I stood at the prow of the Carrion Crow, where moonlit fog swallowed every noise save the creak of our rigging and the slap of waves against our hull. Years of planning would fall into place this night, and I found myself gripping the rail in anticipation. My efforts to spot Lord Buckworth’s merchant fleet were interrupted by the unmistakable sound of someone trying to tiptoe up behind me on a peg leg.
“Blackheart,” whispered a voice, rough as a flogging scar. My given name is Archibald, but I don’t suppose a shipload of cutthroats would respect me if I copped to a foppish name like that, do you?
I turned to see Dead Arm Joe, a wild-haired bear of a man. He stood with three more of the crew, each brandishing an axe or machete and nervously looking about in a different direction. It took quite a bit of head swiveling for them to survey the entire ship as they only had six remaining eyeballs between the four of them.
“It’s time to relieve Captain Cross of his duty. Permanently,” Dead Arm said.
“I reckon the captain knows what he’s doing,” I said. “He’s been stealing the magic out from under noble houses since you and me were small lads."
“The raid’s too dangerous,” said Isabelle the Scarless. “This is the one that’ll get us all caught or killed, you mark me.”
Aboard any reputable sea vessel, a mangled body part was sure to result in a nickname. But the crew of the Carrion Crow had seen enough hostile swordplay that it was the bits that were still attached that stood out as odd. This is how the Portuguese lass standing beside Dead Arm came to be called Isabelle the Scarless, the Irish bloke next to her became known as Thirty Tooth Thomas, and with them, the new recruit out of Morocco who’d been somewhat jealously nicknamed Two Ears.
Over Dead Arm Joe’s shoulder, I made out the shape of the Flower of the Indus, the flagship in Lord Buckworth’s fleet. She was double our length, armed to the gizzard, and most of her four hundred crewmen still had all their body parts. We’d smeared just enough white paint across the top rail of our man o’ war to pass as one of the merchant fleet so long as the fog held up. And we kept a healthy distance. And the Flower’s night watch crew were a bit drunk.
“The storm magic that’s locked away in the vault of the Flower will make us the most fearsome ship on all the seas,” I said. “Right now, while she’s rounding the cape, that’s our only chance to get her.”
“This one’s suicide, I tell you,” Thomas said, and jerked a thumb in the direction of the Flower of the Indus. Or rather, tried to, before remembering he no longer had a thumb on that hand. “Captain said himself it’s all or nothing – once they’re onto us, our only means to escape is to bring storms down on them other ships. We don’t make it into the Flower’s vault and snatch Lord Buckworth’s magic we’re good as caught – it’ll be prison for the lot of us. Those that’s still alive, that is.”
“The time for mutiny is now, while he’s distracted,” Dead Arm said.
Cross would eventually get us killed, true enough, and there’d be no better time than now to catch him off his guard. But I had to ensure this mutiny’s failure. I could no longer suffer my family name laying in tattered ruins, and its restoration depended on tonight’s plan succeeding.
“Right,” I said. “He’s in the armory, aye? Can’t risk his guards sneaking up behind us ‘til we know which side they’ll choose.”
Dead Arm nodded. “We approach from both directions.”
“It’ll only take two to clear the back stairs.” I looked at Dead Arm with all the earnestness I could muster. “Be an honor if you’d let me do it with you, my new captain.”
A smirk broke out across Dead Arm’s face. Without another word we dashed on quiet feet – and pegs – to the rear stairs as Isabelle led the other two down the front. The guards hardly had time to look up before I clubbed the first on the crown of his head. Dead Arm could have used the blunt end of his axe, but chose instead to put his blade in the other guard’s chest.
Dead Arm started to run off, but I stopped him with a cry of, “Oh no.”
He raised an eyebrow at me.
“You killed Crusty Pete,” I said.
“Yeah. All the lads loved him.”
“Did they? Well too bad for Pete, he was in my way.”
“You’re going to have a hard time getting the crew’s loyalty if they know you killed Crusty Pete. Better dump his body overboard.”
Dead Arm hesitated, looking back and forth between Pete and the direction of the armory.
“Quickly,” I said. “Don’t want them to start the mutiny without us, do you? Here, let me hold your axe.”
Dead Arm dragged Pete’s body up the stairs by its armpits and hefted him onto the gunwale. With one hard shove, Pete’s body went overboard. And with one firm push of my boot against his backside, Dead Arm went with him. The two splashed into the waves below, soon followed by a furious cry of, “Blackheart!”
I leaned over the side to watch Dead Arm float away behind us. “Actually, my given name is Archibald,” I called out in a stage whisper.
“You son of a—!”
“But you have to promise never to tell anyone.”
By the time I reached the armory, Isabelle and the other two mutineers had Captain Cross cornered at the points of their machetes. In the dim lamp light, I could just make out two dozen sailors watching the stand-off and waiting to see how things would go before committing to a side. The hulking form of Double Eyeball Bill, Cross’s bodyguard, lay sprawled across the floorboards, groaning, a bloody hand over the left half of his face. It was clear that Double Eyeball would not be doing any more bodyguarding tonight. And that he would be needing a new nickname.
Unarmed, outnumbered three-to-one, and thin as an eel’s skeleton, still Cross had no intention of going down without a fight. He swung his gaze back and forth between the mutineers, as if trying to decide which to kill first. Each sharp turn of his head whipped his grey curls and jangled the mess of brass keys threaded onto his hoop earring. Cross’s eyes tightened and his face scrunched. Or perhaps it unscrunched. The old man was such a mess of wrinkles and scars it was impossible to know the difference. In any case, the bits that made up his face rearranged themselves in a rather affronted sort of way.
“So it’s mutiny, then, is it?” Cross snarled. “The lure of my magic bounty finally became too much for you traitorous lot, and you’ve come to steal it right out from under me, eh?”
“You mean the magics you snatched from all them noble houses,” Thomas said. “How’s us nicking it from you any different than you nicking it from them?”
“I was doing them a favor,” Cross said, as if truly offended at the accusation. “They’d grown dependent upon their magic to maintain their fortunes. Landing in the slums with the common folk forced their children to grow up tough and resourceful.”
“What are we blithering about for?” Two Ears asked. “Any second now Buckworth’s fleet will spot us.”
“Right you are,” Isabelle said. “Let’s get on with it, then.” Isabelle started forward then paused, glancing back over her shoulder with a confused look. She caught my eye and in an unsure voice asked, “Where’s Dead Arm?”
“I took his axe and kicked him overboard,” I said. While the three mutineers stood with mouths agape, I strode forward and pushed Isabelle against the wall, putting the axe blade to her throat.
Thomas looked at me like I’d stomped the tail of his favorite cat. “But you were the one who kept—”
Before he could finish, I rounded on him with a fist to the jaw and down he went. Two Ears didn’t see Cross’s kick coming for his knee until it was too late. The man crumpled to the floor, groaning while Cross stood over him and glared at the crowd of sailors.
“Who else was with them?” he bellowed.
A quick eye might have caught a dozen knives quietly being returned to waistbands behind a dozen backs. Then a dozen men and women looked around, innocently, at everything but the captain. Somewhere in the mob, someone softly whistled an old sea shanty.
“To the brig with this lot,” Cross ordered. As the mutineers were hauled away, he turned to the remainder of his crew. “This foolishness has all but cost us our chance at snatching Lord Buckworth’s storm magic. But we will press forward. From this night on the winds and the rain shall do our bidding and forevermore the Carrion Crow will be the most powerful and fearsome ship on all the seas!”
A roar went up from the crew, every hand raising a weapon into the air.
“And then we’ll get our hands on some really huge piles of gold!” called out Five Finger Jack.
“No…” Cross said, as if explaining something to a child, “Then we’ll go after more magic.”
“Shouldn’t we also steal some gold?” asked No Disease Nina. “I mean… eventually?”
“Yes, yes,” Cross said impatiently, “we’ll get around to that.” He turned to unlock the vault behind him, muttering something about “kids these days.”
The heavy wood door of the vault creaked open to reveal a space with just enough room for Cross to step inside. He looked over the shelves, which held eighteen padlocked wooden chests. Cross lugged one of them out into the armory, dropped it on the ground in front of him, and removed his key hoop earring. After sorting through its eighteen keys, he unlocked the chest, unleashing a misty, pale blue glow and a hum as soft as the purr of a slumbering cat.
“Dent Skull,” Cross called out. “The feather magic is yours for the night. See you don't die before returning it to this chest.”
Dent Skull Sally stepped forward and slowly reached her hand into the chest. The glow and hum slithered up her arm and seeped into her body. Her eyes and smile widened as it settled into her. Cross dragged another chest forward and found its key.
“Dead Arm!” Cross shouted, looking about the room. When no one answered he said, “Oh. Right.”
“I’ll take his place, captain,” I said, a little too eagerly.
Cross considered me for a moment, then said, “If you take the ghost magic, everything depends on you. You don’t make it to the Flower’s vault, it’ll be prison for the crew and the noose for myself.”
I restrained my movement to a slow nod, careful to show no signs of the butterflies flitting about inside my ribcage. “Aye, captain. I’ve thought on that.”
Eyes fixed on me, Cross tilted his head toward the chest. I dropped to a knee and hefted open the lid. Dozens of faint white rays of light curled up out of the opening. I slowly dipped my hand inside, the magic’s radiance wrapping around my arm with effervescent pinpricks. My skin drank them in. A buzz raced up my arm and spread through my body like the warmth of rum.
“You know how the ghost magic works, aye?” the captain asked me.
“None will perceive me through eyes nor ears,” I said, “but only so long as I do nothing to draw their gaze.”
Cross handed out magic to a few more of the crew – just those magics essential to his plan – and secured his vault with a double turn of the weighty key he kept on a chain around his neck. He spun and jealously eyed each of his crew members, all of whom knew that looking away and feigning disinterest was the healthiest course of action. Idle curiosity about the vault and its contents had earned more than one former crew member an unexpected and unending holiday in the middle of the ocean.
“We’re about in position,” Cross said. “Keep your excitement under a tarp for now. Quickly and quietly – with me.”
The sailors followed him through the dark corridors and up to the top deck. Removing myself from the sight of men was as simple as thought – I looked down at my hand to find that the moonlight passed straight through it and all the clothing I wore. Even my newly-acquired axe vanished as if it had been transmuted into pure ether.
Our crew had brought us up so close to the Flower of the Indus, the sides of the two ships nearly rubbed together. The Flower’s night watch crew, dressed in identical royal-blue livery, loomed over us, looking down over their rail with the same expression one might have worn after noticing an oddly-shaped snail hiding amongst the food on their dinner plate.
“Ahoy there!” Cross called out. “I am Captain Cross of the Carrion Crow. We are pirates here to take your vessel. Please surrender immediately so that we may avoid any unpleasantries of the stabbing variety.”
“Um…” came the slow reply from one of the Flowers’ crewmen. “Yes, I can understand how our surrender would be desirable – from where you’re standing, that is – but it seems you’ve failed to notice the disparity in size between our vessel and your own.”
“I have eyes, lad,” Cross replied. “But you see, this ship and her crew are like a wolverine…”
“I’m sorry, a what?” the crewman called down.
“They don’t have those in Albion, captain,” Dent Skull Sally whispered.
Cross sighed. “It’s a furry, clawed animal. Small, but vicious and strong completely out of proportion to its size. It’s known for taking down much larger animals.”
“And that’s you?” the crewman asked.
“I thought you just said you were the Carrion Crow.”
“I didn’t say ‘wolverine’ was the name of my ship… it’s a metaphor, son. You do have those in Albion, don’t you?”
The crewman looked around at the rest of the Crow’s people. “I’m sorry… who put this gentleman in charge? You all do realize his mind has gotten a bit… over-ripe, aye?”
“That’s it,” Cross growled. “I’m through dickering with you half-witted clods. We’re coming over.”
Four of the Crow’s crew hefted our plank off the deck and threw it across the space between the two ships, tilted upward to allow for the Flower’s height.
“Excuse me,” the Flower’s crewman exclaimed with a frumpled expression of disdain, “I don’t believe we actually invited you to come across.”
As if he hadn’t heard them, Cross marched up the plank, a handful of his crew keeping pace behind him. Our captain was not, in fact, addle-brained. Pretending to be so was a common tactic of his. It was all part of his plan, wherein I, unseen by any, would stride across the plank in between Cross’s men and women so the Flowers’ crew wouldn’t notice the plank warping and bouncing under the weight of a man who seemingly wasn’t there. As my shipmates kept the Flowers’ crew occupied, I’d stroll down to her vault, easy as you like. It was getting through the vault door and getting away with the storm magic that would be the tricky bit.
Just as Cross set foot on the Flower, the jaw-rattling thunder of an explosion knocked us about, half falling onto their backsides. Cross himself remained on his feet, but frozen, with a look of pure bewilderment on his face. This was not part of the plan. As thick splinters of wood rained down, it became clear a cannon blast had erupted between the ships, but which had fired upon which no one could say. What came next was nothing short of bedlam.
Crew from both ships leapt the gap, weapons drawn. There was a heck of a row, men and women skewering each other with swords and all that kind of gruesome business. But you don’t really want me to disturb your imagination with such ghastly details, do you?
I moved slowly, and with much forethought, diligently plotting my course to the stairs so I might remain well outside the arc of swishing blades and recently disconnected limbs. In the same fashion, I moved down into the ship, flattening myself against staircase walls when crew rushed past me to join the fight. Every ship’s captain kept any magic they possessed behind both locked door and armed guards. But if fortune was on my side, the fighting above would draw all the guards away, and my axe would make short work of the lock.
Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. As I rounded the corner to the armory, I found myself staring at Five Finger Jack. In my haste I must have caused enough disturbance to make my ghost magic falter, for the look in his eyes made it apparent that I was no more invisible to him than he was to me.
“Blackheart…?” he said, confusion overtaking his face.
You’re likely wondering what Five Finger was doing guarding the armory of the Flower of the Indus, or, indeed, how he even got there. At this point, I must confess that I’ve been a tad deceitful in my storytelling. I neglected to mention that I never joined my crew in their trip across the plank to the Flower, instead sneaking back down into the heart of the Carrion Crow. I also left out the bit where I had previously tied a string to the Crow’s plank and ran it below decks, arranged so that upon our crew lifting that plank, a candle toppled into position to ignite the fuse of one of our cannons. Furthermore, every time I’ve mentioned “the plan,” I was referring not to Captain Cross’s plan to steal Lord Buckworth’s storm magic, but rather my own plan to distract the Crow’s men in a fight, drawing any guards away from the Crow’s vault.
Well, sometimes I was referring to Cross’s plan, I suppose, but which time I was referring to which plan is too much to bother with at this point. Either way, here we are now, so let’s get back to the story, aye?
Five Finger Jack narrowed his eyes and drew his cutlass. “You’re supposed to be breaking into the Flower’s vault. What’re you doing here?”
My grip clenched around the axe handle. Years of planning had gone to ruin for no reason other than Five Finger being such a simpleton he didn’t know that when a fight broke out you were supposed to leave your post and join your shipmates. I had a weapon, but I’d never get through him that way. Five Finger was an impressive swordsman, especially considering that finger count was the total for both hands combined.
I resumed walking toward him, attempting to feign both urgency and nonchalance, and prayed he had even less wits than I credited him.
“Captain sent me for the beast magic,” I said. “Quick, open the—"
“Beast magic?” Five Finger’s eyes narrowed further. “That’ll make you as likely to attack our own crew as the Flower’s.”
“Captain says chaos will be our ally.” I continued toward him. “No more time to talk, we’ll both end up in prison if we don’t—”
“Why’d he send you?” Five Finger’s eyes got so narrow I wondered if he could still see from them. “Who’s going to sneak down into the Flower if you’re running amok up top?”
This was a question for which I had no sensible reply.
I clutched my head in both hands. “Oh! The ghost magic. Something’s gone wrong. Quick! Find the captain! Tell him it’s all gone wrong!”
I became still and silent and transformed myself into a living ghost, invisible to all the senses. It would take a moment for Five Finger to get over the shock of seeing me disappear, but soon enough he’d scurry away to find the captain. I’d be inside the vault in seconds.
“Something’s gone wrong with the ghost magic?” Five Finger asked. “Is that why I can still see you?”
I suppose it should have occurred to me that a magic that only worked it you didn’t draw attention to yourself would fail to function if the other person already had their attention keenly focused on you.
I turned and ran.
From the pounding of boots racing up behind me I knew Five Finger had given chase. I rounded the corner at nearly full speed, careening off the wall hard enough to hammer the breath from my lungs. In front of me, stairs lead onto the Crow’s main deck, but even if I reached the top before Five Finger chopped me down at the ankles, I’d be in the open, nowhere to run or hide. I’d be caught and executed.
I stopped dead. For one blink of a moment I was out of Five Finger’s sight. I prayed it would be sufficient. I threw my back against the wall, tightened my muscles against any movement, clenched my stomach to keep my lungs from drawing the breath they desperately desired, and willed myself invisible. Five Finger’s footfalls came round the corner, louder, bearing down on me. The wind of his movement swished no more than an inch from the tip of my nose. Next I knew, Five Finger’s boots were knocking up the stairs, disappearing into the clank of swords and shouts of men at battle.
I returned to the vault door and with an even dozen swings of the axe managed to hack off the handle and lock. Thirteen chests remained closed and locked. Among them were magics that allowed the possessor to breathe underwater, or make a person fall ill at a touch, or see events transpiring far beyond the reach of sight. Though my imagination danced with the power each could bring, a body could only hold one magic at a time, and none of those were the one I’d gone through all this trouble for.
Sitting to the side, in a small chest whose hinges had gone rusty from lack of use, was the magic to quicken men’s tempers and turn their ire against one another. Cross called it venom magic, but I’d always known it by a different name. No, not as impressive as the other magics I could have snatched from these chests, but I had good reason to want this one above all the others.
I smashed the lock off the chest and dropped to my knees. Lifting the lid, I marveled at the warm, golden dots of light that drifted so slowly upward with a sound like grains cascading down a pile of sand. I shed the ghost magic into the nearest open chest and reached into the one I came here for. The dots climbed my arm and shrank into the pores of my skin. A smile worked its way onto my face.
A crash from above reminded me how little gap there was for me between escape and capture. I hurried from the room, exiting in the opposite direction in case Five Finger came back. On my way to the stairs, I passed the brig, where Isabelle, Thomas, and Two Ears remained chained to the wall.
Thomas looked up at me through iron bars, confusion written across his face. “But you were the one who kept buying me beers and telling me Dead Arm would make for a better captain.”
I wished him good fortune and ran for a gunport that I’d hung a rope from earlier in the evening. Unfortunately, two of the crew, each armed with a sword, stepped between me and my escape route, intent on delivering a quick and lethal lesson in the consequences of deserting shipmates in the middle of a battle. I suggested to one of them that perhaps he was misremembering how he lost his foot, and that in fact it was the man standing next to him who had stolen it and was now walking around on it as if it were his own. My blackheart magic ensured that this crime enraged the fellow, and I continued on while the two shoved each other and bickered over the matter.
Once I’d climbed down into the rowboat, it took some weaving to get clear of the merchant ships that had surrounded the Carrion Crow. Fortunately, none spotted me, their attention was on the battle still raging across the decks above.
As I rowed for land, I couldn’t help but wonder if Cross’s crew would manage to fight their way down into the Flower’s vault. If so, I imagine they would be disappointed when they got there, for all they would find is the magic to determine whether or not someone is lying. Very useful for building a merchant trading empire, but not so useful for escaping a fleet of ships. Once Lord Buckworth turned him over to the Governor’s courts, Captain Cross would soon after find himself on the uncomfortable end of a noose. Too bad he’d been misled about the Flower’s vault holding storm magic, but he should have known better than to believe everything he hears. Who knows how such wild and reckless rumors get started?
Although, I must say, my former captain was dead right on one account. The children of those noble houses whose magic he stole, growing up in the slums did make them tough and resourceful. Some of them tough enough to live like a pirate for years. And some of them resourceful enough to concoct a swindle wherein they recover their family’s magic while at the same time revenging themselves against the very pirate captain who’d stolen it from them.