“I’m going to tell your poor mother her daughter is a pirate!” was the first thing my plump little goody-two-shoes ex-neighbour told me when I showed up on her doorstep with a bag of gold.
I looked at my gold. “You don’t want this?” I asked her, and then theatrically shrugged. “Alright, I’m sure I can find someone else who’ll take a free bag of—”
She snatched it out of my hand, made a frustrated noise at me, and then stormed back inside her house and slammed the door right in my face.
I stood there for a moment with my nose to the wood and my eyebrows in my hairline. Hmm.
We used to be friends once, her and I. According to my mother I never stopped talking about her; Poppy this, Poppy that. Poppy, Poppy, Poppy. Now I think Poppy would probably slapped me if I sullied her name with my felonious lips; she didn’t think much of pirates. She wouldn’t, given her position: Harbour Master. It put us rather at odds.
Which was why I was here, with my bag of gold, helping my captain make sure that we weren’t too at odds, if you get my drift.
Well, I decided as I stared at the woodgrain in her front door, she’d taken the gold so that was my job done, wasn’t it? Pocketing that jingling bag was as good as signing a contract that said, ‘I promise to tell the city council that we take the threat of smuggling and offshore pirates seriously’ while doing exactly the opposite. It secured both our jobs for another year. The city assumed the harbour master would manage smuggling and security on the absolute pittance they were paid. We paid their real wages. Poppy knew it, too. Dozens of people wouldn’t have jobs if not for us ‘filthy’ pirates.
While I was stepping back, her door swung open again. Her face was bright red and she looked fit to strangle me. “Actually, you know what, Quinn?” she said, in manner of scolding a child, “I’m not done with you yet. Wait here.”
Blinking, I did as I was told. She disappeared inside, banged about in her bedroom, and then marched back outside and ceremoniously placed an ornate dagger in my hands as if it was a severed arm. She stood back expectantly with her hands on her hips. I think she thought I’d be horrified.
I wasn’t. It was a very pretty dagger. “Is this a gift?”
As if her pretty face wasn’t stormy enough, her brow descended even lower over her eyes. “You idiot,” she said, “that dagger—with pirate crest—was buried in the chest of a man who washed up on our beach last week. Poor old Missy Birchwood and her two boys found the body! Can you imagine her shock? How do you expect me to sweep whatever foul things you do at sea under the rug if you insist on murdering the innocent and letting their bodies wash up on our shores?”
My eyes couldn’t have rolled further back in their head. For starters, Missy was a farmer’s wife and slaughtered animals weekly for food—she wouldn’t have been at all bothered by the sight of a stranger’s body. Secondly, this dagger didn’t even bear the cockle symbol of my ship. It had nothing to do with me.
I was unmoved. “Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?” I asked her, as dark storm clouds practically gathered over her head. “Anyone who was killed by a pirate was a rich, well-guarded merchant.”
“The body was of a very young man!”
I shrugged. “Then he was probably a sellsword. He didn’t get anything he didn’t sign up for.”
She made an angry noise and made a motion in the air as if to strangle me. “Ugh! Quinn! It’s already hard for me to accept this,” she patted the fat purse she’d strung on her belt, “without bodies washing up all over the place! Could you at least not rub what you do in my face? Or ideally do a little less of it?”
“A little less murder, you mean?”
“A little less making my job horribly difficult!” she told me, taking a step towards me. “How do you think I sleep at night, knowing I’m letting pirates nibble at our edges? Knowing there’s black market goods on half the ships that dock in my harbour?”
I looked up at her modest but rather nice little house. “Well, I imagine it’s nice to sleep with a roof over your head,” I commented. “And food in your pantry, and knowing that if you ever stop shouting and fuming long enough to fool a poor, innocent man into falling for you, you’ll be able to provide for a family.”
Her eyes couldn’t have been narrower. “No. I’m not like you, Quinn. I can’t look the other way.”
“Sure you can,” I said, and tilted her head up to look at the roof of her lovely veranda. “There you go.”
She took off one of her gloves and smacked me ferociously with it a few times so I had to hold up an arm to guard myself. “Stop this nonsense!” she said, and then primly put her glove back on. “I’m serious!”
“You’re always serious,” I told her. “It’s why we fight so much.”
“We fight because the very day I was appointed harbour master, I find out my best friend sold herself and became a pirate!”
“Yes, well, being a fishmonger wasn’t paying my family’s rent.”
She threw her hands out. “I would have hired you!”
“You wouldn’t have been able to afford me! The only reason you could afford me now is because I pay you!”
The anger in her eyes faded a little and, dagger and all, she took my forearms firmly in hers. “I can afford you now, Quinn. Do the right thing: leave the Reds Sails. Come back to Westport.”
Huh; when she wasn’t screaming at me, she reminded me of the sweet, pretty girl she’d always been; it was always hard for people to say no to Perfect Poppy.
Fortunately, I’d had a lot of practice at it. “You know that wouldn’t work for either of us.”
Her face hardened, her eyes glazed, and she dropped my arms. “Fine. Keep killing innocent people, I suppose. Just hide the bodies better next time so I don’t have to see them.” She wasn’t looking at me when she turned away.
I felt a rock settle in my stomach. “I’d hardly call filthy rich merchants ‘innocent people’. Do you know what they do to make that money?”
She made eye contact with me. “Do they board private vessels by force and murder everyone who doesn’t pay up?”
I grimaced. That was a fair point. “You know that’s a very small fraction of the business we do, right?”
She ignored me. “Just get out of my sight,” she said. Something crossed her face as she glanced at me. “And for heaven’s sake put on a dress before you visit your mother. Those breeches look terrible on you.”
She was lying. They suited me tremendously. “What do you mean? Sailors wear breeches. This is fine.”
Her lips were pressed together. “Good, respectable sailors don’t swagger down the main street as if they own everything.”
That made me grin. I’d never really thought much about having a swagger. “Nothing wrong with a bit of confidence when you—”
“Quinn,” she said, not returning my smile. “Please. Just leave.”
Mine faded. I broke eye contact with her, swallowing. “Well, eh,” I began, trying not to end up as humourless as she always was. “Can I at least keep this lovely dagger?”
She shook her head at me. “I don’t care what you do with it. Or with yourself.”
Oof. “Fabulous!” I managed. “I’ve been needing a new dagger. Thanks.” I saluted her.
As icy as her blue eyes, she walked back inside and shut the door on me. At least she didn’t slam it this time.
Small mercies, right? I stowed the dagger inside my belt so I wasn’t carrying it around in the open (nothing really said ‘pirate’ as much as openly carrying ornate weapons, did it?), and stepped down off her veranda, just as I had a thousand times before. These days, though, I walked myself to the gate alone.
Honestly, I should really look on the bright side. That whole ugly affair went about as well as I could have expected it to go: she’d received enough pay for her carefully recruited useless security guards and oblivious dockhands, and I’d secured a year’s worth of hassle-free smuggling for the Red Sails. All was well, wasn’t it?
I nodded firmly. Definitely, all was well! Looking away from Poppy’s familiar little house and back towards the open street, I pushed that silly old heavy rock out of my stomach. I’d done my duty for the year: it was time to celebrate as much as possible before I needed to pay a visit to my dear mother tomorrow.
I located the darkest, dingiest tavern in town to avoid crossing paths with anyone else from my past, and was peacefully drowning my pesky stomach-rock with gallons of cheap booze and pretty girls when the face of one of my crew mates appeared right in front of me.
He was grinning ear-to-ear; I could see every one of his gold teeth. “It’s payday, lad,” he said, forgetting that I wasn’t a lad, “Christmas just washed up on Inlet Beach.”
I may have been just a little drunk. I pushed the girl who was snogging me away a little. “Christmas?”
“You bet!” he said, slapping my shoulder. “It’s payday! Look!”
He took my shoulder and dragged me over to the window, spilling the drunk woman off my lap and onto the floor. She lay there in a pile, giggling.
I couldn’t pay her much heed, though, because outside the window on the Inlet Beach, a crowd was beginning to gather, and when I squinted, I could see why.
The king tide had brought bodies. Dozens of bodies—big, bloated corpses in expensive clothes, all up the beach.
My shipmate was rubbing his pink patty-paws with glee. “Come on! Let’s pretend we’re all nice-like helping out all these poor dead people and go slip some rings off!” He rushed out onto the sand, feigning concern.
I wasn’t so quick out the door, and not because I was drunk as a fish in ale, but because of the scene in front of me and what it meant: bodies, everywhere. Westport citizens standing on the shore, hands on their cheeks, clutching their pearls, all shocked and horrified.
This many bodies was something the Habour Master couldn’t ignore.