Lightning flashes through the blade, blood drawing and dousing the light. Oswald is hanging on the cordage, grabbing the ropes with his free hand. His broken ankle lops over the rail as the brigantine is clomping on whitecap waves.
Fish’s boot heels tat on the gunwale. She’s balancing on the narrow wood, sleek as a cheetah. Her cutlass splashes into the ocean. Nails are clogging the naked, pulsing flesh on her waist.
She grins one last time with black teeth, sweltering -
“It’s all good.”
- and Oswald spatters the blade with her beating heart.
He screams into the storm, and the rugged sky rumbles back. Fish drops dead, curly waves wreathing and swallowing her body, clasping close to feed on her. The wind backs away as the next thunderbolt sparkles, drying Oswald’s parted lips with salty haze. He’s panting. The drops settle on his tongue, in his throat.
He stares behind. The shipboard cracks under lifeless bodies: Fish’s crew stares back at him with bloodless, misty pupils.
Oswald drops to the deck, pain flaming through the cay of his veins. The smooth board is greasy with saliva, seawater and blood. Another wave lumbers through the deck and Oswald clings harder to the ropes. He throws his head back, neck tightening. His yearning look meets eyes in the depth of the abyss above him: irises gold as the moon, glowing with fey beams.
A crooked smile smears on Oswald’s face.
He holds up his bloody sword, roaring victoriously, and the sea whists.
The brigantine used to be a slave ship. Fish used to lay in the ship’s insides, chained to nearly fifty people choking on their own muck and steam.
Fish blew the coals, instigating to rebel against their torturers. A week later the ship became hers; corpses were splashed into the waves, cold and heavy as stones. Fish Mooney, the slave-captain sailed back to Barbados where she set the sufferers free and took the wretches with her. She conquered and she ruled all.
Five years later, Oswald joined the crew.
Fish found him behind a tavern, shivering in dirt and mud. He was beaten half to death. He tried to soak his blood up with a handful of straw and his torn clothes.
“What you did?”
Oswald shook his head feverishly. He started to tear up.
“Speak, boy. What you did?”
Fish’s voice was harsh, sharp-edged and deep. English words twirled from her black lips, broken and mistaken. As she leaned ahead, her pearl-laced dreadlocks and bone amulets falled in front of her naked breasts.
“You stole them money? Is that truth?”
Oswald nodded and Fish hummed. She left him for the night and came back for him at dawn. She found him alive so she took him away.
And Oswald hated her for it.
The brigantine is floating towards the shore. Oswald stands on the quarterdeck, motionless, letting the storm and the summoned phantom strength to put twenty men’s job through.
The wind blows Nassau’s rumble towards him.
The tavern’s back chamber is filled with smoky air. Oswald is sitting behind dim lights and heavy, velvet drapes. He’s surrounded with rustling silk and royal mahogany, waiting for the New Providence’s rogues to be admitted to his presence.
Some faces look familiar. They’ve heard about him, heard the rumors going around, rumors sweet and drunken under starless skies. Poisoned words, choked on erratic tongues.
This ends now.
Quill scrapes on the parchment, drawing lines of shed blood. Oswald cuts their wrists with a curt knife, letting the sizzling blood weeze as he swears them all.
Names twirl into one another. Thirtyfive highwaymen are in the pay of Oswald, lasses and lads, veterans and privates.
And the Moon slowly wheels round on the sky.
April’s first Monday dawns with a carmine Sun. Oswald is quivering under crude covers in the tavern’s quarter. He sticks to the fabric, nude and sweaty. His tongue is a dry piece of meat in his mouth. Rays of light break through the wooden louvers, motes are twirling.
Oswald slips from below the covers. His clothes crinkle under his feet as he blindly steps on them. He peeks behind him.
The one-eyed watchman lies next to him, prone, sunkissed skin exposed. Oswald’s glance crawls through him, the arc of the arse, hips, and scapulas. He sniffs and smirks, and the other man’s muscles tense.
Oswald finds his crew all over the tavern, laying around like lushers. They lean into one another, snoring and fidgeting. Cutlasses hang from the ceiling, buckled onto leather belts and boots and hats.
Oswald waddles down the stairs. He is kneading his pulsing temples as he steps above two girls curled into each other. One of them is his striker: her heart-shaped face is buried into the harlot’s mellow bosom. Oswald grabs the girl’s shoulder to turn her before she chokes.
He probes around. Barrels of beer, rum and gin were drawn off at night. The routing speeches soon crumbled into rapturous songs and screams of pleasure as hours guttered away in the cold.
Oswald let them carouse to conciliate their trust and sympathy. It was the first day of April so they couldn’t start their voyage; Oswald tries to hide it, but he’s always been superstitious like any other man of the seas.
Oswald’s barefoot, wearing nothing but black pants and a lacey lavender shirt. The strip floor cracks under his stumpy steps. He takes out his pistol, swinging his arm, firing to the ceiling. The bullet clicks on the copper curl of the chandelier, throwing it off balance. A boot falls in front of Oswald with a soft bump. He reaches out for it, pulling it up on his crooked ankle.
The shot made his crew jump, all of them starting from the strip floor. Pixy-led minds and misty glances hunt for Oswald.
“On your feet, my friends,” he says, smiling softly. “Rising times should be celebrated with sacrifice.”
They haul Mooney’s brigantine onto the soft sand. The ship’s sides are clamped with ropes and timbers. The crew is scrubbing her through with holystones, some hauling the stolen booty to the shores.
The paymaster is huddled up in the shadow of the palm trees, jotting into the logbook with his unharmed hand. He shouts out to Oswald.
“How does it look?,” Oswald asks, chewing on his ripped nails.
The man looks up at him, knocking on the catalog with his hook. His temples are sweaty and his glance is fidgety. He dies up his skin with a rusty drape.
“Not much. The tobacco is of excellent quality, though. Is it Spanish?”
Oswald nods. The paymaster continues:
“I know someone. He sells the stolen ware to tradesmen. We can double our income with him.”
“I’ll go with you. The arrangement must be done today. We’ll take off tomorrow. I hate this weather.”
They find the old man in bed. He’s smoking a pipe in a silk robe. He muffled himself up with velvet, woven with gold. There’re papers all over his bed, the pages of the books and the canvases of the paintings eaten alive by the mould. They’re crumpled and soaked, bending in the tropic steam.
The air is suffocating. Nothing leaks through the wooden louvers, neither a beam of light, nor fresh air.
Oswald coughs into his handkercher and holds it there.
The old man’s eyebrows arch.
“Come closer, captain.”
Oswald steps to the bed.
“You seem familiar. Who did you serve before?”
“Fish Mooney, sir.”
“Fish Mooney. Are you that bastard who sent her to the depth of the ocean?”
“Yes, sir. The Nymph is mine now.”
“What happened to her crew?”
“I’ve sabered everyone with my own hands. They’re all dead men.”
“Are you coping with her wares?”
Butch teeters by the end of the bed and Oswald shrugs lightly. His lips curl into a proud, gentle smile.
“She won’t make use of it anymore, will she?”
The old man chuckles. It drowns into coughing.
The sound of soft knocking breaks Oswald away from the business. A lanky man steps in, undescried as a ghost. Oswald looks him up and down from a distance. His glance is returned: dark irises eye him behind glasses, intrigued.
He is escorted in by a sullen maid.
“Doctor.” The old man gestures and smiles. “Please excuse me, Sir. I will welcome you in a minute. Whilst you wait, let me treat you to a glass of brandy. Liza, please.”
The girl bows. The doctor nods. He is twirling his hat between bony fingers. His tender, dazed glance captures Oswald, sleeking through him, loitering over his crooked leg. Oswald snarls quietly.
The door closes behind them. The old man clears his throat and dips the quill into ink.
His offer is more than satisfying. Still, Oswald enters into a debate: his chaffer gains him more than he could have wished for.
The old man’s palm feels limp and damp in his as they shake hands.
“I like you, captain. I do hope you will not disappoint me. Where does your path carry you?”
“Northwards. If the winds are graceful to me.”
The doctor is waiting by the door, glass of brandy in hand. Seeing Oswald makes him grin as he swallows the last drops. As Oswald limps past him, he follows in his wake. Butch’s hand slicks to his pistol on his thick waistbelt. Oswald heaves his hand and sends him ahead.
They stand alone in the door, seized between the windy hall and the porchway. The curtains flutter and float in the sweaty air. Oswald leans into the doorframe, crossing his arms.
“Can I help you?,” he asks affably. The curtain caresses his neck.
“I’ve seen your ship coming to anchor. You came arm-in-arm with the dawn, wrapped in blood and salt.” He muses: “It was such a fascinating scene to behold.”
“You were all alone on board, if I’m not mistaken.”
Oswald turns to him. His glance and nostrils are flaming.
“What are you aiming at, doctor?”
His voice is stiffly cool. The doctor steps closer, pulling the curtain away with his hand. Oswald stares back at him, chin raised.
“You’ve recruited a crew in a mere day.”
“If you’re planning to inform me about every single act of mine, it’s only decent of me to tell you that I’m well aware of them.”
The doctor chuckles. The tip of his tongue slithers through his dry lips, seducing Oswald’s glimpse before he looks him deep in the eye again. The mahogany irises are glowing with bitter flames.
The maid steps out of the shadows.
“Don Falcone wishes for your presence. You shouldn’t keep him waiting.”
The doctor puts his hat back on. He lets the curtain fall back between them, hiding Oswald’s face in fair dusk.
“I’ve been kept waiting.”
The brigantine has a new Jolly Roger and a new name. Now, the Nymph is now known as Iceberg. They tear the old flag off (a skeleton of a fish, a beating human heart between its ribs), slicing it up with harp cutlasses. In the new flag, there’s a cranium of an albatross, bloodstained dagger in its beak.
The winds softly swell the sails. The seawater is translucid, glowing with blinding sparkler beams. Oswald is standing by the forecastle deck, observing the master carpenter’s work with an eye. The girl is working on the figurehead, slicing the logs to crown the brigantine with a renewed figure.
As the Iceberg is slowly crawling north, Oswald welcomes the familiar winds caressing his face.
His serenity is vexed by loudening yells and screams. Oswald opens his eyes and turns his head with a peaky-faced frown. The hatch is flipped: two pirates snap on the main deck, reaching below, dragging up a third man. They grab him by his wrists, twisting and squeezing tight. A fourth man appears, kicking the stranger from behind.
“You lousy little bilge rat!”
“Stowaway! We catched a stowaway!”
“Captain, this bastard dared to hide in-”
Oswald slams his palm on the barrier. He presses his lips together, tumbling down the stairs. They carry the man before him, forcing him on his knees. Oswald finds a familiar face within the pale features.
“Doctor,” he snaps, smirking. “You’re quite a sight for sore eyes.”
The man looks up at him, grinning, tousled hair sticking onto his forehead. His locks are gripped back by an aeruginous chenille. Blood is dripping from the corner of his mouth, sloppy. He looks beautifully humiliated on his knees, with shoulders twisted.
“Captain,” he breathes, squinting in the sunlight. “Shiver me timbers, ye look wonderful.”
Oswald growls and tilts his head. He sounds almost gentle.
“What a nice put-up show you dare to play.”
The crew quiets. They watch with breaths held, all petrified with curiosity and offense. Pirates hop from the ropes to the deck, locking the doctor up in a tight circle.
“May I ask what wind blows you here?”
The doctor tries to shrug but Oswald’s men don’t let him. He squints up at them, cold and hollow. The cruel glimpse flashes with amber lights. Oswald finds himself honoring it.
“I’m simply going to places,” he manages, finding Oswald’s eyes again with his. “It’s such a pity I missed the course. This is not the Arabella, I believe.”
“Your brazeness is beyond reproach, I give you that.”
The crew hisses. Someone roars: “Come to the halter, rat!”
The doctor’s features sharpen, disgust pouring from them. Oswald knits his brows.
“I cannot bide the uncalled audience.”
“Am I sensing rage?”
“Prejudice. I would trust you to doom me with all my pleasure. But only you.”
“Your situation is non-negotiable I’m afraid. My crew belongs to me, just like this ship. I cannot make a decision without them. You have violated the Iceberg’s regulation, it is my duty to put your crime to the vote. You may defend yourself at a trial, of course, but under the circumstances you provided yourself with your attitude…,” Oswald tsks and leans closer to the doctor. “If I were you, I would pray to the Lord to have mercy on my bastard soul. I doubt we will pity your life.”
“I don’t believe in God.”
Oswald spreads his arms with a piteous pout.
“Hell is waiting for you, then. Lock him up! I’m terribly sorry, doctor. The hold’s cells may not be the most pleasant quarter you’ve ever dwelt in. I wish it would matter. Your life will come to the end at dawn.”
The sun dives behind the horizon, painting the sea with blood. Oswald has drawn in his cabin following the incident, enrolling the offense into the log. His crooked silhouette is covered in velvet lights and leady dim.
A pale stripling steps in, bringing him dinner. The salty smell of pork and potatoes fill the narrow chamber.
Oswald looks up, lewdly, lost in thought. His hazed glance catches the boy’s bandaged hand.
“What happened?,” he barks.
The boy gets frightened, staring down at himself vaguely. He trips like he lost his balance, mumbling shakily:
“T’was the lag, Captain. He bit me when I gave him the bread.”
Oswald’s coaly eyebrows arch. He leans back in his scarlet chair.
“He bit you,” he repeats, blankly.
The boy’s voice fades even more. His look quivers.
“He’s an evil creature, I tell you. Worse than a beast locked up in a cage. The bleeding won’t stop, like he cursed me, like his spit is poison and his eyes are-”
Oswald gestures, disbelieving smile on his lips.
“Nonsense. You can leave now.”
The boy is open-mouthed and motionless. Oswald would put him in his place, voice raspy, but something happens. The boy’s bones rumbles into one another, cracking and breaking. His skin is dry and grey as parchment, mouldering like his flesh. He’s twitching as he falls on the floor, spreading his arms, crumbling away like fire going out.
Oswald shouts for his guards. The cabin’s door snaps as it’s opened. The wind blows inside from the corridor, stirring the boy’s ashes into Oswald’s throat.
He shoots through the narrow corridor of the ship’s insides. The guards follow him with pistols and hatchets in hand. Oswald grabs a torch: it’s flickering and crackling, the flames seeming to tilt the damp walls.
Clacking invites him closer, echoing on the walls. When Oswald reaches the cell, the doctor’s already on his lanky legs, pressing his waist to the bars of the cell’s door.
Oswald spins in front of him. He reaches out to him between the bars, grabbing the doctor’s shirt. He shoves him close.
“What are you?” he hisses, staring into the blank eyes.
The doctor tilts his head. His clammy voice sticks the flames to the walls.
“A nightmare for some. For others, as a savior I come. My hands, cold and bleak, it’s the warm hearts they seek. What am I?”
The doctor giggles.
“I’m honored, but you’re wrong. How is the dear lackey doing?”
“You ground his bones and sucked every single drop of blood out his veins. I want to know how.”
He shakes his head slightly. Oswald tightens his grip as the doctor runs his tongue through his lower lip.
“I’d be happy to answer you, but the time of my trial has come.” He presses his forehead to the cool bars. His breath is boiling on Oswald’s face. “Preciseness is my virtue, you know. I wouldn’t miss the facilities of my last dying wish, not for all the world.”
Oswald shoves him away. He’s panting with rage and waves to his two guards to open up the cell.
None of them move. Oswald growls:
“What are you waiting for, gentlemen? Bring him to me.”
The walls grow narrow around Oswald. His fingers intertwine his tawdry pistol. He gives them a last chance by shouting:
“Bring him to me, cowards!”
Ed starts laughing; his voice is harsh, choking, and rotund. Rage sparks through Oswald. He pulls his pistol out. Two fumy bullets, two drilled skulls, and the blood reeks. The ship shakes as the heavy bodies hit the floor with a thump.
Ed is still laughing.
Oswald is huffing, his temples weezing sweat. He stares at the doctor, whose bony fingers crawl on the bars, his glasses knock on them. His laughter fades into a wide grin.
“So,” he murmurs, “will you let me out?”
Scalding-hot riots sweep through the main board as the boatswain pulls the doctor up by his neck. Oswald is standing at a respectful range, in the bosom of his crew. The boatswain finds his way to Oswald’s right side, wind blows through his grizzled hair. On Oswald’s left, the one-eyed watchman is waiting patiently, his fingers entwined around his fleshless wrist.
The doctor is tied to the main mast. His spirit is mellow, his ferrety glance doesn’t leave Oswald. He dares to ask the gloomy lascar to draw the ropes tighter.
The sails rustle. The brigantine softly glides on frilled waves, her slender wooden body creaking and sighing. The air is still frowzy and burning, only the winds blow soothing kisses on the crew’s faces. Torches flare up in a circle. Their flames are locked up in a cage of steel.
Oswald can’t breathe. As he opens his mouth, salt coats his tongue.
“We all know what a nuisance we’re dealing with,” he starts in a rich voice. It still sounds a bit weak, but his crew calls for silence. “Our home is wrecked. A stranger has violated our laws and our boundaries. Someone who doesn’t respect our contract. Someone who cannot be our blood brother. He lurked behind barrels like a sneaky rat-”
The doctor clears his throat. Oswald’s glance slices through him like a blade.
“If I may-”
“You may speak when you are asked to. If you say another word I didn’t call for, I will slice your throat myself without even thinking about it.”
The crew roars with laughter. The Iceberg’s hull splashes back into the waves. The doctor puckers his lips with an offended grimace and raises his chin, but he stays quiet.
“It seems that good manners are not our friend’s greatest asset. All right, then. Butch, keep a record of everything you hear.”
The paymaster nods and sits down by the barrier. He is balancing the log on his meaty knees.
Oswald limps closer to the mast.
“What’s your name?”
“Your occupational title?”
“Where are you from?”
“From the sea.”
The wind turns.
Oswald opens his mouth and closes it. The doctor keeps smiling. It seems that the grousing wakener entertains him.
“Did you not expect this answer?”
“It doesn’t matter if you are a pirate or not. You didn’t acquit yourself yet. Who did you serve before?”
“I served you.”
“I allow no games from you.”
“I have proof. Our contract is in my pocket.”
“Take it out. Now.”
Ed raises his brows and moves his bound wrists. Oswald calls for a sailor but Ed bursts out:
“You take it out.”
It takes Oswald two steps to reach him. Oswald is staring into the dark eyes as he grabbles blindly, wearly. Ed’s aura is intoxicating as it’s pulsing through his skin. Ed bends, sinking his chin lower. They slick closer. Too close. His hair touches Oswald’s cheek. Oswald’s fingers search his pocket, his tips reaching something inside. He tears his hand out, stepping back.
He opens the parchment out, peeking down.
He almost drops it.
On the parchment, there’s nothing but four words freezing in blood.
I know your secret
He snaps his head up. Ed’s eyes are narrow, like the dark lobes of the Moon.
“Pass it over,” he whispers and Oswald crickles the parchment in his fist.
He’s hesitating. He has two choices; they flash through his muscles, tying him. If he doesn’t hand the doctor’s message over, if he doesn’t do as he’s told, he will never be trusted again as a captain.
It would be a sentence of death. He cannot allow that to happen. The doctor’s words might turn out to be a foolish hoax.
He doesn’t really have a choice.
He offers the parchment to the closest pirate. The boatswain takes it from his hand.
Ed is beaming at him. The sea’s roar throbs in Oswald’s ears, the hot sweat of the Bahamas lashes on his face. He’s waiting for Gabe to read the parchment, to say something, to tense.
“He’s telling the truth.”
A cold stream slaps Oswald.
“What did you say?!”
“He’s telling the truth. Look.”
Gabe heaves his hand and shows the parchment to everyone. The crew starts to grumble. They’re querying each other, talking the other down, elbowing the closest sailor. Do you remember him? Have you seen him?
As petrified moments crumble away, Ed’s face rises from their memories.
“I lose a fortune in play with him! That son of a bitch knows his cards.”
“Hey doc, how come you look so fine after being a drunken scallywag?”
“We danced, I tell you, why don’t you remember?”
“He stole Alice from me, that bastard. I’ve been dreaming about her since Kingston. That whore broke my heart.”
Oswald’s knees tremble. He feels weaker than ever, mouthing something like “fucking hell”. He straightens his spine, forcing himself to look up at Ed. His jaw tenses.
“Loose him,” he croaks.
Ed’s face is glowing with moonlight. Gabe cuts the ropes. Ed massages the reddish snake marks the ropes have left.
“Pass a sentence upon me,” he asks tenderly.
Oswald breathes out. And breathes in.
“All right. Let’s put up to vote. If you feel like the doctor is is an accepted member of the Iceberg’s crew, raise your hand now.”
Thirty hands rise up. Butch is counting them, shouting the upshot. Ed’s metallic eyes muster the ones who back down.
“It’s settled.” Oswald steals Ed’s glance for himself, stepping closer again with weakening knees. “I welcome you on board once again, Edward Nygma. Let me kidnap you for a minute before you join your fellows. Gabe, draw the barrels off! You deserve to celebrate, my friends. It was a long day. For all of us.”
The crew carols forth. The musicians tune up, barrels roll through the main deck. Oswald hacks their way through the swelling crowd. Ed is smartly stepping behind him, following his path to the corridor, to the captain’s cabin. He opens the door for Oswald and receives a snarly grin as a thank you.
Oswald lights the gaslamps one after the other. Ed is waiting patiently, standing before the packed table. He grabs an astrolabium from a mound of trinkets, swirling it between his bony fingers.
Oswald comes to a full circle without saying a word. Then, he sits down to his tricksy chair, crossing his legs, leaning his chin on his palm. He doesn’t look at Ed as he turns his wrist. His gesture says: have a seat.
Ed obeys. The lack of chairs make him sit on a gilded chest.
He speaks up first.
“I am at your command.”
Oswald snorts. He wrinkles his nose as he overcomes his pride and fury. He flashes a null smile. Their glances interweave again, like strings of a rope.
“We need to find you a position you can hold on. Freshen my memory, doctor. How did you sign on?”
“Why didn’t you kill me?”
His voice is playful, his eyes seem nacreous. The tip of Oswald’s tongue caress through his upper teeth. He raises his eyebrows contemplatively.
Ed goes on:
“Did you solve my riddle?”
“Answer my question.”
“What happens when you kill Death?”
Oswald smacks on the table. Ed’s lips are parted, his teeth clash. He’s waiting for Oswald to grind his words, but Oswald surprises him. He leans back comfortably, chuckling with puffy eyes.
The pop of his tongue is a whip. He grabs a bottle of cognac, pulling it out from the carved drawer. He takes two glasses from a silver plate. When he finally speaks, his voice waves with ease. He’s chattering.
“Why did you kill the boy?”
“It was a gift for you.”
“A call would’ve been enough.”
“You’ve been travelling with us for only a day, and you already have blood on your hands.”
“Just like you.”
Oswald’s glance lightens. The cognac gutters.
“They were unfaithful and coward. What mistake did the boy make?”
Ed shrugs. He gets on his feet, stepping closer to the table. He seats himself on it, stooping above Oswald.
“The crust was dry,” he hums. His fingers crawl on the glass. Oswald swallows and Ed’s face darkens. “You’re afraid of me. Don’t be.”
“I’ve seen worse.”
“Worse, not more mysterious.” Oswald tsks. “That’s what I thought. You’re not afraid of what you’ve already seen. You’re afraid of the unknown, like all people. The informations, you do not yet possess - they kept me alive. What would happen to your ship? What faith would wait for you? What happens when you kill Death?”
“I’ve faced Death,” Oswald hisses, standing up so he can lean into his face.
“And I’ve looked back at you.”
“You’re playing a game.”
“I’m playing with you. Please.” Ed lifts his glass, clinking it to Oswald’s. Oswald doesn’t reach for his own drink, but Ed is waiting for him.
Oswald takes a soft sip, Ed swigs. He dries the drops from the corner of his mouth, chaining Oswald’s eyes to his lips. He smirks.
“I’ve accepted you as my captain, Mr. Penguin. You can believe me. Give me orders. Rule me. Use me.”
Oswald twirls his glass. He drinks again, lewdly swinging the cognac and the thoughts in his mouth. Crystal knocks on the table.
“Are you a fine swordsman? Can you fire a gun?”
“I’m an excellent swordsman.”
Oswald’s crooked grin appears. He hobbles to the baldachin bed, unhanging a polished sword. He tosses it through the room. Ed grabs it by the grip with his mouth agape.
Oswald takes his own sword from his belt, leaning on his healthy leg.
Ed is staring at him in astonishment, still, the corner of his mouth twitches. Heavy blades stiff ahead, then Oswald swiftly steps and smites to the doctor from above.
The swords sparke. Oswald is surprisingly quick, pulling and dragging his broken ankle behind. He never seems to loose balance. Ed is unable to do anything but shuffling off - sharpening the blade on blade, stepping back, luring Oswald further back.
He is backing to the windows, the hemicircle of the stern which is lit by fading beams of moonlight.
Then, he attacks.
Oswald’s muscles tense in his arm from Ed’s hits. He’s strong, fierce, rhythmical, and still vagarish. He moves like he’s asking Oswald to dance with him, to dance to a breathless beat, and Oswald flusters and makes a mistake.
His sword falls down. Ed’s blade is on his throat, his fingers on his wrist, pulling him close, turning him. He thrusts himself to him hard, hugging him by his chest. Oswald throws his head back to avoid the blade: his nape rests in the arc of Ed’s shoulder and neck. He snatches his pistol. He presses its cold barrel into Ed’s temple.
Ed moans. His embrace squeezes the breath out of Oswald’s lungs.
They tumble between the carmine curtains. The windows feel chilly. The lights glister. The noise of the main deck cannot reach them.
Oswald is panting and shivering in Ed’s arms. He doesn’t want to get out; it’s the rage of losing that makes him quiver. He clenches his teeth and growls quietly.
“Where did you learn that?”
“On the streets. I taught myself.”
“Remedy is a dangerous occupation,” Oswald spits with irony.
Ed quietly laughs into his ears. His glasses are pressed into Oswald’s cheeks as he caresses through his chest and abdomen, sinking his nails into his waist. Oswald hold his breath. His raised arm trembles; he blames it on the pistol’s weight.
“Discharge the surgeon. I’ll take his place. I saw in Nassau what that charlatan can do.”
“Right now I have more faith in a medicaster than in you. At least he commits a fault before he kills.”
Ed surrenders with a huff. He drops his sword and kicks it far. The sword glides to the end of the cabin with a clash.
Ed doesn’t let him go just yet. His abdomen sticks to his back, hot and heavy. His shirt is damped and crumpled, his heart beating rapidly under cloth and skin and flesh.
Their breath is rugged.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Ed exhales. His grip wastes away.
“This is the last time you lied to me. Don’t you dare do it again.”
Ed lets him go and draws back. Oswald leans onto the window frame. He’s still pointing the pistol at him, the barrel casting a shadow at Ed’s face. Oswald’s pale nostrils falter.
“You’ll be Dr. Felton’s assistant. You’ll help him in everything, act only when ordered, speak only when asked. If you can prove yourself to me until we reach the continent, you can take his place. I expect you to be the a useful member of my crew. I count on you to keep a lookout, to eat with the crew, and to keep the ship clean. I’ll accommodate you in the hold. You will sleep in hammocks with the others. If you’ve got a problem, or something to say, you cannot tell me directly. You don’t ask for me if I don’t ask for you. Complain to the boatswain, he’ll pass it on to me. If you fail, I’ll degrade you immediately. Do you understand?”
Ed nods. Oswald doesn’t draw his arm back.
“I asked you a question. Did you understand?”
“I did, my Captain.”
Oswald pins the pistol back into his belt’s pouch. He limps back to the table for his cognac. Ed stays behind, grinding the curtain’s golden threads between his fingers.
Oswald swigs the drink, grabbing the table’s edge with his free hand. He doesn’t look back as he asks:
“What the hell are you still doing here?”
The cabin’s door squeaks when Ed leaves. Oswald’s all alone in the trembling light of the gaslamps, clinging to the bottle.
Back in time, when the brigantine squirmed in Fish Mooney’s steel grip, he was forced to join the late night debauches. The drunken crew bawled like a herd of cattles. The ghost stories only made Oswald creep because he wouldn’t believe people actually feared them. Mooney’s fault-finding musicians could’ve sang a better song with their tongues cut out. Fish never gave them anything to drink but fucking grog -
And those hammocks. He clung onto its ropes like his life depended on it.
When the ropes slued around his broken leg and made him fall, the pain usually made him faint. They found him in the morning, half-dead, drooling.
Oswald had drank the whole bottle. He presses his lips together, pondering, grabbing the bottle’s neck.
With a deranged heave, he smashes the bottle to the wall. Shreds disperse in the air like dozens of stars.
Oswald makes his decision. He hustles to his door, grabbing the knob. As he opens the door, the one-eyed watchguard looks back at him. He starts to act like a guardsman, although Oswald never asked him to be one.
Now, he’s in the right place, in the right time.
Oswald points behind himself with his chin.
The man obeys and waits for Oswald to close the door and turn to him. Oswald raises his chin and squints at him.
“You will fuck me now,” he says, voice flat.
Fuck the thought of him out of me. Make his scent fade. Make his voice stop. Make his touch numb.
The watchguard steps closer. He grabs Oswald by the neck without saying a word, and bites into his lip.
Oswald closes his eyes.
On his eyelids, there’s amber.