All the World's a Stage
An Assassin's Creed: Black Flag fan fiction by xahra99
“A stage where every man must play his part
And mine a sad one.”
The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 1
“You don't look like a priest.” Tom said.
Ned squinted at his reflection in a broken shard of mirror-glass he'd propped up against the window. “It's not 'bout the looks.”
“'Tisn't. I've seen a cardboard crown an' lick of paint turn a lad into a queen.”
“Aye, on the stage,” Tom said, tugging at Ned's cassock like a maid.”But this is Bristol.”
Ned took a swig of cheap gin to settle his stomach. The oily taste of turpentine set his teeth on edge. “This world's a stage.”
“That's what the poets say.”Tom said. He peered around Ned's shoulder at the glass. The contrast was not kind. Ned was tall, swarthy as a Moor, and a childhood as a player had taught him how to stand. Tom was pox-scarred and small and looked nothing more or less than the street-thief that he was. “You'll need to shave.”
“I ain't shaving.”
“You are. Don't look the part, else.”
Ned pulled his hair back in a tail and turned this way and that. “Maybe. But I''m keepin' the hair.”
Tom shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
“I'll need your knife.”
Tom pulled a tarnished clasp-knife from his pocket. The blade was blunt as a cosh but Ned did the best he could. Tom fashioned a cross from two nails tied together while he shaved. When he was done Ned hung the bauble round his neck and cinched the cassock with a bit of rope. “How'd I look?”
Tom stepped back against the wall and peered at Ned critically. “Bit young for a priest,” he said, “if you're askin' me.”
“Young for a priest, but old enough to hang.” Ned said.
“There's one cure for that,” Tom said.
“Aye.” Ned snatched the gin-jar from Ned's hand and took a swig. “Don't get caught.”
“Don't think of that. Think of the treasure.”
Ned squared his shoulders and felt the cassock stretch uncomfortably as he moved.He hunched his back, steepled his hands and adopted a suitably sonorous voice. “Bless you, my son.”
“Fuck me,” Tom said, He stepped back, slack-jawed. “Do it again. Say something priestly.”
Ned lifted the gin-jar and held it like a censer. “Mea culpa,” he said as he flicked gin towards Tom. “Gloria in excelsis Deo. Uh, sic transit gloria mundi.”
“Sick transit,” Tom said in admiration. He swiped the bottle back. “I take it back. You make a bloody good priest. You should 've joined the Church.”
The liquor soured in Ned's stomach. “Piss on the Church,” he snapped. He had few fond memories of England's clergy. Priests were ever eager to push players from their land.
Tom looked alarmed. “Talk like that's bad luck.”
Ned glanced around. He saw nobody in earshot, but he lowered his voice to a growl nonetheless. “We're stealing from a church, Tom. Who in hell cares?”
“Me mam told me never to take the Lord's name in vain.”
“Fuck your mam.” Ned said bluntly. ““The Lord never did a damn thing for me. Way I see it, we could burn that church to ashes, and he wouldn't do a thing.”
Tom was taken aback by his partner's outburst. Ned was between him and the door, strange and imposing in his black cassock, fists bunched. Tom was no fighter and so he backed against the wall. “You wouldn't.”
Ned took a step towards his friend, and then the cassock tangled his legs and he stumbled. Tom flinched slightly at the sudden movement and Ned drew back, ashamed. “Course I wouldn't,” he replied, gin burning in his belly and the memories of his lost life pricking him like demons' forks. “There'd be nothing left to steal.”
The wave of anger that had fired Ned's blood had ebbed. He raised his hand and traced a cross in thin air as he had seen clergy do on his travels. “Trust me, my son.”
Tom laughed. “Then here's to Saint Mary's,” he said, lifting the bottle “and to her newest priest.”
The spire of Saint Mary Redcliffe loomed above Bristol harbour like a great ship's mast. The bells struck the hour as Ned passed; tolling muffled in the mist rising from the water. He realised that it was later than they'd intended. He didn't have much time.
Ned lengthened his strides. The cassock flapped around his legs. A passerby gave him an odd look and it took Ned a few steps to realise that his robe had ridden up to expose his boots. He pulled the cassock down, and hurried on. Clergy wore neat buckled shoes, but it was boots or bare feet for Ned and of the two choices boots had seemed by far the less conspicious.
He wrapped his hand around Tom's makeshift cross so only the ends of the nails protruded. With luck, nobody would notice it wasn't a real crucifix. People tended not to rub up close to priests.
Ned passed under the arched door of the north porch and entered the church. Though he was far from a religious soul he felt a small thrill as he stepped across the threshold. The air inside the church was thick and heavy, tinged with incense fumes. The church belonged to an altogether different Bristol to the city that Ned knew. The seafarers' chapels that littered the portside slums were little more than niches in the walls.
He stepped into the nave, keeping well clear of the worshippers scattered among the pews on each side of the aisle. As he walked out he glanced up, gaze rising up and further up towards the roof until he halted, scarcely able to believe the evidence of his own eyes. The nave was vast, carpeted in red like a giant tongue with arches like great ribs of stone that reached far over his head. To Ned, it was as if he'd stepped into the maw of a giant whale, though it was not the height of the building that made his heart beat faster.Gold gleamed between vaults of bone-white plaster far above his head. Although Ned knew the gold was nothing more than paint over plaster and no more real than any cardboard crown, he would have walked into far worse places for far less.
He glanced towards the high altar. A few folk knelt by the stone; backs outlined in sober coats of black cloth between the dazzling shafts of diamond light that lanced down through stained-glass windows. The congregation's clothes were clean; their teeth white; their backs straight. They wore garments worth more than Ned could earn in a year of honest work. Ned wanted some of that for himself. He wanted cash, and if he hadn't the fortune to be born to money he'd win it himself, with boldness.
He hissed contempt between his teeth and turned away from the altar. Right in front of him was the door of a small chapel. Ned did not wish an audience, and instead of continuing east towards the altar he headed across the aisle to the arched door.
He hesitated as he reached it, believing the chapel to be occupied. The room was dark compared to the dazzling brilliance of the main aisle, and it took Ned's eyes a few seconds to adjust and recognize the figure for what it was; a carved and painted wooden statue of some long-forgotten queen.
Ned spared the statue no more than a passing glance. The wooden lady's feet rested on a plint that jutted from the church's walls. On the stone rested a pair of fine silver candlesticks. The candelabras weren't the gold that Ned had hoped for, but they were close enough.
Another object caught Ned's eye as he glanced around. He saw Cabot's whalebone hung bolted to the wall above his head. The bone was taller than a man, its surface curved and dark with age.
Everyone in Bristol had heard the tale of Cabot's journey to the Americas two hundred years before, how he'd retrieved the whalebone from some far-flung shore and brought it back as a gift to the city's fairest church. Ned regarded the strange souvenir with interest. He wondered why the bone was bolted to the wall while the candlesticks, more valuable, lay there for the taking. It made sense to Ned, in a strange way. He'd seen silver before, but he'd never once seen a whale.
Ned reached up and touched the bone. Its surface was cool and pitted like the stone of a peach.
The Bible spoke of whales, as did the plays with which Ned was far more familiar. Those scraps of verse and dialogue had been his scripture once, and although the words he had once memorised were vanishing fast as the wake of a boat, he could still dredge up a verse or two.
“Why, as men do a-land,” he said aloud, testing the acoustics of the chapel, “the great fish eat the little ones. Can I compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as a whale? Such whales have I heard of on the land, who never leave gaping till they've swallowed the whole parish, church, steeple, bells, and all.”
That had been his father's fate, and his mother's with her, and the rest of their troupe, swallowed by debt and fever. Ned had no intention of being a little fish. Like the whale, he'd make himself too large to swallow.
The painted queen stared stoically over Ned's shoulder as he bent down and lifted one silver candlestick. He snuffed out the taper between pinched fingers and slipped the trinket up his sleeve. The metal was still warm from the candle's flame. Its carved base rattled against his elbow as Ned arranged the remaining candlestick to cover the loss. He gave the whalebone one last glance before he slipped on stealthy feet between the chapel's gilded iron gates, beneath the nave, and out the great north door.
“Silver,” Tom said when Ned produced the candlestick from his sleeve. “Not gold.”
“Only gold they had was on the roof,” Ned said. “Clergy's not as rich as they make out, for all their fancy buildings.”
Tom held the candlestick up to the light, admiring the patterns of ships carved along its base. “Should fetch a pretty penny, all the same.”
Ned shrugged and rubbed at his chin. The stolen cassock pulled painfully tight across his shoulder. “God's bones. Help me get this off.”
Tom cradled the candlestock in the crook of his arm as he helped Ned with the robe. His pickpocket fingers made short work of the cassock's buttons. Ned took his first deep breath in what felt like hours as he shrugged the robe away.
Tom passed Ned the gin. The morning's exploits had given Ned a powerful thirst and he drained the bottle. He expected Tom to put up some complaint at the loss of the liquor but his companion paid no heed to anything except the light that gleamed from the silver candlestick.
Ned cleared his throat. “So that stick's worth something. You think you can find someone who'll pay good money without stretching our necks in return?”
“Don't worry.” Tom said without taking his eyes from the silver. “I know a man.”
“What sort of man?”
“One you can trust. He'll melt this-” his grimy fingers flicked the candlestick, “down for the silver. Nobody will trace it.”
Ned frowned. “How much d'ye think it'll fetch?”
Tom named a figure.Ned's frown deepened.It was far smaller than he'd expected, and less divided between two. “That's all?”
Tom grinned. His teeth were stained as old piano-keys. “Beats fencing handkerchiefs and pocket-watches, doesn't it?”
Ned shook his head. The sum Tom had named was a far cry from the riches he'd imagined, but it was a long time since he'd had pockets full with anything aside from holes. “I'd hoped for more than that,” he admitted.
“It's enough for ale and wenches,” Tom said cheerfully. He lifted the crumpled cassock from the floor. “Let's pawn this too.”
Ned snorted. “Don't care if you burn it,” he said.
“Wouldn't think of it. That there's worth money.”
The thieves of Bristol, like those of other places, dealt heavily in stolen clothes. Ned knew a shirt could fetch a month's wages but he doubted anyone'd pay good money for a stained and stolen cassock. “As you like,” he said. “Let's go.”
Tom shook his head. “It ain't that simple.”
May man's a careful cove. He only deals with those he knows, and that in private. He doesn't know you. Best I go alone, this time. I'll meet you here later.”
Ned frowned. Tom's story smelt strongly of invention, but he didn't think him the type to deceieve with false colours.
“An hour, then,” he said. “But if you ain't back by the time the clocks chime ten, I swear to God I'll come lookin'.”
Tom tucked the cassock under his arm. “No need for such dramatics,” he said. “I'll do you right, I swear it.”
Ned had his doubts, but he let Tom go. The shabby room they'd rented for the day was devoid of any entertainment. The only furniture was an iron cot. Ned lay on the bed with his boots on the bedstead and finished off their second bottle of gin as the shadows swept across the dusty floor.
An hour later, he'd drunk half the bottle, and began to worry that Tom had betrayed him. An hour after that, he'd drunk the rest, and was sure of it. He knocked back the last shot of liquor and slammed the bottle down upon the windowsill so hard he cracked the base.
“Damn you,” he slurred, and set out with the intention of making Tom King rue the day he ever crossed Ned Teach.
Bristol posessed an seemingly inexhaustable amount of slums, stews and rookeries. Ned searched for Tom in several of his favourite haunts. He found nothing. He was coming along Blackbird Lane when he saw an acquaintance of the name of Harvey sauntering along the road.
Ned reached out and took Harvey by the sleeve. “'Ave you seen Tom?” he asked roughly.
“Aye,” Ned snapped.
“Why'd you want him,”
Ned hawked and spat. “Bastard owes me money.”
“Tis your bad luck then. I heard Tom was taken by the constables not half an hour before. They caught him with a priest's cassock and a candlestick stolen from Saint' Mary's church.” He sucked his teeth admiringly. “Wouldn't have thought he'd have it in him.”
Ned's heart sank. “Where's he now?”
Harvey thought for a moment. “I've heard he's in Newgate,” he said.
Ned groaned. “They'll hang him for sure.”
“He stole from the Church,” Harvey said dismissively. “Of course they'll hang him.”
“He didn't do it.”
“How'd you know that?”
Ned pushed past him. “Because I did,” he said as he hurried away.
The whitewashed walls of Newgate Prison stretched like sails along the street. Local gossip had it that the prison was as foul within as it was white without, and the smells that drifted through its narrow windows were vile even by the standards of the slums.
Ned stopped on the corner and cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Tom?” he called. “Tom King?”
His player's voice carried easily to the gatehouse. A chorus of curses, sobs and shouting rose in reply. Ned listened carefully, but he could not distinguish one voice from another, much less find Tom. His shouting attrached the attention of the nightwatchman, who emerged with a mastiff on a chain.
“Any of you know a lad called Tom King?” Ned shouted again. He spat and took a deep drink from the brown glas bottle he carried. “Tom?”
“There's many men in here,” the nightwatchman snapped, “and you'll fuck off if you don't wish to join 'em.”
“Do you know of 'im?”
“He's to be hanged, and you too if you don't shut your gob. Now get.”
“You're not.” The nightwatchman loosed his mastiff. The big dog growled, and began a stiff-legged, hackled stalk towards the corner where Ned stood. Thin strands of drool dripped from its mouth, gleaming like diamonds in the light of the link-torches.
Ned weighed up the options, and left.
He returned the next day to wait. Gin and a doorway was cheaper than rent, and it was a simple matter to continue what he had started. A man could get drunk for a penny, and dead drunk for tuppence.
He hadn't meant to pass the next days in a stupor. It happened nonetheless.
He heard of Tom's hanging two days after the fact from a broadsheet seller set up on the street beside the doorway where he lay. The man had recited his doggerel a dozen times before Ned had a chance to make sense of the words.
“Twas on the third of March, last week
That I into the Church did creep
A lock of iron I did pick
To steal a silver candlestick
At length to Newgate I was sent
Where to the Church I did repent
And day and night aloud did cry
Oh Lord, relieve my soul on high,
And so Saint Mary's bells do ring
Oh Lord, forgive my sins, Tom King.”
Ned jumped up. He had a gin bottle in his left hand so he caught the surprised seller by his throat with his right.”What do you mean?” he demanded.
The man easily shook him off. “If you want to buy a sheet you'll have to get in line like everyone else,” he said as if a horde of people were queuing for his wares.
“Tom's not dead!” Ned protested.
“Tom King?'” The vendor consulted his broadsheet. “Says here he died last Thursday.”
“It's not so.”
“Says here it is.”
Ned snatched a sheet and scanned the page. He dodged backwards, stll reading, as the broadsheet seller tried in vain to reclaim his property. The broadsheet was titled The Bristol Gazette, and gave lurid details of Tom's crime, together with a woodcut of the hanging.
The vendor caught at the paper. “Hey! Those are one penny a sheet!”
Ned pulled. The broadsheet split across the drawing of the scaffold. Ned staggered back with one half as the seller clutched the other. He caught himself with one hand against the bricks and flung a curse.
“You owe me one penny!” The seller waved the ruined paper at Ned.
“Do I look like I have a penny?” Ned snarled. He lifted a bottle to his mouth and swallowed nothing but air. The flask had long since been emptied. Ned swore viciously and dashed the empty bottle against the cobblestones. The seller shook his head as he turned away.
It took Ned two days to sober up. By then he had no money and no choice. He owned nothing of value save for his boots and his person. He wandered down the tavern-lined road that led to the docks and saw a ship loading cargo at the far side of the wharf. Ned wandered over to the vessel. Like any Bristol native, he'd seen his fair share of ships, and this ship struck him as a good one. She sat high in the water, lightly loaded, masts raking the air.
The mate eyed him as he wandered up. “Looking for work?” he asked.
Ned was about to decline when he felt the emptiness of his pockets. “Merchantman?” he asked.
The sailor's grin was sharp. “Privateer.”
Ned squinted at the ship's figuirehead, a forgettable painted Neptune, and then at the name painted on the ship's prow, proclaiming her the Whale, of Bristol. To Ned, it seemed an sign.
“Pay is three pounds a year, and a hundredth share of any ship we take,” the mate said encouragingly. “Six months away, and every man might make a fortune.”
Ned considered the offer. He had no experience of sailing, but he thought he could pretend to be a privateer as easily as he'd pretended to be a priest. “Maybe.”
“Reckon you're up to the task?”
Ned wanted nothing more than to be away from Bristol. A privateer would suit him better than poverty. “Reckon so.”
“Then come aboard, lad, and sign the articles.” There was a gleam in the mate's eye. Against his better judgement, Ned stepped aboard. Going to sea seemed the best of all his options.
“Can you scribe your name, lad?”
The mate produced a quill and a sheet of parchment. “Sign here,” he said, jabbing a dirty finger at the sheet. “What's your name, son?”
Ned said “Teach, sir. Edward Teach.”
“What're you running from, Teach?”
“Nothing, sir,” Ned said, and signed.
“You got a fine hand. You a gentleman's son?”
“A n actor's son, sir.”
“An actor?” The mate raised an eyebrow. “Never mind. A pair of willing hands and a strong body, that's what we need. We'll teach you a thing or two.” He laughed at his joke. “Teach, isn't it? That's no name for a sailor.” He gestured to Ned's wild black head of hair. “We'll call you Thatch.”