. The moon was full and brilliant, stars carpeted the sky without a single cloud for interruption, the wild shore grasses buzzed with insects, and the air smelt of flowers. It was the smell that tipped the party off to danger, when flowers began to be overpowered by gunpowder smoke. The captain broke into a run suddenly, and the others after with Tavros limping as fast as he could behind. They only made it as far as the next turn, where each froze to stare. Tavros was the last to make it, and the last to catch a glimpse of the first Imperial ship of nearly a half dozen docking at the pirate town. But they were not the only ones. Tavros distinctly recognized the flag one of the pirate ships in the bay was flying. It was unmistakable. The Gambligants were here.
“Retreat,” Crabclaw hissed as loudly as a whisper would allow, and twice as forceful. No one needed him to repeat himself, but even as Tavros turned to follow a cold waterfall of realization cascaded in his stomach. Vriska. Where was Vriska?
She had gone ahead. She had gone ahead and had seen Mindfang’s ship before the Empire arrived. She could have gone into town, naturally, where she would be recognized from her as a formerly punished spy and thief. They would kill her if they found her, or worse. Tavros took one look at his crew and heaved himself toward town.
Twice he had to stop on the way and throw himself into thickets when he heard Imperial boots approaching. Both times the groups passed him by without noticing. They were armed, but the second group was distinctly flecked with blood that was not their own. Tavros couldn’t stop shaking for minutes afterward, but all he could do was remind himself that turning around would be leaving Vriska behind, and if he never saw her again, he’d probably never forgive himself. A little voice in his head told him that didn’t make it better, it just made the trip selfish suicide, but he shut it out and kept walking toward Mindfang’s ship. He didn’t want to consider the possibility of Vriska not being there, or of what might happen to him if he ran into an Imperial soldier probably armed with the most accurate rifle in history against his measly sword. Fortunately, he had to face neither of these situation, and for a second thought himself lucky enough to have found Vriska without ever entering the village. She was leaning on a boulder on the side of the road and clutching her ribs where a large stain had already bloomed. Her shoulder was also bleeding, but she paid it no mind, too focused on breathing to even notice that Tavros had stopped to gape. When at last she did notice, she lifted her head and her disheveled hair parted to reveal a bloody smile.
“Rufio,” Captain Mindfang sighed.
Tavros might have stayed rooted the spot forever had she not faltered as soon as the name had passed her lips. He didn’t surge forward fast enough to catch her going to her knees, but he got a hold of her arm before she could fall further and tried to heave her to her feet. She didn’t resist, but she didn’t exactly make it easier for him either.
“Ca-cap, I mean, uhh, ma’am, are you--” he stammered, but she immediately cut him off.
“Hush, love,” she breathed with effort. “Let’s get off the main road, shall we?”
He just nodded, for lack of ability to form coherent speech. Mindfang was the strongest woman, no, strongest pirate Tavros had ever met. He would never question why someone like Vriska would have her as a role model. But to see her like this, weak and delusional, it was too contradictory to everything that was Captain Mindfang for Tavros to wrap his head around. She was leadership and charisma incarnate, not someone who could be harmed by mortal wounds, and yet here she was, struggling to breathe without grimace and leaning most of her weight on someone far inferior to get her to the last side path Tavros remembered passing. It was sheer luck they didn’t run into anybody in the time it took them to lose sight of the main road and head for the sea cliffs. As the pirate town behind them went in flames, a misty rain began to fall. Growing tired himself, Tavros steered the two of them into the nearest shelter of rock and found it went rather deep into the cliff, at least thirty meters if not more. He lowered Mindfang to the ground there and set about trying to light a branch on fire. Luckily, the very women lying on the ground beside him now had taught him well, and the sparks caught quickly.
When he turned the fire to her, she was still smiling at him. It was rather disconcerting.
“You’re, uhh, you’re going to okay, ca-- ma’am,” he tried, even though he didn’t quite believe it himself. “Here, I’ll just, uhh...”
He needed something to stop the bleeding with, but the only thing he had was the clothes on his back. His belt, a strip of fabric rather than a proper leather strap, might work. Immediately he set to detaching things from it, but froze when Mindfang placed her bloody hand on his.
“Don’t,” she ordered. Injured as she was, Tavros was still afraid to so much as breathe when she gave a direct order to stop. However, no reprimand came. Instead she let her fingers drop to the head of the dragon cane lying between them.
“Is Redglare here?” she asked suddenly.
“Um, uhh...” Tavros had never even heard the name before. “No?”
“Good,” Mindfang chuckled. “I would hate my dear sister to see me like this.” She coughed and her whole body seized up in pain. Tavros could only hover.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. Her voice was kind. Terrifying kind.
“I, well, uhh...”
He didn’t know where to begin. His brain refused to assess the situation enough to form coherent opinions about anything. Suddenly, her hand was on his cheek.
“Uhh...” His jaw moved to correct her but nothing came out. “Y-yes?”
Thunder rolled outside. “Do you remember how we met?”
“Umm, I, I, uhh.” At first, not a clue. But then again, almost two years ago now, Vriska had once told him the story. “Was it about, uh, a ring, or something?”
Her smile widened and a dribble of blood rolled down her chin. Her hand, meanwhile, slipped down Tavros’s cheek, leaving behind a smear of blood. He caught it in his lap.
“That’s right. I stole the Light from you. And rules were rules, Rufio, that made me the Pirate Queen.” She wriggled her fingers free of Tavros’s hold and held her hand aloft. In the firelight glinted the golden ring on her thumb, and in it a single brown gemstone. In the stone was carved a sort of horned circle, almost a figure eight, but not quite.
“And I told you,” she continued quietly. “You could have it when you pried it off my cold fingers.” She smiled a bit, but it faded quickly. “But then you went and got yourself killed.” Rain pounded. Lightening flashed. Mindfang was eerily pale. “You fool,” she coughed. “You were supposed to kill me.”
When she didn’t continue, Tavros felt like he had to say something.
“I’m, uhh, I’m sorry...”
“No matter,” she waved. “You’ve returned to finish the job now, haven’t you? Besides, I’ve found a successor more worthy than you ever were.” And, lifting her other hand, she pulled the ring off and pushed it onto Tavros.
“Pass this on to your son,” she instructed.
“He’s hasn’t got your talent,” she continued like nothing happened. “But he has your spark. And I’ve never met a pirate that’s worked harder. You should be proud.”
Tavros’s hands were shaking so hard he feared me might drop the jeweled band.
“And now one last thing.”
He was almost afraid of what it might be. “Uh, yes?”
“Please don’t make me bleed to death slowly.”
“What, uhh, can I do?” He was even more afraid of the answer.
He knew it was coming before she said it. “But, uhh, but ma’am--”
“Please, Rufio. We always said one of us would kill the other.”
“Go on,” she cooed as she used what little strength she had left to push aside the sheaf of the dragon cane and thrust the sword into Tavros’s hands.
“I, I don’t think I can--”
“You can. You promised.”
“I didn’t. I--”
“You do still love me, don’t you?”
Tavros’s mouth shook but nothing came out. The sword in his hands shook, too, even more violently. Mindfang raised her hand one last time to pluck the ring from his palm and slip it over the first knuckle of his ring finger and close his hand over the hilt of the blade. It was the single most intimate thing Tavros had ever seen and he suddenly felt sick to his stomach.
“Kill me,” she repeated. “That’s a direct order.”
“But, I can’t. I can’t. No--”
“No? No?” For a moment, she nearly sounded like her normal self. Tavros flinched.
“Lift the sword!” The effort of raising her voice sent her into another coughing fit. Tavros turned away and squinting through a single eye, positioned the blade over her heart. A moment later, he felt her steady it and risked looking over. She looked back with lidded eyes.
“Don’t cry, love.”
He hadn’t realized he was, but when he lifted a hand wipe his cheek, he found it wet. When he looked back at Mindfang, her eyes were closed. He would have thought her already dead if she didn’t suddenly speak again.
Tavors could not have refused if he wanted to. He had been trained to do what she said without thought, and so he did.
He had never killed anyone before. The sword was a lot harder to get through flesh than he thought. It made a wet sound going in, audible even over the storm outside. Now he was sure he was going to be sick, he could even feel the bile coming up, when a familiar voice sounded behind him.
He dropped the sword and spun around. There in the cave entrance stood Vriska Serket, having just witnessed him kill the person she had spent her whole life trying to meet.
I'm SO sorry this took so long. My first semester of college followed by a stint of writer's block and trying to pick up where I left off in the middle of a chapter made for a pretty long hiatus, huh? It's hard getting back into the flow of the story, so be warned that this isn't the most exciting chapter. I'm not proud of it, but all your fantastic comments and kudos are what's keeping me motivated to finish this thing. Let's see where this goes, shall we?
“Tavros,” she repeated. This time it was not a question; it was an accusation. Lightening flashed outside and reflected off the pool of Mindfang’s blood at the murderer’s knees.
“I, I uh, I can explain,” he began, but she had already taken a step toward. She drew her gun as she walked. Beneath her frazzled hair, her eyes were livid and gorgeous. She was going to kill him. She could and she would and Tavros knew it.
Before she could take aim, however, a shadow shifted behind her. Tavros opened his mouth to cry out a warning, but the shadow was too quick. Against the lighted sky it raised a sword as wide as a butcher’s knife and brought the blunt edge down on the top of Vriska’s head with a wet whack. The girl swayed and crumpled before Tavros could even choke on her name.
Unimpeded, the shadow stepped over her form without a word and continued toward Tavros. Whoever he was, he was huge, bigger than Darkleer possibly, and certainly big enough to block most of the natural light from the cave. The way he held his arms at his sides, slightly apart like the muscle wouldn’t let him comfortably bring them closer, was proof enough of his strength, as if more proof were needed. Tavros shrunk back as he approached, getting more blood on himself in the process. His heart hammered away in his chest, but try as he might, he couldn’t seem to look away. Trying to get away, no matter how fast he could manage it, was too futile to even be an option.
When the firelight fell upon man’s weathered features, Tavros knew for sure he wouldn’t have long to live. He knew this man, or at least he recognized him. He was one of, if not the most dangerous man in Mindfang’s crew. No one knew his real name, not even the captain, but those that absolutely had to talk to him referred to him as Snapneck. He didn’t talk much, but those that enjoyed having their head still attached to the rest of their body always did what he said. Some of the Gamligants were in it for the money, others for the fame, but Snapneck-- Snapneck was in it for the blood. Tavros had seen him tear a man apart with his bare hands on multiple occasions without so much as wincing. The year Tavros had spent under Mindfang’s tutelage, he had spent avoiding catching Snapneck’s attention and shrinking away from even the gaze of his one lazy eye. Now he was the center of his focus for the simple reason of having just killed his captain.
The mountain of a pirate stopped directly above Tavros. He could have been ten feet tall for how small the boy felt at that moment. He didn’t know what to do, and it didn’t matter with the way he was frozen to the spot. He wished that he could at least look away, but the most he could do was dart his eyes briefly toward Vriska’s body and back, just a dark heap barely visible between the giant’s boots.
When Snapneck finally bent down, Tavros found the sense to wince his eyes shut. He cracked one open again when he didn’t feel calloused fingers close around his throat, and saw that Snapneck was holding something out to him. It was the small pouch Mindfang had placed by his knee earlier, though now somewhat drenched with her blood.
“You dropped something,” the pirate told him in a voice low enough to rival the thunder outside.
“That’s not, uhh, strictly speaking, a thing that belongs to me,” Tavros forced out with great difficultly and so quietly he was surprised Snapneck could hear.
“It is now,” the older pirate answered almost calmly. Tavros shook like a leaf but made no move to unfurl his arms and stop trying to burrow his blood-slick fingers into his palms.
“Take it,” Snapneck boomed so loudly and suddenly, Tavros darted his hand out without further protest. He pocketed the pouch of what felt like rocks without delay.
“Now this,” Snapneck continued as he picked up the dragon cane and offered it forward.
Tavros accepted it without a fuss, though suddenly so weak he was surprised he could hold it.
“Good boy,” the pirate thundered. For a split second, Tavros thought he might, through some miracle, be left alone. A second later, he found himself to be very wrong and now only certain that he was going to die. Hands like metal clamps sealed themselves around his abdomen, and the next thing he knew he was lifted clean off the ground and over Snapneck’s shoulder. Every instinct screamed at him that he was going to fall and it took every one if his wits not to drop the cane. Snapneck, meanwhile, started for the exit of the cave as if the young man slung over his shoulder weighed nothing at all.
From a distance, Mindfang almost looked like she was sleeping. Vriska likewise, but Tavros stared at her much harder to try and gauge if she was breathing. His ride was hardly gentle in carrying him, so his vantage point was not exactly steady, making that deduction hard. Tavros watched her as long as he could none the less, as he if were trying to burn her visage into his mind. He didn’t realize until after she was out of sight that he might never see her again.
The rain outside was starting to let up somewhat, but not enough to leave lasting footprints in the mud. If Crabclaw realized she were missing, there was a chance he might send someone looking for her. They would have to be quick, and there was no chance they would go searching some cave on a small road shooting off from the main road. Unless something indicated that she was down that way, no one would ever find her and she would die there beside her mother. If Tavros let her die that way, she would hate him for it forever. It had to do something, and he had to do it quick.
By this time Snapneck was already turning onto the main road and toward the besieged town. There was only one thing that Tavros could do without drawing attention, only one marker he could leave. Crabclaw would skin him, but there was no time for thinking, only decision making.
He dropped the dragon cane at the crossroads.
It landed crookedly in the mud. By some huge twist of luck, the tip pointed down the path to the cave as if to say this way! to anyone that knew what it might mean. If one of the crew came looking, they would recognize it immediately. If someone came by before they did, more than likely they would just keep it for themselves, in which case Tavros could never return to the Freedom again and live. For a chance to save Vriska, however, the risk was worth it.
Tavros watched the white cane grow smaller through the darkness and rain until it finally disappeared over the rest of a hill before mustering the courage to find his voice.
“Would you, be willing to tell to me where it is that you are, um, going, currently?”
“Back to the ship,” Snapneck answered bluntly.
“But, what about your cap-”
“Dead,” the pirate spat with such finality that Tavros had no more questions to ask.
The trip through town was surprisingly uneventful. Although fighting was still going on, the place was in such chaos that no one got in Snapneck’s way. More than likely, no one would want to in any case. For the longest time, Tavros stared down at the ground moving by below him, pondering what painful punishment might await him, how long they might draw out his death, not only for what he did to their captain, but probably for abandoning the crew as well the last time he had managed to slip away from them into that storm that nearly cost him his life. It only took one glimpse of what was definitely a dead body for him to crane his neck at an uncomfortable angle to watch the sky instead. The rain had stopped by now, though clouds still obscured the stars. The storm had been devilish but short.
Just as Snapneck neared the dock, Tavros spotted something else in the sky: a glint of red. As it got closer, the bird was unmistakable.
“Tink-” A smile began to break across his face, but he clamped his hands over his mouth before it could progress very far. It could be dangerous where he was going. No, it was definitely dangerous! On board the Spiderbite was no place for Tinkerbull, that much was certain. Tavros tried as hard as he could to shoo the bird away without rousing Snapneck’s suspicion, but between his prisoner’s flailing and a bird flapping around practically by his ear, the effort was wasted. With stunning speed for someone so large, Snapneck plunked the one-legged parrot off Tavros’s back with his free hand, which was so huge he was able to clamp his fingers over both the bird’s wings to keep it from flapping.
“Don’t!” Tavros gasped. He couldn’t see what Snapneck was doing to the bird but he was sure that it couldn’t be good. He realized as soon as the sound passed his lips for futile his request must be.
“Don’t what?” the pirate asked. He was humoring him, he had to be. It would be in Tavros’s best interest to shut up, it really would.
“Don’t hurt him,Tinkerbull, my friend, please, sir,” he chocked out anyway.
Snapneck didn’t reply. From the sound of Tinkerbull’s struggling, he hadn’t let go either, but he didn’t seem to be hurting him. Tavros struggled as well to try and get a better look at the bird, but Snapneck had only to order him to stay still for him to go limp again, no threats necessary.
“We’re hauling off,” he bellowed as he stepped onto the gangplank. From the ship came a gurgled death cry and Tavros looked over just in time to see an Imperial officer plummet into the water. By the time Snapneck stepped onto the deck, the officer was joined by several others. Up above, the Gambligants were all running about in all directions, some fending off the last of the Empire’s men, others working to leave the port with haste. Snapneck paced, observed, and said nothing. The ship made its first lurches forward before one of the crew thought to ask Snapneck the obvious question.
“Weren’t you supposed to be gettin’ the captain?”
Instead of an answer, the pirate dumped Tavros unceremoniously onto the deck. Tinkerbull took off as well, settling up high on a mast somewhere to pick apart his ruffled feathers. Tavros only saw him for a moment before his view was blocked by a jumble of faces.
“The fuck is this?”
“What’s this sorry sack of shit doing here?”
“We ain’t leavin’ without the capt’n,” said the loudest of them. “Bring ‘er to.”
“Captain’s right here,” Snapneck interrupted before anyone could move to follow the other’s order. When he reached down to the young man on the deck, Tavros flinched away. Snapneck grabbed his arm and wrenched it up anyway, nearly dislocating his shoulder with the force.
A cloud shifted just then and moonlight spilled across the deck. Mindfang’s ring glinted back at the Gambligants from Tavros’s finger. There was a moment of utter stillness except the swish of the sails and the gurgle of the water. The implication hit Tavros at the same time it did everyone else, but his voice abandoned him as he was swallowed up by questions and protests on all sides.
Snapneck managed to silence them all with a single a roar for quiet. “If anyone has any objections,” he hissed, “they’re welcome to stay behind and take their chances with the Empire.” Somehow, his quiet voice was more terrifying than his loud one. The deck was completely silent. Tavros briefly wondered if this was the time to throw in that, actually, he wasn’t too sure about the idea either, if that was alright, but in the processes of making up his mind to speak decided that the silence had gone on too long and he had missed his chance. All the better for it anyway, because Snapneck was already yanking him to his feet by the same arm. It was going to bruise tomorrow, there was no doubt about that.
“We’re all in agreement then,” he concluded. More silence. “Right?” The crew jumped and insincere calls of assent filled the air. Snapneck ignored them and began toward the captain’s quarters with Tavros in tow. All the young pirate could do was try to keep his footing. Since he had received his new legs, he had been teaching himself to walk short distances without the assistance of a cane. Slowly and with the greatest concentration, he had mastered a few steps. For this trip, he was lucky he could even stay on his feet. Snapneck gave him a harsh enough push through the door to send him to the large desk pushed up against the wall on one side of the room, which Tavros clung to for dear life.
The captain’s quarters were exactly as he remembered them, even now in the dark. Everything was untouched in its proper place except the hammock that Tavros had slept on in his brief stint living in the room until he acquired his first pair of fake legs, after his real ones were... disposed of. No doubt, even that was still tucked away in the drawer exactly where it had been stashed over a year ago. Time might as well have stood still here. It was as if Mindfang might waltz through the door at any moment and begin issuing orders. Alas, it was Snapneck in the doorway, inclining his head just to fit through the frame and closing the door behind him. Tavros rounded on him.
“Are you going to kill me?” he squeaked.
The huge pirate shook his head. “That’d be breaking my promise. I never break my promises, Captain.”
Tavros couldn’t help but check over his shoulder for someone else in the room just in case he wasn’t the one being addressed. When no one replied from the shadows, he turned back reluctantly to face the unblinking gaze of Snapneck’s good eye. The other eye was staring off to the left, but Tavros had the chilling feeling that it was watching him, too.
“Pr-promise? Promise to who? Whom? Whom.” It was a challenge not to lapse into proper grammar in a place where Mindfang’s presence was still so very real. She didn’t take kindly to stupidity.
For a moment, Snapneck just stood there. Tavros had never been very good at reading expressions, but he was pretty sure there wasn’t even one to read. Then, suddenly enough to make him jump, the pirate strode forward. Tavros shrunk back into the desk, and nearly lost his footing. The slickness of his palms was not helping matters. Still the other pirate approached. Tavros flinched away from his raised arm, certain this time death was at hand.
When nothing happened after several seconds, he opened his eyes again to find the room slightly brighter than before. Behind him burned a kerosene lamp that had not been turned on before.
“Little Roo,” Snapneck said in his quiet voice. “I don’t make promises to nobody else.”
Before Tavors had time to make sense of what that reply meant, the older pirate turned and made for the door.
“Early morning for ya tomorrow,” he added as he pulled it open. Then without warning, his voice suddenly shifted to a gruff shout. “Best for the captain to be gettin’ to bed.”
With that he pulled the door shut behind him hard enough it was the shock the hinges could take it. The kerosene lamp flickered. Only when it settled again was Tavros able to let out the breath he had been holding.
His hands shook as he pulled his hold hammock out and hung it in its usual corner. One look at Mindfang’s cot was enough for him to decide that he would never use it if he could help it. It simply wasn’t his, and in any case it felt wrong. Besides, he’d been sleeping in nothing but hammocks long enough to be perfectly comfortable without it. After dumping his blood-stained clothes in a heap on the floor, he crawled inside and tried to sleep.
Comfortable or not, Tavros couldn’t have gotten any rest if he wanted to. Between flashes of Mindfang’s dying smile and her blood on his hands, his mind wasn’t about to let him rest. He gave up trying after an hour when he heard a familiar little tapping on the window. He rolled out of the hammock and painfully onto the floor, pulled himself up with the help of a stool, and used the rest of the furniture between him and the far wall to make his way over to let Tinkerbull inside. The parrot zipped around the room once before settling on Tavros’s shoulder and nibbling on the shell of his ear. The act was so painfully nostalgic it made him feel better and want to cry all at the same time.
“I... killed someone today,” he finally told Tinkerbull after minutes of deliberation as he scratched his friend’s head. The bird nuzzled his fingers back. “I’ve never...never k-killed anyone before.” Each time, he had to force himself to choke the K word out. “I-I mean she was dying a-already, and, uh, she, she asked me to, she, she... I helped her, I think, bu-but...”
Out of nowhere, a tear rolled down his cheek. He rubbed it away before it made it half-way down.
“I could, could feel her guts and stuff, wh-when I stabbed her that is. Slick makes it look so easy, but it’s, it’s not really, at all.”
Another tear. His voice cracked.
“And Vriska! I left behind Vr-Vriska! She could be dead and I abandoned her. And, and what if the others couldn’t get away in time? What if, what if, if, if, they already executed them? They could be dead now. Everyone could be. All-all of them.”
He swallowed and tried to steady himself with a deep breath, but it went in all shaky and came out with a whine.
“I can’t be captain, Tink,” he sobbed. “I’d be so, so awful at it! I can’t o-order anybody around. I can’t... make decisions.”
Even as he rubbed his eyes with the heels of both palms, more tears came to fill their place.
“They’ll m-mutiny! They know I’m not... not... Mindfang. I’ll never be able to keep them in line, not like she d-did. I can’t-- ow!”
He rubbed the spot on his head where Tinkerbull had pecked him especially hard just then. He stared at the bird as if he might explain himself, but instead all the parrot did was pick at the ring on Tavros’s finger.
“Don’t do that, please, if that’s okay,” he pleaded as he pulled his hand back.
The clouds must have dissipated, or else the ship was now far enough from the port to have escaped them, because moonlight now filtered in through the window. Tavros pulled the ring off to get a better look and check for any damage Tinkerbull’s beak might have caused.
“You have to, uh, be really, really careful with this,” he told his bird. “This here, it isn’t just any ring. Its name is The Light, at least that’s how the legend goes.” He tried to tilt it so that if would shine like it was supposed to, but nothing happened. “Well, I guess it works better in sunlight, or something, but I don’t think Mindfang would be wearing it if it was a fake. See here?” He pulled it close to show Tinkerbull in the horned circle carved into the brown gemstone that adorned the trinket. “That’s the uh, crown of the pirate king, or queen, I guess, was what it was, until recently. Always sort of looked like the Empress’s tiara, to me anyway, or a parody of it, maybe. I don’t think it means anything, though, the ring itself, that is. Pirates are lawless, so, I guess, someone can only really be king for the irony of it. But she, Mindfang, did say she took it from, from my dad, so it’s mine now, whatever that means.”
He twisted it back onto his finger, wiped the last of snot and tears off his face, and took a look around the room. His eyes fell immediately onto the heap of bloody clothes on the floor and he shuddered involuntarily. He should wash those, or else find some other ones. Standing around in his underwear for much longer wasn’t going to do him any favors. Then again, he wasn’t about to find men’s clothes in Mindfang’s room.
The very first time he had been in this room, Mindfang took one look at him and informed him that she would not tolerate any member of her crew dressing like a beggar. Tavros distinctly remembered looking down at himself and realizing that he was wearing the same clothes he had worn on Dualscar’s ship, though notably washed which is more than he could say for his clothes on any given day. Still, they were torn and stained and ratty beyond even what was acceptable for a pirate, so Mindfang told him that just this once, he could borrow a shirt until he could afford a replacement, but even as she pulled the shirt in question from a chest stashed high up on her wardrobe, she warned him that if he were to rip it or stain it permanently, she would have his head.
In retrospect, it sounded an awful lot like what Crabclaw had told Tavros about the dragon-head cane much, much earlier. As luck would have it, the same small chest was still up high on the wardrobe, and by precariously balancing on a chair, Tavros was able to pull it down. It wasn’t heavy. Inside were a lot of miscellaneous objects: a dried flower, two billiard balls, a single gold coin, a red feather, a half a dozen bullets from a large gun, a man’s shirt, a few rolled up wanted posters...
The first poster was of a woman, Anne de Scourge. She had previously been sailing with her sister, Marie de Scourge, but now reports were coming in that the two had a falling out and were now traveling separately. Anne was now going by the name Redglare, and was charged with piracy along with a list of other crimes. The poster noted she was blind, and that her father, the Marquis, was still willing to pay for her and her sister’s safe return. The woman pictured had a pointy nose, cheekbones that could cut flesh, and a short hair that looked like she had cut it herself, but Tavros was looking at none of those things because her elegant, claw-like hangs rested on a white cane topped with the head of a dragon. There was no mistaking that it was the very same one that Tavros had just hours ago held in his own hands. But how did Crabclaw end up with it?
The second poster held an even greater surprise. Tavros really shouldn’t have been shocked, but somehow he was anyway, perhaps because it was the very same poster he had seen hanging in the tavern as a boy. Captain of a ship called the Freedom. The Summoner had apparently worth an awful lot of money to the Empire once upon a time, dead or alive.
Tavros briskly rolled the poster back up again and shoved it into the chest along with all the other things, suddenly feeling like he had stumbled upon something he shouldn’t have. He packed the shirt in back in, too, and resigned to scrubbing his own down with sea water. Then he stuck the chest back up where it belonged, arranged some boxes around it so that it would never be seen, and got dressed. A peek out the window on the door told him there was a guard stationed out on deck, and although Tavros knew full well that it was to look out for enemy ships, he still left slightly like a prisoner.
He paced a while. There was nothing in the room he could let himself touch. At one point, he discovered the blood-stained pouch in his pocket which Mindfang had given him. He found it contained dice, not rocks, but they were blue and had too many sides, and he just stuck them back into his pocket again. The thought crossed his mind that Vriska might know what they were and why Mindfang thought they were important enough to pass on, but that thought was quickly followed by another, namely that Vriska could only do that if she were still alive. In the end, Tavros tried to force himself to sleep again by trying to recount all the things Mindfang had told him to prepare him for succeeding her last year. How she knew he would need to know it all back then he would never know. Perhaps she had planned it. Perhaps it was fate. Perhaps luck.
He was still awake when Snapneck pounded on his door shortly before dawn. Today was the day that Tavros was to begin his duty as captain of the Gambligants; somewhere on distant shores, a pig had quite likely just taken wing.