In a way, Mary supposes she’s lucky that it only takes one day for the pirates to attack her ship.
Lucky being relative, of course. It’s all relative lately, relative sin and relative joy and whatnot. Relative gratitude that the pirates haven’t bound her hands. Relative gratitude that she only has to spend one day at sea before getting kidnapped — it would be much worse to sail all seven days to Jamaica and then be snatched away at the shoreline and get stranded, here, on the fucking ocean.
She hasn’t traveled much by sea, but it turns out that she doesn’t have the same stomach for it as Stede did — does, she has to remind herself, as Stede does, because he’s still alive somewhere. She doesn’t care for it, but Doug had arranged for her to go to the island and sell some of her paintings. He’s even watching the kids, God bless him. She hopes he knows not to tell them the gory details of whatever’s about to happen.
Mary doesn’t know what’s about to happen. She’s trying not to think about it.
It’s a passenger ship, but she’s one of few women, and the only one traveling unaccompanied. Everyone else has husbands and lovers and children holding them near, but Mary doesn’t. Maybe that’s why they haven’t tied her hands yet. She’d asked about it, confusion and politeness overtaking common sense, and the tall man who’d been tying up the man next to her had paused and stammered and let her be.
The pirates move quickly. Some people get shot, and she does her best not to watch. Some more are wounded, and she tries to take advantage of the chaos to rip one of her skirts into bandages to give to the wounded, but that garners attention before long. So she stands still, by the rail of one of the ships, and does not sob, only waits.
It doesn’t occur to Mary to be afraid of Blackbeard, at least not at first, because that would be like fearing monsters under beds. Blackbeard is real, certainly, but there’s no reason for him to be pacing the deck of the ship Mary’s on. She watches him and thinks, absurdly: does this count as meeting a celebrity? It might as well.
“Captain,” someone called, and Blackbeard, fucking Blackbeard turns. There’s another man with a slight limp coming above deck. He’s been pillaging, Mary presumes. “We’ve got most of everything. Most of what’s left is art.”
“Art,” repeats Blackbeard, the derisive way that other people Mary knows might say cat piss or my late husband. “Anything we can sell?”
“Only if we lie about who painted it.”
“It’s pretty good,” says a person with longer hair and a broad-brimmed hat. The leather-wearing limping man gives them a withering look, which they ignore. “Get some decoration for the ship.”
“Blackbeard,” says the limping man, “doesn’t need decoration.”
He leans over menacingly. The person in the hat says, “Uh huh,” and doesn’t follow up.
Blackbeard, for his part, goes below decks. Neither of the other two seem to notice, busy glowering as they are, but Mary watches him go, tilting her head. It’s about the only way she can handle this situation: watching it with distant, cool curiosity and not thinking too closely about the stink of fear and sweat on everyone around her. People are crying.
She keeps her hands folded carefully behind her back and considers her options. Fighting: certainly not an option. Skewering her husband in his sleep is one thing, but this is quite another. Running: also likely not an option. She’d jump over the rail rather than take a bullet, but that’d be difficult in these skirts. Waiting, unfortunately, seems the only option available to her.
Breathe in, Mary. Think of Alma. Think of Louis. Breathe out. Think of Doug.
Breathe in. Think of Stede. Imagine his vengeance if she gets killed. He’d take it on principle and not love, the bastard, but she has some confidence that she’d be avenged nonetheless. Or she would, if the vengeance weren’t against fucking Blackbeard.
Speak of the devil, and he pops up from below decks. “Hands,” he says thoughtfully, “you think it’d be good for my image to get portraits done? Circulate images of the real Blackbeard?”
Hands, the man in the leather, raises his eyebrows very, very slowly. “If that’s what Blackbeard wants,” he answers, putting deliberate weight on the name.
Blackbeard frowns — the weight might be lost on Mary, but it’s not on him — and considers. At last he climbs the rest of the way above deck and surveys the hostages. His beard’s shorter than Mary was expecting, like it was shaved not long ago. And a lot of his face is covered in grease paint, which doesn’t do much other than making his features indistinct, more smoke than man, more bulk than smoke.
Contemplatively, Blackbeard says, “I think it’d be a good fuck-you to the English. Presenting a portrait of myself. Like I’m an equal of theirs, y’know? Those fancy fucks get portraits done.”
“If that’s what you want,” Hands says again, a little less emphasis behind it.
Mary figures out what’s about to happen a moment before it does. Paintings below deck. Who would’ve brought paintings? Someone who was going to Jamaica to paint.
Blackbeard does not smile, and his voice is not pleasant, and he says, “Which of you is Mary Allamby?”
God fucking damn it. She steps forward. “I don’t only do portraits, you know,” she says. Hands looks like he could kill her right now. Mary doesn’t particularly care. She knows how this is going to end. Hostage here, hostage with Blackbeard, it doesn’t matter either way. She might as well get one more painting in while she still has hands and consciousness with which to paint. “I have supplies below decks. Allow me to gather them.”
“I’ll go with her,” says the person in the hat. They don’t wait for Blackbeard’s approval: they step forward and take Mary by the shoulder, gently, more gently than she expected. “Congratulations, Captain. You’ve taken a hostage.”
“Not a very interesting hostage,” Mary mumbles as quietly as she can manage. Given that Blackbeard doesn’t shoot her in the chest immediately, she thinks it’s quiet enough. And given that the person guiding her away from the rest of the hostage snorts very, very softly, she’s parsing out the dynamics on this crew just fine.
“Right, Jim’s babysitting that one,” Hands says. “What about the rest of them?”
The person’s — Jim’s hand becomes a little more forceful, and they guide Mary below deck quickly. “Which is your cabin?”
Mary points. Jim doesn’t question her untied hands, only leads her there and closes the door behind both of them. Mary looks at Jim; Jim looks back evenly, unhappily.
“This isn’t a rescue,” Mary says after a moment. She’d hoped, but there’s no way out of this that wouldn’t result in Jim getting murdered by Blackbeard.
“No,” Jim agrees. “I’m here because if I were up there, I’d be part of whatever’s about to happen.”
“What’s about to happen?”
They look at Mary for another long moment, long enough that Mary’s imagination starts answering her own question, before saying, “What do you need?”
They gather supplies in silence. Jim doesn’t say anything when Mary slides a knife — a small dagger, Doug had insisted because he wanted her to have something just in case — in with some of her other painting supplies. When they go up, Jim leads the way, and then steers Mary carefully to the ladder to climb down onto the dinghy.
Blackbeard’s waiting in the dinghy, because of fucking course he is. He looks at her, and then at Jim, who’s managing most of the canvases and other supplies, and says, “You’re quite talented, you know.”
“I do know,” Mary says primly. “I assume you’re good at what you do as well, although I wouldn’t care to learn.”
And then the worst, most nightmarish, skin-crawlingly terrifying thing possible happens.
“I assure you,” he says, as Jim settles in next to Mary, as they prepare to sail away, “I’m incredibly good at what I do.”
The brig doesn’t feel terribly like a brig, and Mary is the only person there. She’s under moderately sturdy lock and key, and her supplies are kept in a separate room from her, which makes any daring escapes that much harder.
She spends the first evening weeping in shock, because it’s all setting in: she’s a hostage on Blackbeard’s ship, and she’s going to die here. She spends the night tossing and turning. Jim brings her food in the morning but doesn’t speak, and Mary’s beginning to believe that this is some kind of advanced psychological torture when the door swings open again.
And it’s Blackbeard, fucking Blackbeard, standing there. “Up,” he says, and Mary scrambles to her feet. When he turns and heads down a hallway, Jim is standing behind him. They gesture after him, so Mary follows, and Jim walks close behind her until they get to the captain’s quarters. Once the captain and Mary are both in the room, Jim stops outside. They whisper “Good luck,” barely loud enough to hear, and then close the doors, standing guard outside.
The captain’s quarters are… not what she was expecting. It’s all in disarray, things knocked over, but the things are undeniably nice. Posh. High quality. It’s a ridiculously well appointed suite, and it doesn’t seem like Blackbeard is the kind of man that goes in for well appointed suites, and she’s so busy looking around that she doesn’t realize Blackbeard is speaking until the rumble of his voice vanishes.
If she gets killed because she was busy looking and not listening, she’s going to be royally pissed. “Sorry,” she says, pasting on her best I’m-a-nice-lady smile, “could you repeat that?”
“I said,” Blackbeard says, “make me look fucking scary.”
It’s only now that Mary notices the easel is already set up, a little haphazard but overall correctly. Well enough to work with. There’s a canvas propped on it, and her roll with all her paints and brushes is laid neatly on a table next to it.
There’s no knife. Her eyes float across the supplies and then, before she can help it, to Blackbeard.
He pulls the knife out of a sheath, looking tremendously unamused. “Good try,” he says, in a way that suggests it was actually quite pitiful as far as tries go. “Did you get it from Jim?”
“From my fiance,” Mary snaps. She’s not so foolish as to ask for it back, but she feels a pang of regret. Doug will not be amused to hear that Blackbeard has stolen his knife.
Stede would be. If he’d ever had a knife for Blackbeard to steal.
“Fiancee,” Blackbeard repeats. “Don’t you society types get married off when you’re ten years old?”
“I’m a widow,” Mary answers shortly. This man doesn’t get to know about her life. About Stede. Sure enough, his face twists into something she can’t quite parse, but she doesn’t need to. “Hold still. I need to get a good look at you.”
Blackbeard’s face remains inscrutable, but she doesn’t particularly care. She’s starting to consider the practicalities of painting in here. It’s lovely, huge windows looking out at the sea, not that she wants to look too much at the sea. But that makes it that much harder to figure out where she wants to position him. “What do you want it to look like?”
His brows furrow. “Like a fucking portrait.”
“Yes, but…” she sighs. She can’t ask if he has favorite painters for reference, because the answer will certainly be no. “Alright. Is that what you’re wearing?”
He looks at his leathers and then up at her. “Yes.”
“And the grease paint?”
“And the grease paint.”
“Do you want to be sitting or doing something?”
Killing someone, Mary decides not to say. “Brandishing a sword or whatnot. It’d be very pirate-y. I can have you waving around a rapier or fighting someone.”
“Anyone could do that,” Blackbeard says dismissively. “I want you to paint me. Just as I am. And also fucking scary. Which I am.”
This is going to be horrific.
“How long do I have?” she says briskly. He looks confused, so she clarifies, “If you need this in two days or something like that, I’d like to know. Helps me figure out what to prioritize.”
“You have until I get tired of you,” he answers, with a dangerous nonchalance. “So pick wisely.”
Well. Any job worth doing is worth doing well, Mary figures. So she walks around him in a half circle. With no small amount of trepidation, she says, “Can I touch you?”
He doesn’t dignify that with a response, which, fair. She mimics a pose, a very portrait-y pose. “Do this.”
Blackbeard copies her, and it looks wrong. She frowns and changes poses. “Now this.”
“Why,” he snaps, “fucking Christ, can’t you just paint?”
“You want me to paint you,” she says. “And I need to see you in order to do it.”
He glares at her. Mary waits for the terror to rise up, but it doesn’t. She thinks that maybe the terror has realized that it’s going to be a constant part of the equation, and so it’s solidified, joining with her bones until it’s an indisputable part of her.
“You can throw me over if you’d like,” she says, and she’s surprised to realize she half means it. Poor Alma, poor Louis, poor Doug, but — but if this is the end she’s not going to die quivering or shaking. “But then you won’t have a portrait, and you will have wasted your time.”
Blackbeard looks at her for a long minute. “Mary,” he says, like he’s making sure that’s right. “Mary Albany?”
“Allamby,” she answers. She could do the whole widow-Bonnet thing, but it feels a little odd to lean into right now. He hadn’t taken kindly to the previous mention of marriage, so she’s not inclined to push. “If I have time, today we’re deciding the pose. Sketching starts tomorrow, painting the day after if we’re lucky. Got it?”
“How do people do this,” Blackbeard grumbles. But, importantly, he does not say no.
So Mary poses the infamous Blackbeard. She tries to have him standing. Sitting. Triumphant. Pensive. Intentionally terrifying, which is his suggestion, and Mary privately thinks it looks a bit silly, so she lies and says the lighting is bad for that one. And the light in the room is getting worse, which is going to be an actual problem before long.
Finally, as the light is getting too dim to keep going, he lies down on the settee, kicking his feet up on one of the arms. He pulls a sheathed dagger out and holds it up, examining it. “I’m getting impatient,” he says, but Mary barely hears, because — with his hair like that, yeah — and she can make the beard look fuller, and—
“Hold still,” she says. The sketch is done in a matter of minutes and, okay, it’s a little stylized. But the languidness of his body and the breadth of his shoulders lend themselves to style, something a little smoky. If he unsheathes the dagger it’ll glint just right. And there’s a look in his eyes that she can already feel her fingers itching to capture, and it’s not like other portraits and it’s a little artsy and he still looks like he can fucking kill her, and—
“Huh,” says Blackbeard when he looks at the sketch. “That’ll do. Better than the art in here already.” He flaps a hand at her. “Out. Jim’ll take you back to the brig. Leave everything here.”
Mary sets the supplies back on the table and takes one last glance around. She’d been distracted by the bare bookshelves and overturned tables, but she wants to see the art. There’s not much, unless you count the artfully-made doors and the wallpaper, but he must mean actual art. Art like—
—like the lighthouse that she painted for Stede.
Mary would like to say that she doesn’t understand. That she’s frozen. Perplexed. But she understands all at once. The decorations are very Stede, aren’t they? All the bookshelves. Blackbeard must’ve gotten rid of the books. Blackbeard must’ve changed everything. Because Blackbeard must’ve stolen Stede’s ship.
She barely remembers to leave. Jim’s waiting for her, and she doesn’t say anything, just lets them accompany her to the brig.
Stewing in silence in the brig lasts all night.
This is not true, although it seems like it might be. Mary is fairly sure that she’s going to sit in silence, with nothing but a plate of questionable food from Jim, until she can’t stay awake anymore.
She keeps thinking about Stede — which is something she doesn’t like to do, but she can’t stop it now. She’s twisting the timeline around in her brain. Had he left before meeting Blackbeard? Had he been allowed to live, just like she was? What had happened to the mysterious Ed? Why would Blackbeard keep the painting?
She’s stewing. But she’s not stewing so badly that she doesn’t notice when the ceiling opens above her and someone says, quite clearly, “Oh, fuck.”
Mary claps a hand over her mouth, trying her hardest to stifle the inevitable scream. There’s a man above her, swinging down from — is that a ceiling passageway? In a sailing ship?
He lands in front of her, looking cautious. The only reason Mary’s not bleeding terrified is because he looks like he expected her to be here just as much as she expected a man to swing down from the ceiling and land in her brig.
“Hi,” he says after a moment. “I’m not supposed to be here.”
“No,” Mary agrees. “Stowaway?”
“Of a sort. He tried to kill me.”
“Fucking Blackbeard,” he mutters, with a derision that surprises her. “Yeah.”
“Oh,” Mary says. “Well, he’s holding me hostage until I paint him.”
The man gapes indignantly. “I offered to draw him! I wrote tales of his exploits! My position on this ship was being the one that could read!”
“I can read.”
“He’s replacing me with you?”
“I think he’s going to kill me.”
“Yeah, you’re the new me.”
Mary nods, absorbing this. This is what she has to look forward to: ceiling passages. “I’m Mary.”
“How’d you get here, Lucius?”
“Well, Blackbeard threw me overboard,” Lucius says, with a surprising amount of nonchalance. “But as I was in the ocean trying not to drown, I hit a panel on the ship and it opened into a secret passage. The… the old captain, he had them built in.”
Mary’s heart skips a beat. “Stede?”
Lucius looks at her sharply. “How do you know Stede?”
“I married him. And I killed him.” At the look on Lucius’s face, “Not like that. Helped him fake his death. He wanted to get back to the seas and find someone he loved.”
“Who would that be?”
“Ed.” She watches Lucius’s face, and sure enough it twitches into a frown. “You know him? Stede seemed… attached.”
Lucius looks at her, mouth still working. At last he says, “Ed’s not here.”
Mary doesn’t know what that means. Frankly, she’s not sure she wants to know more. Instead she says, “I’m sorry. That you’re living in passages.”
He shrugs. “It could be worse,” he says, and strangely she thinks he means it. “One day I’ll kill the fucker or get off the boat. Haven’t decided which I’d rather do. Can we backtrack a minute, you were married to Stede?”
“A long time. We had kids.”
“Stede,” Lucius repeats disbelievingly, and Mary feels a very familiar pang of bitterness. “Had children? Multiple?”
”Stede Bonnet’s kids.” He pauses. “Oh, God, did Blackbeard kidnap them?”
“No,” Mary says, and she doesn’t feel better, no matter how badly she wishes she did. Alma and Louis are safe. “They’re in Barbados.”
Lucius exhales, clearly feeling the relief that Mary can’t. “You could always live in the passages with me.”
She gives him a skeptical look. Quickly he clarifies, “Just as a stopgap, till we can figure out a way off. Platonic passage-sharing, if you’d like.”
Mary lets out a long breath. “No. No, I’d rather do this. If I’m going to be here, I’m going to be here, not hiding.”
“Better you than me,” Lucius mutters. “Alright. I’d best let Jim and Frenchie know I’ve found you. I think they’re planning to break you out.”
She blinks. “They’re what?”
“They’re the last ones that worked with Stede.” Lucius grimaces. “I mean, the last ones that started with him. The last real ones. They’ve seen him and they’ve seen Blackbeard, and they want you out of here. I heard them talking.”
“Ah,” Mary says. Her throat feels tight, for reasons she can’t fully explain. “Thank you. All of you.”
“Can I tell them you were married to Stede?”
“If you want.”
“They’ll get a kick out of it, don’t worry.” Lucius looks up at the ceiling. “I was hoping to sleep here tonight, I like to rotate where I am, but seeing as I can’t—”
“Need a boost?”
So Mary does not stew alone. Partly because she’s not alone all night. Partly because, following Lucius, it’s that much harder to stew.
It is a bad idea to needle Blackbeard about her dead husband. But, given that Mary isn’t really on speaking terms with fear, fight-or-flight, or good instincts, she can’t help herself.
It’s a little every day, rather than all at once. On the first day, it’s pressing for the sake of pressing. “Where did you get the boat?” she asks, just to gauge.
He doesn’t answer for some minutes, and then says, “Stole it.”
“Are you aware I’m a pirate?”
“Must’ve missed that,” Mary mumbles. Blackbeard doesn’t throw his dagger at her, but she isn’t inclined to keep pushing, so she stops.
That night she properly meets Frenchie, the one who hadn’t tied her hands when they took her hostage. He brings her food and then sits down in the brig with her and asks a series of curious, jovial questions about what it was like living with Stede. He also says that Lucius says hi, and that they’re going to get her out of here alive no matter what. He says it with conviction that reminds her… of Stede, honestly. Which is odd, and more than a little encouraging.
Day two is big shapes, blobs of color on a canvas. It’s also trying to learn about Stede-at-sea, something that Mary has never been able to wrap her head around. Not even when she saw him pull a knife at her gallery opening, not even when he told stories.
The stories that Blackbeard tells about Stede are: none. He does not answer any of the questions about the old captain. But he answers questions about where he got his knife, and why he decided to grow his beard out, although not why he shaved it again.
Night two is Jim, sitting in the brig with paper that they stole from Blackbeard’s cabin at some point. They sit and draw diagrams of the ship and all the passages Lucius knows, the best ways to get to the dinghy, over and over and over until Mary knows them by heart.
Jim also asks about the kids and Doug. They don’t explain why, and Mary doesn’t want to know. But their interest seems genuine, so she tells them everything she can. At least this way someone other than her can carry their memory.
The third day, while Mary is trying to get the big blocks of lighting and shadow down, is when Blackbeard finally says, “You can stop with this twenty-questions act.”
“I’m not acting, I’m asking,” Mary says primly. “I’m passing the time.”
“Isn’t it easier for you if I don’t move?”
“I suppose, but—”
“Mary Allamby,” Blackbeard says, rolling the words around in his mouth like brandy. “You know something?”
“If you’re trying to act like you’re not The Widow Bonnet, it’d be best if you threw out everything with that name on it before changing your name.”
Mary pauses for a beat, trying to decide if there’s any way out of this. There’s not, of course: he’s between her and the windows, Jim is on the other side of the door, and she’s not a good enough liar to get out of this. So she takes a breath and says, “What’d I forget to get rid of?”
“You had a flier tucked in with your supplies that had The Widow Bonnet printed on it.”
“But you didn’t recognize me on sight or anything.”
Blackbeard gives her a look — not menacing or even irritated, just like he would roll his eyes if she were worth the effort. “I didn’t have to.”
“So you’ve known as long as I’ve been painting you.”
“That and you’ve asking constant questions about Captain Bonnet.”
Mary hums. “I can be curious.”
“He’s gone,” Blackbeard says. He’s watching her now, she can feel it, pinning her in place. “You know that.”
“I do,” she agrees. There’s plenty that she could say: that she was happier with him gone, that she helped him fake his death, that she hopes he comes back and somehow finds it in him to skewer Blackbeard to a goddamn table. But none of that is helpful and some of it is likely to result in her being killed, so she offers for a slightly milder, “What happened?”
“Don’t ask me that,” Blackbeard says, and there’s a note to it that — well. She doesn’t want to hear the mere mortal emotion in his voice, nothing so simple as sadness. But she thinks that might be what it is.
“Okay,” Mary says, and she keeps painting.
She asks Jim the same question that night, though, between eating and reviewing escape plans when the ship docks in a few days. “What happened to Stede?” she says, and Jim pauses, visibly, for a painful long while.
“I don’t know,” they say at last, and Mary believes them. “I left for a while. When I came back, he and Ed were gone. And then Ed was fine for a while, a little torn up but still himself, and then…” Jim shakes their head. “Blackbeard got rid of the crew. Everyone except me and Frenchie.”
Mary nods, absorbing this. “What was Ed like?”
Jim frowns slightly. “Why do you want to know?”
“Stede…” she swallows. “After whatever happened. He came to see me, and eventually he said that he was in love with somebody named Ed, and he had to get back. I’d hoped he would be back, but obviously not. And I was hoping to meet Ed, but obviously I haven’t.”
She takes a couple drinks of water, waiting for Jim to cave. Or, barring that, waiting for herself to cave in the face of Jim’s silence and ask something about escape plans so they don’t have to think about Ed. But after a minute, Jim says, “He was obsessed with Stede.”
Mary can’t help but smile. “Yeah?”
“You should ask Lucius about that, he spent the most time with the both of them. Has stories, too.” Jim shakes their head and mutters something in Spanish, too quick for Mary to even hope to follow. “But Ed and Stede took turns following each other around like puppies. It was horrible to watch.”
“I’d give anything to see that.”
“Me, too,” Jim murmurs, and Mary knows that they mean something else Probably something about the good old days. She wants to ask about Stede’s old crew. About what it was like working for him. About if Jim liked him, knew him, trusted him. But all of that feels pointless to ask.
Sometimes Mary thinks she never knew Stede. Not really. She could’ve been friends with him, but they didn’t love each other, not in the way of husbands and wives nor brothers and sisters nor even particularly good friends. But she knows him enough to know that however misguided his intentions were, he loved his crew. He would’ve liked Jim, and Frenchie, and he undoubtedly would’ve loved Lucius.
“I wish I could’ve met Ed,” she says at last.
Jim’s face settles into something a little colder, a little more guarded. “Let’s go over the map again,” they say, and Mary doesn’t groan, because this is good to know. It is.
On the fourth day Blackbeard asks Mary questions.
She answers so absently that she barely registers what she’s saying. She’s doing detail work today, trying to get the sunlight exactly right, making sure that the beard is long enough because he wants it to be longer in the portrait than it actually is.
So she answers his questions. What it was like living with Stede in a manor. What it was like raising children with him. His wardrobe at home, most of which he packed up and took with him when he fled to sea. Mary doesn’t mind answering, especially because Blackbeard seems marginally less likely to murder her now that he’s asking about her legally-dead husband.
At the end of the day he comes to stand behind her, looking at the portrait. Mary is completely relaxed and does not at all feel like there’s a predator behind her, certainly, as he takes his time examining it.
Finally, he nods. “You’re good at this.”
“I don’t suppose you have a permanent opening for a resident artist,” Mary says, a joke that falls flat. Surely by now if anyone survived that initial attack they would’ve sent word to Doug. He’ll know any day now. And she’d rather like to get back to her life and not become a pirate.
“We had an artist,” Blackbeard says, and Lucius’s face flashes into Mary’s mind. “You’re even less cut out for this job than he was. And that’s saying something.”
“I’d be quite bad at it,” Mary says gamely. “Except for the parts I’m good at.”
Blackbeard blinks at her, and for a second his face is unguarded and soft and confused and she doesn’t understand, until she tries to imagine the words in Stede’s voice and can hear them perfectly. Maybe it’s not something he actually said but it feels like him. Like something that she wouldn’t have said without knowing him. She hates that. She hates that she’s still using his words even if they’re not his.
And evidently Blackbeard hates it too. Which is strange, if he’d just stolen Stede’s ship and crew out from under him.
She clears her throat. “Should be done in a couple days.”
“Out,” Blackbeard says, and Mary practically flies towards the door.
Lucius visits that night, and so does Frenchie, and the two of them mostly murmur to each other as Jim stands guard and occasionally provides input from the door.
Mary stares down at her plate of not-very-good bread and three orange slices. There is a piece of this puzzle that she has not seen. Some kind of central thing that she doesn’t understand. Stede and Ed left together, and Stede left Ed, and that she understands. And Ed was on the crew and he’s gone, left with the rest of the crew, but how does Blackbeard fit in, and when did he meet Stede? Was he the one that kicked off Stede and Ed? And his face when she reminded him of Stede, that was—
—and then she thinks about Stede talking incessantly about pirates, saying Blackbeard, Edward Teach, and—
“Blackbeard is Ed,” she says, and the conversation slams to a halt around her. She feels almost like she did when she was much younger and got kicked in the head by a horse, and for a minute it hadn’t even hurt. The only thing that she could think was that she had been kicked by a horse and it was the loudest thing she’d ever felt.
Finally, Lucius ventures a tentative, “Does it matter?”
It matters very deeply that Stede is in love with fucking Blackbeard. But Mary’s not up for that conversation right now, so she says, “Just didn’t put it together.”
“Ed was better,” Frenchie says. It’s strange how completely separate Ed and Blackbeard are to these people. It’s a perfect cleavage between the two. “Crashed a party with him and Stede once. Grand time. Stede used gossip to light everything on fire.”
Mary slots that tidbit into a mental box marked Things I Didn’t Know Stede Could Do. “And they—”
“They were annoying,” Lucius says. “And Blackbeard tried to kill me, so.”
She nods and waits, because that seems like it should be the end of that. And sure enough after a minute Frenchie says something to Lucius that she doesn’t understand, some kind of remember-that-time-when, and they’re off to a normal conversation.
Ed, she remembers Stede saying, so warm and jubilant and wide-eyed and like nothing she had ever seen before. Someone that loved him for all he was. The man that’s holding her hostage. His name’s Ed.
Mary waits as long as she can the next day — so maybe half an hour, all told — before saying, “So you’re Ed.”
The knife lands in the door behind Mary with such a resonant thud that she doesn’t even realize it flew past her head at first. Blackbeard gets to his feet and walks past her, veering a little too close, to pull it out of the wood. When he passes by her again he stops, hovering behind her, and this time the fear roars to life inside Mary’s veins, singing out abort abort danger danger danger.
“I’m Blackbeard,” he says.
“Blackbeard,” she agrees hastily. That first day, Hands had said something about what Blackbeard wants, and she thinks she understands now. Blackbeard is not Ed. Blackbeard is the one holding her hostage. Ed is the one that Stede is in love with. Blackbeard wouldn’t want a portrait, but Ed… might. She doesn’t know. She couldn’t ask anyone.
She could stop now, while she’s ahead. While she’s safe. But her death warrant was signed when she stepped on the ship. She has no life to save. Doug would take the kids, she thinks, and that’s the last thing she has to worry about. So there is no self-preservation to stop her from saying, “He was in love with you.”
She half expects him to cut her head off. Instead he scoffs. “You’ve been talking to Jim, then?”
“I don’t see what—”
“Or Frenchie? Or Lucius?”
Mary freezes. Blackbeard laughs this time, not a particularly mirthful sound. “He thinks I don’t know he’s still crawling around? Stede showed me all the fucking passages. He loved this damn ship, he wanted to show it off.”
He flops back on the settee, not in the portrait pose, but Mary can’t reprimand him. She’s frozen. For all her efforts, this is the first time that she’s gotten Blackbeard to say anything meaningful about her husband.
“I could kill him,” he continues, and it takes her a second to remember he means Lucius, not Stede. “Could kill Frenchie too. Jim, probably not, I like Jim. They understand.”
Mary swallows. “Understand?” she repeats, voice weaker than she’d like.
“The difference between who you are and what you have to do.”
She’s not entirely sure what that means, but she nods anyway. “I haven’t been talking to any of them about you and Stede.”
“No? That’s surprising. They’re a bunch of fucking awful gossips, that lot. Lucius especially.” Blackbeard flaps a hand like he’s miming someone talking. “Always something to say. Tried to sell me that, too. Said Stede was fond of me.”
“There you go, saying that with all the confidence, but—”
“He told me.”
Blackbeard goes still. She can see the wheels turning, the understanding beginning to flow. “He went to you.”
“He left m—” he pauses, fingers visibly tightening into fists. “For you.”
“Not for me,” Mary says thoughtfully. She wants him to lie back down, because she desperately needs to paint so she doesn’t have to think about any of this. “He left me first. Nothing but a note. When he came back it wasn’t about me, it was about being a husband and a father, and I happen to be the wife and mother in question.”
“So it was for you.”
“Do you know what size shoe I wear?”
“The fuck kind of a question is that?”
“Neither does Stede.” She nods at the painting of the lighthouse, and doesn’t miss the way Blackbeard’s jaw tightens. “I believed in that, you know. Guiding one another. Being beacons and rocks. It was aspirational for me. For him it was another rule to follow. So when he… whatever happened, he came back to me, because that’s what men like him do.”
“There are no men like Stede Bonnet,” Blackbeard murmurs, so quietly that Mary’s not sure she was meant to hear it. “And I assume I’m interrupting your marital bliss by keeping you aboard?”
Mary snorts, louder than she intends to. Blackbeard arches an eyebrow, and she shakes her head. “Actually, I was so mad when he came back I tried to kill him.”
“You,” Blackbeard says tonelessly.
“Me,” Mary says, with perhaps more pride than is called for. “We ended up faking his death instead. He always intended to come back and find you, but I suppose there are steps you have to take. He only had a dinghy. Probably needed something bigger.”
“You mean he intended to come back for the ship,” he says, an odd, stiff note to it.
She shakes her head. “You.”
“Ed,” she says, and she can still hear Stede’s voice saying the name, the quiet wonder, the loveliest syllable in the world when he said it. “He wanted to find Ed.”
“Ed’s gone,” says Blackbeard, sounding the least certain she’s ever heard.
Mary shrugs. “Maybe,” she says. “I wouldn’t know. I never met him. But you’re a right arse and Stede won’t like you very much. Maybe what he needs is somewhere in the middle, between Blackbeard and Ed. Lord knows I never understood Stede. But if you did, or if Ed did, that’s what he needs. Someone who understands.”
Blackbeard just looks at her, completely unreadable with the grease paint and the silence. At last he opens his mouth, but then the door bangs open. He rises to his feet. “Jim—”
“We’re being boarded,” Jim says curtly. “And yes, they know who we are. They know our flag.”
“Who the fuck would be stupid enough,” Blackbeard says, and Mary figures out the answer, but he doesn’t seem to. “To board this ship? My goddamn ship? They’re fucking boarding Blackbeard’s fucking ship?”
“Apparently,” Jim says, not sounding particularly concerned. “Where do you want Mary?”
The right answer is the brig. But maybe Blackbeard has figured out who this is, too, because he answers, “With you.” And then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a knife, Doug’s knife, and sets it deliberately on the tray where Mary keeps her paints. “Keep in mind that even if you’re wielding this, I’m more likely to kill you with it than the other way around.”
“Understood,” Mary says politely. She sets down her brush and picks up the knife, trying to adjust to the weight of it in her hand. Blackbeard storms out past them, so she turns to Jim. “What’s it like?”
“Have you ever seen a dead body?”
“You got a strong stomach?”
Jim nods. “You stick with me,” they say, voice low and firm. “Do you understand? And if I have to leave your side, you stay where I leave you until I come back.”
“He knows Lucius is alive,” Mary says. It’s hardly the most pressing matter, but Jim should know.
They pause and then shake their head. “That’s a problem for after whatever’s about to happen.”
Mary follows Jim up to the deck with an abundance of caution. There are dead bodies everywhere. She tries not to look; most of the crew didn’t interact with her, so she doesn’t recognize most of them. But some of them look young. One of them is Hands, the first mate, sprawled down the stairs. Jim kicks him as they go up. “Behind me,” they say, and Mary creeps along behind them.
She hears Stede’s voice first, even though she can’t make out the words. It’s rougher than she remembers, but undeniably him. He says something and then pauses, and there’s silence, and he continues like the gap was never there.
“He’s going to get killed,” Jim says.
Mary frowns. “I’d rather he didn’t.”
“No, me too, I just mean—” Jim shakes their head. “Blackbeard’s a mean son of a bitch.”
“Stede hasn’t. I don’t think he ever did.”
Mary thinks, unbidden, about the gallery opening, about the roar of motion thud knife blood before Stede seemed to even think about it. She doesn’t answer Jim.
“I’m not taking my ship back today,” Stede’s voice drifts over, as the two of them finally get within eyeshot. “This is a warning. But it isn’t the end. She’ll be mine again, one day.”
She can see Stede now, and — god, it’s really something, isn’t it? She was married to him for nearly a decade and she still doesn’t think she’s ever seen him like this. Back straight, shoulders broad, conviction in his voice. Sword at the ready. Looking at Blackbeard, only Blackbeard, shrewd and cautious and impossibly tender.
And after an achingly long silence, Blackbeard replies, “I’d like to see you try.”
Stede’s face splits into a smile, hopeful and determined and the smallest bit grim. He understands, Mary thinks. He understands more than he looks like he would. “Crew,” he calls, “let’s get back to— Mary? ”
She blinks. He’s looking right at her, dumbfounded. And then everyone on the deck is looking at her and Jim.
“Ta,” she says weakly. “Got kidnapped, don’t mind me.”
“You kidnapped—” he turns back to Blackbeard. “You kidnapped my wife?”
“Wanted a portrait done,” Blackbeard answers. “Move along, Bonnet.”
“Edward!” He gestures enthusiastically between the two of them. “My wife!”
“It was an accident,” Mary says. “I was sailing to Jamaica. And I’m not your wife anymore, I’m your widow.”
“It’s strange saying that, given that I’m alive.”
“Legally I’m your widow, and we were barely married in the first place.”
Stede halfway smiles at that. “I suppose not. How are the kids?”
“Just fine, Doug’s with them while I’m gone.”
“Doug! How’s he doing?”
“He’s quite well, actually, he—”
“Hey,” Blackbeard says sharply. “Are you stealing my hostage or aren’t you?”
“I’m staying with whoever gives me a lift to Jamaica,” Mary snaps. Jim stifles a laugh. “Or whoever does the most pointing at me with a sword. I’m not picky.”
“We can…” Stede pauses. “We’re going the opposite direction of Jamaica.”
“No, just towards the ocean.”
Mary’s heart sinks. “Well—”
“Oh, for God’s sakes,” Blackbeard snaps. “You finish the portrait and I’ll drop you at whatever island you’d like and then I never speak to you again.”
“Deal,” Mary says instantly. Goodness, look at her, cutting deals with Blackbeard. “Stede, lovely seeing you.”
“You too,” Stede says, like he only half means it. He’s busy looking at Blackbeard, face full of guarded hope. “Don’t suppose we could chat a little longer.”
“You feel like pressing your luck?”
Blackbeard looks at him a little longer. Jim mutters something under their breath in Spanish. Some of Stede’s crew look between the two of them cautiously.
“Off my fucking boat,” he says at last. “When you’re ready to actually take her back, we can talk.”
“I look forward to it,” Stede says, and he does, Mary can tell he does. She thinks Blackbeard might too.
Frenchie leaves with Stede. Lucius does too, although Mary’s not sure how. She never sees him on deck, but she also doesn’t see him again. Jim stays, alongside one of the men from Stede’s crew who offers no small amount of tearful goodbyes. Mary doesn’t bother asking why Jim would stay. She doesn’t think it’s because of her, and that’s the thing that matters most.
The portrait is, if Mary does say so herself, spectacular. It walks the line between menacing and alluring, human and inhuman. Ed and Blackbeard, even, although she wouldn’t say that.
“This isn’t very threatening,” Blackbeard says, surveying the finished product.
“Then throw me overboard and be done with it,” Mary sighs. She doesn’t mean it; she’s beginning to imagine a life off this boat again, a life on solid ground where she’s not constantly pitching this way and that, a life with Louis and Alma and Doug that is blessedly and totally free of pirates.
And then Blackbeard laughs, one short, sharp bark like it’s being punched out of him. “You’re intolerable,” he says. If Mary didn’t know better, she’d think his tone is admiring.
“You are too,” she says.
“We arrive in Barbados tomorrow,” he says, and she looks sharply at him. “Long enough for you to disembark and us to get supplies.”
“Don’t question the way I work.”
Mary considers rolling her eyes, but at the end of the day that’s still Blackbeard and she’s still on his ship, so she decides against it. “Well, I appreciate it.”
“Fuck you,” Blackbeard says, which Mary takes as her cue to leave.
And then he does. Leave her in Barbados, that is. Jim presses a small purse into her hands and murmurs a goodbye, and then Mary’s standing on the docks, on dry land for the first time in over a week. She still has her supplies. She still has Doug’s knife.
Mary takes a deep breath and starts walking towards the village nearby. She’s going to have some excellent stories when she gets home.