Israel Hands was born three days from the full moon on the feast day of an impaled martyrer and was cursed forever after.
His father Jacob, a naval officer and not a particularly good one, who was born under Jude the Apostle, proclaimed the fortune and the future of being born under a soldier saint.
His mother Elizabeth, a sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued woman from Bristol who had nearly bled out from the ordeal, said nothing.
Jacob Hands was gone often, and preferable that way. His tales of seafaring were inflated at best, his defense of the cargo on the ships his unit escorted weak and half hearted. He licked the boots of a king on the other side of the world as if it were honorable. He offered trinkets to make up for low wages and lied about their origins. He talked and talked and talked and said nothing.
Izzy and Elizabeth exchanged glances over dinner. Izzy and Elizabeth exchanged glances often. It was their secret language. They had perfected the art of derision without words. Jacob filled their dining room table with lies and stories and unearned bombast, and Elizabeth and Izzy shared a quick flick of their eyes and a flare of their nostrils and said everything.
Jacob Hands did two worthwhile things in his miserable life.
One: he gave Izzy his blade, on the evening of his thirteenth birthday, under the watchful eye of his mother.
Two: he taught him how to use it.
(There was a third useful thing that Jacob Hands did with that sword, years later, which was to have the grace to die quickly upon it instead of waiting for infection to take over. But that was a gift in death, not in life.)
They had a funeral at sea, just the two of them, after the death certificates had been completed in dishonest ink, on a borrowed boat, a couple leagues out to sea. Elizabeth was adequate at managing small sails, and Izzy navigated by the angle of the sun between his thumb and forefinger as she had taught him. They dropped anchor, stood together, threw the wrapped body overboard, and watched it sink in silence. The world was no poorer for it.
They sailed back. Izzy returned the boat. They went home and had dinner, sat across the table from each other, using spices from the death payout. They exchanged glances and forgot that words were within their reach. Or perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps they were pointless. They had never needed them before.
“I’ll watch the shore,” Elizabeth said. “In case you wash up dead.”
“Least I’m honest about it.”
“What time are you leaving tomorrow?”
“‘Round about two in the morning. Ship’s leaving with a couple other lads.”
“I’ll make a scene in town, if you like.”
“Nah. Doubt anyone’ll notice I’m gone, all the ado about him.”
“Is there a point to telling you to be careful?”
“Don’t think so.”
“I could do it anyway.”
“You’ve never lied to me before.”
Elizabeth inclined her head, once. “Please try not to die, Israel.”
She turned, then, and looked him up and down, looking for his tells. But he had never lied to her before either. Instead she leaned over and kissed his cheek, near the corner of his eye, and when she sat back down, Izzy could see in her face that she had already said goodbye to him as well.
(He saw her twice more in his life after that night, from far away, across beaches and city centers. They met eyes. They exchanged glances. It was enough. It was all they had ever needed.)
The ship washes up on the Republic of Pirates. A cesspool, to be certain, but not an unbearable one. Eyes drag across Izzy like farmers assessing livestock as he swaggers in, and he lets them. They judge him on the shirt on his back, the sword on his hip, how good he might be at hoisting sails or sucking cock or navigating in choppy waters. He lets them. He’s young, but he’s not stupid. He doesn’t need the best captain just yet. He just needs an interested one. He’ll work his way up from there.
He gets picked up by a captain called Murphy, son of an involuntary Irish indenture, priced out of Bridgetown for a tattoo of a crucifix on one forearm. He has to Hell or to Connaught across his collarbones – an offer made to his father, who chose Connaught, and then had Hell chosen for him instead. He is an adept navigator, but a weak swordsman, fingers stained and gnarled from a past life of work. He teaches Izzy to read the degrees of the ocean with his fist, to chart a course by a finger’s width, to distinguish the heavens from the stars.
He lasts a year.
Izzy Hands is not suicidal. He believes in loyalty, but not in lost causes. When they get boarded with cannons in their hull and stolen muskets in their faces and Murphy on his knees, three bayonets at the base of his neck, it’s not a hard decision to walk across a plank bridge to the other side.
He earns his keep on the next ship. He puts in the hours and keeps his mouth shut. A couple other men on the ship don’t speak English but they do speak his language, and they have full conversations in a few quick glances across the deck. They teach others and hum in unison as the captain prowls around the ship, sending them on yet another unsuccessful trip to Grenada. The captain grows paranoid and the hums grow louder.
They sustain losses in Grenada. They lose men. They lose cargo. It’s possible one box had the captain inside of it. It’s hard to say. There’s no mutiny plan to speak of if no one ever speaks.
They sail on their own. A new captain is elected. He takes them north. They sail. They fight. They loot swords from bodies and distribute them. Izzy keeps his own, tending to it with oil and leather straps every night. He takes their guns, learns to shoot off the ends of the boat with the rest of the crew, because he has to. But a gun is a gun. A blade is a man. Gunpowder is chemical, made the same. The balance of steel is unique.
It’s bloody work. Young pirates, fresh faced and eager for treachery, keep notches in their belts to count their kills. Izzy Hands has taken enough desperate lives by now that he no longer bothers with the scraps.
This time, they last a few months. They get boarded. They get overtaken. The captain’s throat colors the ocean red. Izzy watches him as he dies. They make eye contact. They hold it until eyelids interrupt.
This one stings. But Izzy knows only how to survive, not how to grieve, so he walks across another plank bridge with his hands on his head and starts all over again.
It goes like that, several times over. Crewmates die. Captains die. It stings. It aches. It hurts. It’s strange. Izzy looks around and everyone’s eyes are downcast. Mourning. They won’t fucking look at him. He has no idea what to say.
Blackbeard’s flag feels like epiphany. Clarity. There is only one thing to do. They surrender, throw up a white flag, and get boarded. A monster climbs up onto the decks and lines them all up and stares them all down. He chooses four of them, the most competent looking ones. He chooses Izzy. He sails them over to the Queen Anne’s Revenge with hands low on their backs so they don’t turn around when a dozen pistols fire off behind them. Izzy stiffens and looks up. He looks at Blackbeard. He is not prepared for when Blackbeard looks back.
Izzy searches his face with his eyes, pupils darting frantically around. Blackbeard lets him, and then gives him a calm smile and a shove toward the ladder. “Up you get, Mr. Hands.”
He hoists himself up the ship’s ladder into a different world.
Life on Blackbeard’s ship is hard. The work is hard. The battles are hard. The men are hard. Their souls are hard.
The structure is good. Clear. Do your job. Stay alive. Defend your captain and crew at all costs. Stay out of Blackbeard’s fucking way. If he says jump, you should already know how high.
He makes himself useful. Takes watches during the day when the sun glints off the water and burns his eyes. Learns the insides of the ship, from the loot down to each man’s knife and pistol, what caliber of bullet they use. He is ruthless in battle. He takes care of his crew.
He lives. Most of them do. He makes it six months and he is still alive.
The crew trusts him to know things, which is better than anything else they could trust him with. He teaches them to navigate, the newer ones who turned to piracy because they had no other choice. He spars with them, corrects their dueling stances, puts daggers in their off hands. He makes himself indispensable, knowledgeable, terrifying, cutthroat. The only things that truly matter on board. When people meet his gaze, they learn to see only one thing.
Piracy is an exhausting gig, from the sun if nothing else, and sleep is a rare and precious commodity these days. Those who aren’t assigned night watch would do well to seek unconsciousness the second they find a vaguely horizontal surface, and cling to it until the sun hits the horizon again. In truth, that’s what most of the crew are doing, all but a scant handful slung in hammocks and wrapped up between multinational cargo boxes, and if Izzy were a wiser man, he would probably have joined them an hour ago.
Instead, he scuffs the fresh-cleaned deck with the same bootsteps, back and forth, back and forth, step and lunge and stab and back again in the moonlight. He’s never liked his pistol. A pistol is a machine, complicated and prone to breaking. A blade is nothing more than the extension of a man, the extension of his will. It suffers no need for pageantry; it needs only a deft hand and a whetstone and a bit of maintenance. His sword feels so natural in his palm that it’s unthinkable he was born without it. It comes as easily as breathing, and with as much fanfare. Izzy, with his steel blade and his steel heart, stabs at nothing, stabs at memories, stabs at the future, over and over, committing the movements to his soul.
Some men slash their swords; Izzy blocks and dodges, blocks and dodges. Some men stab their swords; Izzy twists away, uses the momentum, takes his chances on the memories of enemies who have darkened these decks. Some men have their backs turned; Izzy has no care for honor, whatever that means on a pirate ship. A blade through the back is one less threat to the crew, one less blow to duck, one less chance of yet another burial at sea and a bottle’s worth of rum wasted, poured out to their memory.
He should be resting. He really should. His bruised ribs are furious; his joints perpetually ache; his eyes are dark like he’s smudged kohl under them. And still, here he is. To spend the night drinking and playing cards or dice is unthinkable; to spend the night curled up against someone’s chest after a fuck, opening up weaknesses like wounds, is a disgrace. To make a life aboard a pirate ship like it’s a homestead instead of a tool, soft and permanent– the waves rock the boat, and Izzy’s boot shifts a scant inch as he rights himself again. A pirate ship is the most impermanent thing in the world.
He trains every night, religiously. Battle or not, wounded or not, Izzy finds himself on the deck in the dark, practicing and practicing and practicing. He probably doesn’t need it, he’s the best swordsman on deck bar none. But it’s all he knows.
It’s dark on deck and the moon is bright overhead, blotting out a great deal of everything that is not the floor, so Izzy does not see the figure on the upper deck, leaning over the rails and watching him. He does not see it that night, or the night after, or for many nights after that, god knows how many. He doesn’t notice until he does, until a low lantern catches just right, casting a twisted shadow over Izzy’s shoulder. He whirls around and looks up, and Blackbeard looks back. Their eyes meet.
Blackbeard gives a little wave.
Izzy’s hand waves back with no consideration to how fucking stupid that must look. Blackbeard laughs at that; Izzy sees rather than hears it, and his chest tightens up on itself like a sailor’s knot. He searches that gaze, those eyes, glinting in the lamplight, and finds no derision, only amusement. Only something warm, some spark, hot in the night like a beacon.
Blackbeard inclines his head. Go on, then.
Izzy inclines his own back. Yes sir.
In the dark, the cut of the blade feels like consecration.
Izzy trains. Sometimes Blackbeard watches from the upper deck. Sometimes he watches from the railings, one arm wrapped around the ropes to keep from falling overboard. Sometimes he joins in. Sometimes he’s silent. Izzy takes it all for the benediction that it is.
“Here. Take this,” Blackbeard says one night, leaning forward from the barrel he’s sitting on. He holds out a thin strip of fabric, the type the boys wrap around their necks to stave off the worst of sunburn. “Put it on.”
Izzy takes the fabric without question, but hesitates – just for a second, just for a second, god, but a second is too long for this–
“Around your eyes,” Blackbeard prompts.
“Yes, Izzy?” Blackbeard says pleasantly.
Izzy looks back at him. Blackbeard gives him a small smile, the corner of his eyes crinkled, his eyebrows arched a bit. He stands up. His hand rests on his blade.
(Izzy Hands is not suicidal.)
He takes a breath and he reaches up and winds the fabric twice around his head and tucks the ends underneath the layers. The ocean is very loud in his ears. It sounds like panic.
“Brilliant.” Blackbeard takes a step, and another, drifting around Izzy’s right. Without sight, Izzy strains to know anything at all, to map out the deck the way he knows it to be and to fit Blackbeard into it. He knows– he thinks– Blackbeard’s eyes must be on him, raking down his back, looking for god knows what. Obedience? Fear? Izzy will offer both of those to him in spades. His heart is hammering against the inside of his sternum. His body tenses and relaxes in turns, waiting for the blade and reminding himself the impact will hurt less if he loosens up.
“Where am I now?” Blackbeard asks from somewhere over Izzy’s left shoulder. His voice is light, bordering on teasing.
“You’re behind me, sir.”
“Quite right.” Blackbeard goes back to his slow pacing, granting Izzy a precious moment to blink, bewildered, into his blindfold. The steps slowly circle back around to his front – fourteen steps, he counted, each one agonizingly slow, before they come to a stop, a couple feet away.
For a moment, there is silence between them, the waves the only backdrop to the moment. Then the slick sound of a blade being drawn– close by, right in front of him, Blackbeard’s blade, slipping out of its scabbard like silk, and Izzy’s hand is already at his own side, blade out and held in front of him, stance falling back to defensive, before he even realizes he’s done it.
There is quiet again, and then Blackbeard laughs. Izzy’s heart trips over itself in confusion, trying to calm down from its spike while ramping up again, because Blackbeard’s laugh when he has a sword out generally spells disaster for someone, but instead of a piercing pain in his chest, he feels a heavy clap of a hand against his arm.
“Just so, Izzy. Very good. One nil to you.”
Izzy’s lips form the words one nil and he is again afforded the opportunity to blink owlishly at where he thinks Blackbeard is. “What are we keeping score of?”
“That’s how proper duels are conducted, I think.”
“Are we dueling, sir?”
“Seems that way, doesn’t it.” Izzy can hear the grin in Blackbeard’s voice, can picture the slight mania in his eyes. His chest feels expansive, to have that turned upon him. To know it’s there, and to not be able to see it.
“Not sure I’ll be much of a challenger to you, like this.”
“I don’t mind bending the rules for you, just a bit.” The voice carries closer, and a rush of breath skates across Izzy’s skin. “You live, and you win.”
He steps back again. Footsteps– he’s turning, shifting his weight back and forth, next to that squeaky board that hasn’t gotten properly fixed yet, shifting, the sword twisting, Izzy can tell by the brush of skin against guard metal, and then a swish, loud in his oversensitive ears, coming directly from the right, a downward swing from above, and his sword is already there to meet it, arm moving with absolutely no input from his brain, keeping Blackbeard’s blade a scant inch from carving into the meat of his shoulder.
“You caught me,” Blackbeard purrs. His blade drags slowly against Izzy’s as it draws away – Izzy almost winces, it’s such a pain to get the good whetstones to fix the nicks – and then steps in front of him, a swish of fabric, a slippery slide of leather on leather, and the rip of air being bisected as a sword comes at him from the other direction, low, toward the belly, looking to disembowel. The clink as his sword bashes Blackbeard’s away is almost too loud, too ostentatious, draws too much attention to him in this helpless, blinded state, and yet it bubbles another pleased laugh out of Blackbeard and makes Izzy’s throat close up.
There’s another pause, heavy, clearly waiting to be filled, so Izzy swallows and says, “Is that two nil to me, then, sir?”
“Reckon you’ve earned that, mate,” Blackbeard agrees. He pushes at Izzy’s sword, and Izzy’s sword pushes back as if Izzy doesn’t have anything to do with it. He shoves it back, and in a split second, it’s coming again, the shift of Blackbead’s body, the sound of glove on hilt, the way the air parts like it’s the fucking Red Sea and Moses is trying to kill him. He catches it, feels the way the impact reverberates down into his own hand, pushes back and hears the sound of a body shift, back and then forward, the cut of the clothes, the cut of the blade, the clink of salvation when they collide, the breath that Blackbeard lets out each time that’s far louder than any of it.
He’s frozen in place, in the same defensive stance give or take an inch or two. The hits come faster now, but somehow they become easier to block. He learns the sound of Blackbeard’s sword, the way his elbow checks his hip and jostles his belt, the way his pistol rides unevenly against his thigh. He learns the shape of Blackbeard’s body through the sound of it, the blank space where the ocean isn’t, the way the space bends with the man when he thrusts forward and bends back when Izzy’s sword holds him at bay.
It’s odd. It makes Blackbeard seem… smaller. Manageable. The sea is enormous, and Blackbeard cuts out just a thin swathe of it. But Izzy is more attuned to that empty swathe right now that he has ever been to anything in his entire life. It doesn’t move an inch without his notice.
Blackbeard cuts at him, from the left, from the right, from above, from the middle, and Izzy cracks his knuckles open and bloody under his gloves, but he doesn’t shred his arms or spill his guts onto the deck. The hits come faster, almost rhythmic, the unexpected becoming expected, the patterns becoming clear, and when Blackbeard steps too close, Izzy’s instincts take over again and he shoots his hand forward and pierces flesh. Blackbeard hisses as he pulls back and Izzy almost backs down, almost rips the blindfold off so he can see the stars one last time.
Instead, he says, “Think that’s match point to me, boss.”
A beat again, a slow beat in which something happens but it’s too slow to know for sure, and then a tiny prick of pain erupts right between his eyebrows. The fabric jerks off and Izzy blinks to see Blackbeard flicking the blindfold away, onto the deck, with the tip of his sword, before looking back up. In the light of the moon, there’s a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead, and a bright sparkle of pleasure in his eyes.
“Think you’re correct, Mr. Hands. Well played.” He removes the hand that’s covering a wound in his hip and holds it out. His palm is shiny with blood.
Izzy looks at it. He looks up. Blackbeard’s eyes bore into him.
He takes it.
The blood is warm between them, wet and growing sticky. Blackbeard doesn’t shake, but holds Izzy’s hand tight, his grip just on the right side of too painful, whatever side that is. He stares Izzy down as he draws closer again, and Izzy’s chin raises automatically to keep his gaze as if he’s looking up at the sky.
“Good to know there’s someone who’s got my back,” Blackbeard says softly. “You never know what’s coming up behind you.”
“Yes, sir,” Izzy breathes.
“Can I count on you for that?”
“Of course, sir.”
“It’s Ed, you know. Edward.”
“Of course. Edward.”
“Good.” They stand there for a moment, until the blood coagulates a bit more, and to pull the grip away requires a hint of effort. Izzy’s fingers curl in automatically as his hand falls to his side, feeling the wetness in the palm of his glove and the way the blood is seeping in and starting to dry already. Blackbeard gives him an appraising look, then slides his sword back into its sheath. It’s almost deafening how loud it is, how tuned into it Izzy is, how he knows that he’ll never forget the sound of it as long as he lives, how it’s a part of him now.
Blackbeard gives him a nod, then swaggers off back toward the cabin to do god knows what, a low chatter among two men starting up as he passes. Izzy stays, standing still, rubbing the tips of his bloody fingers together with his eyes closed, and allows himself sixty seconds to let the sound of the ocean drown him.
Blackbeard is mad.
This is not news. Everybody knows this. From the colonies to Trinidad, the rumors have spread, the whispered sightings of a beast of a man.
The reputation carries them far, but it’s not always enough. It doesn’t give them immunity from casualties, from half rations when the weather is bad and it takes an extra week to make it to Nevis, from whispers under the cloak of night when their latest plans are, for lack of a more polite word, fucking mental and shit besides.
Dissent isn’t particularly uncommon on pirate ships. Izzy’s been on more than one that voted their captain down, back into the trenches with the rest of them until he got his shit together. But Blackbeard’s fleet has never been a democracy. When he makes plans, his fists turn to iron, and there is scarcely any dissuading him once they’ve set sights on a ship.
There are murmurs in the crew. Blackbeard is insane. He’s sick. He’s losing his touch, forgetting how to sail, forgetting the ropes he hangs them all with. He’s more beast than man, his tongue is silver, split down the middle and talking out of both sides of his mouth.
It comes to a head when they ground the ship on a small, rocky shelf of an islet coming around Cuba. It’s not a bad grounding, as groundings go. The damage is minor and nothing floods. They’ll be back up and moving soon, once the tide comes back in and they can shove it off of the rocks they’ve run up against. The ship will be absolutely fine.
“Fucking embarrassing, is what it is!” barks Renshaw, a pissant of a man with shaved down hair and coils of braided ink around his arms. The whole crew has filtered off the boat, hoping the weight differential would be enough to refloat. (It wasn’t.) They all stand around the front of the ship where it’s tucked against shallow cliffs, looking up at it with arms crossed, as if their collective irritation will enact some force of gravity. “Seven years I’ve been sailing the West Indies and I’ve never fucking grounded a ship.”
“Horseshit,” someone else calls.
“Amateur shit, more like. Fuck kind of captain can’t avoid an island half a mile wide?”
There are murmurs of agreement from a few of the crew, curses spit out by others.
“You ask me, Blackbeard’s fuckin’ past it,” Renshaw says. “Bleeding out half the crew for weeks and then beaching. Not even fucking here, is he? Pissed off right away.”
A strange, cold feeling ripples under Izzy’s skin. It takes a moment to figure out what it is. It’s rage, icy and deep, built into his spine, under his skin like spider web veins. It doesn’t spark and burn like anger usually does; it settles, crawls inside his chest and makes a home, scratches at the insides of his ribs like a demented heartbeat. The world tips slightly, just for a split second, land going sideways like he’s falling.
“We don’t even fucking need him,” Renshaw goes on. He’s walking now, back and forth like he’s preaching. “The flag does most of the work already.” The crew murmurs. A couple people shove each other; one punches another hard in the arm. “The mad cunt can’t even be bothered to be here. I say we just fucking leave him. See what a fucking tactical master he is then.”
“You shut your fucking mouth,” Izzy says. Everyone turns and looks at him, shifting back as one like a rippling wave to form a loose circle around the two of them.
“You fuck off, Hands,” Renshaw snaps back, disdain bare on his face. “Go run off and find your master. You can lick his boots until you both fucking die.”
Izzy Hands lives and dies by his blade. It ties his past to his present, his present to his future, his heartbeat to his own palms. It blocks the whims of fate, if he can just be a hair faster than them. It guides him truer than any compass, as it has for more than half his life. An extension of himself, a sharpened skeleton to build himself around like barnacles against rocks, shredding anyone who comes near.
He forgets it all in this moment, overwhelmed with fury, and smashes his fist straight into Renshaw’s eye socket instead.
A roar goes up among the crew as they crash to the ground, and suddenly, punches are flying all around them. Daggers are pulled, the sound of steel drawn from sheath louder than the waves. Renshaw scrambles back on his hands and feet like an insect; Izzy nearly crawls after him, half feral, and receives a kick in the jaw for his troubles. He jerks back, rolls over, hauls himself up with his hilt in his palm. Renshaw looks up at him and sneers. Izzy bares his teeth and stalks forward.
It feels a bit ironic, to be having this knock-down territorial war on dry land, but here they are. Renshaw’s crew of betrayers are the minority, but not incompetent fighters. If Izzy hadn’t heard the whispers building, he might not have been able to tell who was fighting on what side. They bludgeon each other, with fists and the butts of their pistols, arguing and screaming at each other in between blows, the split finally mediated by blunt violence.
Izzy and Renshaw, though. Eyes of the storm. In the middle of it all, they draw blades, face each other with loathing in their eyes, and shoot to kill. They swing at each other with no remorse, both deft hands with survival in their bones. Renshaw’s got principles, and Izzy’s got this icy cold crawling feeling climbing out of his mouth as he pushes Renshaw back and back and back, hissing, “Cowardly. Fucking. Bitch,” between every swing.
Izzy lunges to stab forward, and a searing pain shoots across the side of his neck instead. He lurches away, back into something heavy, as the pain gets sharper and thinner and pushes him up on his toes and he bumps into a body behind him. He glances up and everything around him goes still as Blackbeard slowly circles around him. The hilt of his knife is in his palm, and the last half an inch or so of the blade is inside Izzy’s throat.
“Explain,” Blackbeard says.
“We were– putting them down,” Izzy grits out, trying hard not to move any more than he absolutely has to, in case the blade slips into where it shouldn’t be. “Mutinous cunts. Going to maroon you and steal the ship. Just sail under the flag.”
“Were they, now.” The blade twists, just the tiniest fraction. Blood oozes down Izzy’s neck and pools in his collarbone, mixing with sweat. “Why’s that.”
“Think you’ve gone mad.”
“Well,” Blackbeard says. “That’s true, isn’t it?”
Izzy’s eyes dart back and forth between Blackbeard’s. Blackbeard’s eyes are dark and bordering on amusement.
“I’m glad you don’t mind that, Izzy.”
The blade withdraws and Blackbeard turns, and as he goes, the amusement in his gaze melts into cold, still anger. Everyone takes a step back as he steps forward, walking slowly up to the mutinous cunt in question, who backs up and backs up until he bumps into the bow of the ship.
“Hands is alright with it,” Blackbeard says coolly. He leans in slow, until his face is mere inches from the man’s. “What’s wrong with you.”
“You’re– you’re going to get us all killed,” Renshaw manages. He shrinks back against the wood of the ship. “These Spanish naval raids are insane.”
“Don’t recall there being a vote, mate.”
“This is suicidal.”
“Yeah. You’re right. This is.” Blackbeard rests one hand on Renshaw's hip, thumb rubbing little circles around one worn hole in his scabbard belt, and holds his shoulder with the other. “Do you suppose you’ve made your point?”
“Yes– yes, sir–”
“Good. Glad it’s out of your system. Reckon I’ll make mine now.”
That hand, that gentleness, turns sharp in the blink of an eye. Blackbeard jerks Renshaw’s blade out of its sheath, spins it around, and drives it hard through his belly. Renshaw shouts as he tries to get away, but Blackbeard keeps pushing, braces his feet on the ground and the heel of his palm on the base of the hilt and shoves until there’s a splintering of wood behind them and the guard jams into Renshaw flesh.
“No, don’t,” Renshaw begs, shaking violently. “Don’t kill me, just leave us here if you won’t stand down.”
“Shh, shh, shh.” Blackbeard reaches up to cup Renshaw's face in his hands, brushes one crimson-stained thumb over his mouth and presses his lips together. “I won’t. I won’t kill you. Nothing important in there. You won’t even bleed too badly. You’ll last for hours and hours while we’re docked. And you’ll be my perfect figurehead when we set sail again.”
Renshaw’s eyes widen and he spasms against the ship, but Blackbeard just hushes him once more, strokes the sweat off of his forehead, and steps away.
“Anyone else?” he calls, thumbs hooked in his belt as he turns to face the rest of them. “I’ll know.”
A quiet murmur ripples through the crew. Everyone keeps their heads bowed and their shoulders slumped.
“Find out the hard way, then,” Blackbeard says with a shrug. “You all could have made a nice little life on this rock.”
He looks around at all of them, one by one, and then turns to leave. He walks back, leaving faint red boot prints on the rock, and stops at Izzy’s side, each facing the opposite direction. His hand curls around Izzy’s bicep, grip painfully tight, and Izzy is pulled into his gravitational orbit. The cold thing inside him purrs.
“You know who they are?”
“Be a fun game for me to figure out,” Blackbeard says. “But you can have them after.”
“Of course. Thank you, sir.”
“Need you to watch this one. Keep him comfortable and on the sword. Don’t let anyone take him off. I want him singing when we set sail.”
Izzy’s eyes are locked on the sword in Renshaw's belly. Twin streaks of blood run down his shirt and trousers, thinner than one might expect from a gut wound. “Reckon he might fall off before we get going.”
“We’ll add a second right before we leave, for balance. If you’d like the honor.”
There goes that expansive feeling again, like his lungs are too big for his ribcage, like he’ll split apart with the weight of it, like his flesh can’t contain it all. He nods and says, “I would, sir.”
“Good man.” Blackbeard squeezes his arm, then lets go and walks forward, off toward something else on this little island, leaving the rest of them standing around, bloody and silent, watching him recede.
Izzy reaches up and swipes at the gash on his neck. The blood smears across his skin like paint, and he doesn’t mind it. He drops his hand back to the hilt of his own blade, looks around at them, and barks, “Fuck off, then, the lot of you.”
They do. They scatter in all directions, some slinking back to the ship to wait for the tide and some hiding down at the beaches. Izzy retrieves a flask of rum and sits down on the rocky ground, legs sprawled, and takes a swig as he watches Renshaw squirm and shift and whine against the sword in his body.
“Izzy,” Renshaw pleads. “This is mad.”
Izzy toasts him with the rum, takes a sip, and spits it at him. “Dog.”
“You’re the fucking dog. Look at you!”
“Don’t reckon I have to. I can see all I need from here.”
“You’re a fucked little maggot, Hands.”
“And you’re a pretty shite figurehead, Renshaw, but I suppose you’ll do.”
Blackbeard returns several hours later when the tide starts to lift. He looks the same, but when the crew starts loading up, there are a few less of them than when they had docked. Blackbeard’s gloves seem to be clean. But that could mean anything.
He hands Izzy another sword and Izzy goes down in front of the ship where Renshaw hangs limply, his breathing shallow, sweat and burn staining his face. He looks up when Izzy approaches, then down at the sword, and he looks relieved.
“Knock it off,” Izzy says. “I’m not here to put you out of your misery.”
“The opposite, for the most part.” He takes the sword and carefully lines it up, an even mirror of the other one for a better weight distribution.
“Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no,” Renshaw starts, grabbing at the blade with his bare hands. Izzy pushes in anyway, cutting the man’s fingers slick as he goes, and smashes the blade deep into the ship’s hull with three hard shoves. Renshaw chokes and gurgles on pained exhaustion and begs, “This is sick. Just kill me.”
“Afraid not. The captain wanted to hear you sing.”
“You’re fucking insane.”
“I’m not, is the thing. I’ve just got two things that you don’t have.”
“Not answering a fucking riddle, just– fucking spit it out, if you’re here to gloat.”
“I’ve got certainty,” Izzy says. He trails his fingertips down the hilt of the second blade.
“Certainty of what? That fucking lunatic?”
There’s no real way to describe the way Blackbeard is a star chart in human form, a weather-worn compass. The direction he points is true north, wherever they’re going. Things are clear. Izzy Hands has only ever wanted some fucking clarity.
But he doesn’t know how to say that and never has, so instead, he just says, “Never lied to me before.”
Renshaw makes a disbelieving noise and slumps again. His blood drips lazily off of his shirt and onto the rock below, a gentle tap every few seconds.
“You didn’t ask me the second thing I have that you don’t,” Izzy says.
“I’ve got a fucking life after this,” Izzy says, and turns on his heel and walks away, back onto the ship. He’s learned to recognize the feeling of Blackbeard’s eyes on him, and they weigh heavy on his shoulders now.
They hoist anchor, pull away from the shore, and raise the sails to cover the sound of screaming. The figurehead lasts a couple hours before the rocking of the water tears it apart and it sinks to the bottom of the red-soaked sea where it belongs.
The cut on his neck from Blackbeard’s knife takes a few weeks to mend. It heals crooked and ropey, never given proper time to rest. Izzy gets a tattoo over it next time they’re at port, a swallow, nestled under his chin and above his shirt collars.
Blackbeard notices one day, and he grips Izzy’s chin and twists his head up to get a better look. His eyes rake over Izzy’s skin and the corners of his eyes crinkle up a bit. “Nice ink.”
“Swallow means a lot of things, in books and stuff.” Blackbeard strokes his thumb down the covered up scar, down to the bird’s beak. “Land. Travel. Mourning.” The tip of his thumb presses down gently. Izzy’s blood surges beneath it. “Love.”
“I like it.” Blackbeard lets his gaze rest on the curve of the bird’s body and wing, the ruined flesh underneath it, and then lets Izzy’s chin go. They stand a moment in each other’s spaces, and then Blackbeard continues on with whatever he’d been doing, heading up to the front of the ship. Izzy turns like he’s been pulled by strings and watches him go.
Blackbeard doesn’t seek him out more after this – Blackbeard doesn’t seek anyone out, for anything, ever – but Izzy finds himself in his orbit more often these days. When he’s got ropes wrapped around his wrist, hauling to the low, haunting tune of a quartermaster’s shanty keeping time, Blackbeard hovers in the edges of his periphery, always watching. It makes Izzy stupid, sometimes, with the perverse wish to perform, to tack on those flourishes that Blackbeard so loves to do. He refrains; that’s not him, it would look comical if he flipped his short-cropped hair or twirled his sword like a baton. But he does hold his back straighter, hits the pull-through of the ropes harder, and feels calm only in the moments where Blackbeard hums his approval, one hand curling around his shoulder and squeezing, leaving absolution like a priest smudging ash on Wednesday.
“What do you think about the weather?” Blackbeard asks him, sat on the railing, one foot propped on the deck and the other free to the sea. Izzy is seated on a crate, sharpening his dagger and polishing his pistol, waiting for a bit more wind to pick up. Blackbeard had wandered by, paused, and dropped down next to him like he had always been there.
Izzy pulls out a small pocket scope and considers the horizon, studies the angle of the sun and the clouds far behind it, dark and roiling, rolling toward them like dullahans.
“Looks like a shitstorm in about eighteen hours, sir.”
“What do you think we should do?”
Izzy considers. Meteorology isn’t his strong suit, never has been. He navigates best when it’s clear like anyone else. But he’s sailed a ship in a storm, fought back against the threat of capsizing, played sails like a piano. So he says, “Divert course a bit, but I reckon we could take it. Use it to our advantage.”
Izzy sits up, holds his hands out to measure angle and degree. He glances back toward the bow of the ship, counts in his head, and says, “Ten degrees ought to do it. Port.”
“Ten degrees,” Blackbeard repeats. He looks back toward the clouds thoughtfully. “That won’t get us to Dominica.”
“It won’t, but it’ll keep us from getting killed.”
He sees Blackbeard’s smirk under the beard, and he knocks his boot against Izzy’s shoulder. “Maybe.” He turns up toward the upper deck and calls, “Oi! New course! Ten degrees portside!”
“Hands is doing your job for you! Ten degrees!”
A pause, then, “Yes, sir,” and slowly, the ship starts to tilt a fraction to the left.
Blackbeard bumps his boot against Izzy’s arm again. “Hope that works.”
It does. They ride the storm like a wild horse, knocking absolutely everything over, and they don’t make it to Dominica on schedule, but they come out of it bedraggled and wet and alive. Izzy feels blistering heat, low in his belly, and recognizes it as relief.
Blackbeard asks him questions. He asks for Izzy’s advice. Izzy is not the most senior sailor on this ship, probably not even the best one. But Blackbeard keeps asking, and Izzy keeps answering, letting his tongue get a little looser each time. The first time he calls Blackbeard Edward, unprompted, it just comes out, and he’s sure Blackbeard’s about to cut out his tongue. But Blackbeard’s eyes crinkle a little the way Izzy has come to recognize as a smile, a genuine one, and he allows it, again and again.
There’s something inside Izzy that he looks for in shards of glass and broken liberated mirrors. Something that grows inside his body, cold and thorny and painful, but calmable. It’s soothed when Blackbeard calls him downstairs to look at maps with his navigator, when he asks Izzy to read inventory logs aloud to help divvy up the loot, when his jacket hangs over the back of his chair and his shirt rides up, exposing flesh, showing how unarmored he is. The thing purrs like an animal when Izzy stands beside him, calls him Ed and feels the heat of his arms when he reaches past him to point out a documented sandbar island turned trading post. Blackbeard nods and listens and gives a shit.
Izzy calls the thing in his chest survival. He does not know what else it could be.
Murmurs of mutiny died down considerably after Renshaw’s death. Blackbeard, for his part, does make a bit of an effort. He’s on deck more, watching the crew, which also means letting them watch him. His plans take a turn for the slightly more practical, if only for a while, to enormous success.
(“Isn’t it fucking boring, though?” he asks Izzy one night. It’s Izzy’s turn on the shit watch, studying the absolute nothingness of the night ocean just in case, and Blackbeard is lying on the ground next to him, legs kicked over a chest like a child.
“Last time things got exciting, you stabbed me in the throat,” Izzy points out.
Blackbeard laughs at that. It feels like the entire world.)
It doesn’t last, because of course it doesn’t. Pirates are not built to last. Even the best laid plans go to shit.
The Spanish have caught wind of the last month of massacres and they’re at the ready this time. The ship takes a cannonball through the hull, but more than that, so does the first mate. At close range, it rips right through him, letting in light as it flings him back, dead before he cracks into the mast. That ignites something throughout the crew, throwing tactics to the wayside, and the raid becomes a revenge mission in the blink of an eye.
Blackbeard drops down on one knee with the body, after the Spanish are summarily gutted and sunken, the ashes of their ship with them. Several of the crew heave gently at the mangled shards of rib and ribbons of fat on display. Blackbeard covers the hole with his hand and tilts his head up and closes his eyes, but when he opens them again, they’re fixed on Izzy.
The next night, after the body has been cleared, thin coins placed over its eyes and liquor poured in its honor, Blackbeard sits across from Izzy below deck, elbows resting on his desk and face in one hand and says, “Of course it’s you.”
He looks exhausted. Everyone does. The night was spent getting away from the ruins of the Spanish ship, fixing enough holes to make the Queen Anne’s Revenge seaworthy, digging out the belongings of the crewmen who sank to the bottom of the sea. Blackbeard hasn’t slept any more than the rest of them, and his eyes are bloodshot but they’re just as piercing as ever.
“I would be honored, sir,” Izzy says.
The desk is littered with things – rolled up maps and clipped together itineraries, pots of pitch-dark ink and bottles of booze that used to be full. Blackbeard shoves them to the sides with his forearms and leans forward, cutting the space between them by half. By now, Izzy has learned not to pull away.
“The crew, they trust you. They may not fucking like you, but they respect you.”
“Sounds about right. No reason they should.”
“I like you, Izzy.”
“That seems pretty stupid, boss.”
Blackbeard huffs. A spark of amusement flits briefly in his eyes. “Yeah, probably. You are a fucking cunt of a man.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“But a good pirate, and a good sailor besides. You know the ropes, you know the ship. You know loyalty. Above all else on a ship is loyalty to your captain.”
“So think fucking carefully first.”
Izzy nods, but he doesn’t think. He doesn’t have to. The knotted jagged thing in his body is wrapped around every part of him by now, and it bows his head and bends his knee for him. There is no greater honor, no greater euphoria, than bending to Blackbeard’s gaze, being held in his full attention. He would get on the ground for it, would bare his throat like a cornered beast. He would wrap his heart in chains and hand them over, if he hadn’t done it years ago.
“Good. Give me your hand,” Blackbeard says, and pulls out a knife.
Rum makes Izzy stare at the blade. He glances at Blackbeard’s hands and counts the fingers – all ten, still accounted for – and tries to remember what everyone else on the crew looks like.
Blackbeard clears his throat delicately.
“Ed,” Izzy says weakly.
“Don’t make me ask you again.” Izzy immediately raises his left arm, but Blackbeard holds up a finger. “Ah ah ah. Right hand. Dueling hand. Glove off.”
“Edward,” Izzy protests, but he does as he’s told. He tugs his glove off with his teeth, one finger at a time, and drops it in his lap, and curls his fingers into a loose fist before setting it on the desk in front of Blackbeard. Blackbeard twists the knife between deft fingers, and then rests his own hand on top of Izzy’s. He stretches the skin a bit between the tendons of Izzy’s forefinger and thumb, as if testing its resiliency.
“As first mate, you belong to this ship,” Blackbeard says. He steadies his gaze at Izzy, and Izzy is pinned by it, helpless to do anything but look back. “This ship is your life.”
“No running off on another one. No mutinies. No settling down in Antigua with some girl. As long as I’m aboard, this ship is your blood. You die for it. You belong to it and nothing else.”
A ship is just a boat. It could be any ship. This ship is Blackbeard. His blood is seeped into its foundation. Izzy knows what he belongs to and it is not a fucking boat.
“Yes,” he breathes anyway, because they both know the difference.
“Swear to me.”
Izzy looks at where their hands rest together. He looks at Blackbeard’s knife. He looks at his face. He meets Blackbeard’s eyes and he flexes his fingers and he does the only thing he’s ever been able to do, slip meaning in between words and pray that someone else understands them. “On the only thing that matters.”
Blackbeard grins. It’s fierce and terrifying. It glows out of him like a lighthouse in the dimness of his quarters. Izzy’s ribcage feels compressed, like he’s trapped under weight, like a hand on his throat, and he can hardly breathe in the face of it.
“Good.” Blackbeard turns the knife in his hand again and presses Izzy’s palm flat to the table. He leans in and swipes two deep marks between finger and thumb, a stark angry X on the back of Izzy’s hand. Blood wells immediately, euphoria burning in Izzy’s veins.
Blackbeard swipes his thumb through one of the pots of dark ink on his desk and rubs it hard into the wounds. It stings something awful, fierce pleasure with a bit of dizziness as the ink gets into his bloodstream. Blackbeard digs into the cuts with his nail, working the ink in, making sure the mark sticks.
“Remember,” he says. “Every time you fight, you’re fighting for this ship.”
I’m fighting for you, you mad fucking bastard. “Yes, Captain.”
Blackbeard’s moods are as movable as the tides, and it gets easier to manage but it never gets easier to predict. He’s mercurial, always has been. Quick to anger, and sometimes quick to calm, other times quicker to boil over like an inferno. Izzy learns to read them when they happen, when to place a hand on Blackbeard’s shoulder and when to duck out of the way.
They’re on deck, mostly, the day after a mildly successful raid. The ship has sustained some damage, as have some of the crew, but Blackbeard’s got a burlap sack full of things that he and Izzy tallied the night before, and he’s swaggering around the deck, calling out names and tossing loot at crewmen, laughing when they catch them and laughing when they don’t. Izzy, leaning against the wall and talking with one of their navigators, rolls his eyes.
“Davies!” Blackbeard calls, and throws a string of pearls. “Sissoko! Randahl!”
He tries to toss a gilded, glassy snuff box over, but misses, elbow bumping into a rope. The box dashes against the ground and shatters, spilling all the contents, and the pieces skitter off the edge of the deck and into the ocean. The breeze whips at the tobacco, dusting the ground with it, and Blackbeard stares at a silvery shard.
Randahl laughs, too loudly. “Fucking nice work, Captain.”
Blackbeard looks up slowly, the mirth in his face gone in an instant. The tides turn, the wind changes, and abruptly, the pressure shifts like a storm on the horizon. Blackbeard steps forward and Randahl steps back as Blackbeard’s hand lands on his pistol. “What the fuck did you just say?”
“Nothing– nothing, sir.”
“Does anyone else find this fucking funny?” Blackbeard demands. The crew murmurs their dissent, shaking their heads and taking extreme interest in their chores.
Izzy sighs through his nose and takes a step forward as Randahl puts his hands up.
“Keep fucking laughing,” Blackbeard is snarling, pistol in his hand, and Randahl is shaking his head, and Izzy steps up behind him and says, “Ed–”
A loud bang shakes the deck. Smoke and spark shoot out of the tip of Blackbeard’s gun. For a split second, Blackbeard looks very surprised. He’s never been as good with a gun as he is with a sword, and frankly has never been as good at either as his theatrics. Izzy remembers this only after the bullet Blackbeard fires shoots past Randahl and blasts into his lower thigh, a scant inch above his knee. It takes a moment for the shock to even register, and then the pain hits and he staggers, landing on his good knee on the deck, blood weeping from the new hole ripped in his trouser leg.
“What the fuck, Edward?” he grits out, jaw clenched. It feels like it missed the bone, which is good, no destroyed femur, but it certainly didn’t miss the flesh, and pain radiates all the way up to his hip and makes his stomach churn as Rendalh skitters out of the way, deathly pale. His fingertips dig into the wood of the deck as he swallows against the lump in his throat, artery pumping drops of life out of him, and he nearly misses the way bodies part on either side of him like clouds before a pair of boots make their presence known in his vision. He looks up, all the way up, up and up to Blackbeard, who stands before him, pistol still held loose in his hand, staring down at him and blotting out the sun.
“Well, I reckon, if I don’t now and then kill one of you, you’ll forget who I am, hm?” Blackbeard says. He reaches forward and nudges Izzy’s chin up a little more with the tip of the gun. “And who’s that?”
“Blackbeard,” Izzy gasps out against the pain. “Captain.”
“That’s right.” Blackbeard stares down at him for a moment longer, a strange expression on his face, and the back up at the rest of the crew. Everyone is silent, wondering if they’re about to see the execution of the first mate, until Blackbeard snarls at them. “Anyone else?”
They all turn back to their positions, “No, Captain”s under their breath. Izzy stays half-crumpled on the deck for a while longer, breathing through the pain, forcing it smaller and more manageable until he can swallow it down.
It’s hours later, in his own room, and thank god being first mate gets you privacy because it’s fucking difficult not to whimper when pulling a bullet out of your own skin, when a shadow darkens the door. Izzy freezes, bandages held in his teeth, water skin in one hand and knife in the other, and looks up as the shadow pushes its way into the room and becomes Blackbeard. He stares up, and Blackbeard stares down, eyes flicking around the room at Izzy’s makeshift surgery table, and then he jerks his head back and says, “My quarters.”
Izzy opens his mouth, but he doesn’t really feel like getting shot a second time today, so he just nods, sets his tools down, ties a scrap of linen around the wound, and pulls his trousers on. He follows Blackbeard out onto the deck and then into the cabin, gritting his teeth on every step, down into Blackbeard’s personal quarters. Blackbeard gestures vaguely at a chair at his desk, and then goes off to a shelf, clattering things around as Izzy gingerly sits.
“Trousers off,” Blackbeard calls over his shoulder.
“Or halfway off, whatever, I don’t care. Down.”
Izzy just sits for a moment, staring more at the floor than anything else, and then lifts his hips up and carefully shimmies his trousers down, past the knees to avoid pressure on the wound, and lets them stay around his shins in case he needs to pull them up quickly.
“Here.” Izzy glances up to see something heavy coming at him and he barely manages to reach up and catch it. It’s a bottle of something dark, a third full and corked. “You’ll want some of that.”
Izzy uncorks the bottle with his teeth, sniffs at it, grimaces. It smells– poisonous, is what it smells like, but also very alcoholic and his body hurts a lot, so he raises it to his lips and drinks without protest. It burns going down and he only doesn’t cough some of it back up because he would rather die.
Blackbeard comes back a few moments later, his own water skin and a small leather case in his hands. He passes Izzy the water skin, and then strips off his gloves, drops them on the desk, and kneels down on the floor in front of Izzy.
Izzy’s eyes get wide and he slowly moves the bottle to rest on the arm of the chair as Blackbeard gets comfortable. He unzips the case and sets it on the desk next to him. Izzy’s eyes slide over it as Blackbeard pulls something out– a pair of tweezers, wickedly sharp and fine, and a small, clean-looking knife.
“Drink more of that,” Blackbeard mutters.
Izzy’s hand is moving before he even finishes the sentence. He takes a deep swig of whatever this is, probably rum or rum adjacent, and nearly chokes on it as Blackbeard reaches down and unbuckles one of his own belts. Blackbeard’s not even looking at him as he slides it out from around his waist, but he does look up when he doubles the leather over and over again and then reaches up and holds it out to Izzy. “Bite.”
“Edward,” Izzy says quietly.
“It’s gonna hurt,” Blackbeard says.
“What are you doing?”
“Made the mess, didn’t I? Time to fix it.”
“We’ve got a medic.”
They look at each other for a moment, Izzy in the chair and Blackbeard on the ground. It’s a strange, protracted moment where Izzy doesn’t dare breathe for fear of it being revealed as a fever dream from infection. Blackbeard doesn’t blink as he looks up at Izzy – looks up at Izzy – one hand holding the belt and the other resting gently on the side of Izzy’s good knee, waiting and quiet and still for once.
Izzy raises the bottle, knocks back another deep, burning swig, and then opens his mouth.
Blackbeard tucks the belt between his teeth, and Izzy does not think about how it smells like him as he bites down, getting his teeth set comfortably. Blackbeard holds it until he’s settled, until he nods, and then reaches back for the tweezers and the knife. He uncovers the wound, rinses it with water, and then flips the knife around in deft fingers and presses in.
It turns out that it’s much harder not to whimper when Edward Teach is pulling a bullet out of your skin. Izzy braces against the chair back and whines behind the belt. One hand catches the arm of the chair and squeezes, threatening to crack the wood; the other hand blindly finds Blackbeard’s shoulder and digs nails into his flesh. Horror builds in his chest and he almost has the wherewithal to pull back, but then Blackbeard shifts, shifts into Izzy’s grip, allows him to hang on. He widens the wound with the little blade and reaches in with the tweezers and Izzy all but howls behind his teeth, squirming in the chair as spikes of pain shoot up and down his body, whiting out his vision behind his eyelids.
Blackbeard doesn’t order him to be still. He doesn’t say anything at all. His gaze is laser focused on the bullet wound, carefully twisting the metal out of Izzy’s body, slow to avoid doing any extra damage. He rinses the hole with water, pulls out a needle and string, threads the eye with his teeth and deftly knots the end.
“Deep breath, Iz,” he murmurs, and Izzy obeys and loses the breath immediately as the needle pierces the edge of his ruined skin. He forces himself through a cycle of slow inhales and gasping exhales, each punctuated by a stab of a needle that he feels deep in his lower belly. It’s hard to keep still, but he has to, and he doesn’t think about why because his brain is fogged over with the sensation of his skin knitting back together, dulled by alcohol, and Blackbeard’s forearm across one thigh pinning him in place. It hurts, but when he cries out, low and rough, at a particularly deep pull of the thread, Blackbeard doesn’t chastise or mock him or even draw attention to it. He’s methodical and thorough, keeping straight, even lines, and delicately ties off the thread with a double knot and rinses the blood off onto his own floor.
Izzy sags back, breathing heavily. It’s not his first bullet wound, but it’s never easy to sit through, especially when it hasn’t come out the other side. He lets his head tip back against the back of the chair and closes his eyes and lets out a long, slow breath, then pulls himself together again. When he looks down, Blackbeard is still kneeling in front of him, one arm still resting on Izzy’s thigh, tired eyes now trained on him.
“Yeah, Ed, ‘m alright.”
“Didn’t mean to hit you there.”
“I know, boss.”
“I’m sorry about it.”
That throws Izzy for a moment, and he shakes his head, uncoordinated. “‘S fine. I know you were going for Randahl. ‘S a prick.”
“Nah, wasn’t really.”
“Wasn’t trying to hit him. Or anyone, really. No point, just puts someone we need out of commission ‘til they can walk again. Waste of resources.”
“What were you aiming to hit, then?”
“Dunno,” Blackbeard says. His eyes are a bit unfocused. “Hadn’t really thought about it, maybe. It’s just a message, you know?” His thumb traces absently along the new line of stitches. It stings badly. The pain and the heat and the alcohol make it hard to focus on anything.
Izzy chews on his lip. He watches Blackbeard. Blackbeard’s thumb plucks a stitch like a lute string. A little bubble of blood pools up and streaks down the side of Izzy’s thigh, soaking into the fabric of the chair.
“Just not the chest,” Izzy says eventually.
“If you’re to send a message. Not the chest. Or the right arm.”
Blackbeard looks up, head tilted to the side. He raises his hand slowly, skin pink with Izzy’s life, and curls his ring finger and pinky back like a pistol. He presses his two remaining fingertips against Izzy’s left bicep, drops his thumb, and murmurs, “Bang.”
Izzy’s breath trips. He nods. “That’d be alright.”
“Alright,” Blackbeard echoes. “Good to know.” His vision drifts off toward nothing, and then he sits back on his heels and reaches for Izzy’s scrap of linen. Izzy lifts his leg and he carefully wraps the linen around Izzy’s thigh, knotting it to the side to protect the stitches. “Don’t get an infection.”
“We’ll see what happens.”
Blackbeard snorts and stands up. He turns to start packing up his little leather case, wiping each instrument on his sleeve before he packs it away. Izzy just watches for a moment before he remembers that his trousers are still around his ankles and he grits his teeth and lifts his hips to pull them back on. If they’re a little harder to get back on than when he came in, Blackbeard doesn’t say anything about it. He doesn’t say anything about anything at all as Izzy maneuvers himself up, swaying a bit as he re-finds his balance, and slinks back out of Blackbeard’s quarters. He closes the door and then leans his back against the wall next to it, letting the breeze from the ocean cool the sweat on his brow. His hands are still trembling. Fingers find his thigh and brush over the stitches through the leather and press down. It hurts, and it feels expansive. It feels like the whole fucking ocean.
There’s no calendar on the ship, but the cycles of the moon count out the months into years. Izzy lives. So do the rest of the crew, sometimes. Sometimes not. The casualties are mounting. The ship nearly joins them, sustaining heavy fire, and if they hadn’t been right near a port, it would have stayed at the bottom of the ocean. Instead, they dredge the broken parts up, leave the worse half of the crew to take care of the repairs, and sail on another one of Blackbeard’s ships, one that he captured some time last year that flew under his flag as a diversion. It’s jarring, to not know the bones of the boat like his own skeleton, to rock the wrong way to sleep in a bunk that’s laid out backwards, to duck out of the way of walking into a mast when prowling around the deck, watching like a hawk for people who are just as thrown, grabbing them by the collar to keep them from tipping overboard.
Blackbeard’s reputation is a thing of beauty, known up and down the West Indies and into Brazil and the colonies. His face is printed on posters at port, distorted beyond recognition, a monstrous mix of fire and slimy flesh and steel. It’s the only reason they’re still alive, and at the same time, it’s the reason that they’re always hanging on by the skin of their teeth. It’s still an imbalance, those who flee instantly or throw up the white flag the second they crest the horizon versus those who stay and pick a fight, but the balance is weighing heavier and heavier on both sides. Those who want to run run fast, and those who don’t have prepared for this moment. Blackbeard won’t back down, of course he won’t, he’s Blackbeard, but his plans get more intricate, more theatrical, more prone to edging on failure right before they manage to snatch their lives back into their own hands. These days, the decks run slick with blood, and these days, it’s equal parts red and blue.
They lose a lot of crew. The replacements they get are often deranged, lining up by the dozens, driven by a thirst for glory or violence or vengeance against their former employers. The ships they target belong to countries, not companies, well stocked with guns and well-briefed men. The victories are savage, unnecessarily so. Half the crew revels in the chance to brutalize their old masters; half of them die for the opportunity. They shed men like so much seawater, bailed from the latest cannonball hole.
Blackbeard buys slow matches at port in Nassau, and later that month, against all rational thought, he orders them to board an armed Dutch diplomatic ship bearing gifts for the masters they hope to woo. He locks them in a silent stalemate and tucks the matches under his hat, in the folds of his belts, the buckles of his boots. He fires a shot with his pistol through the Dutch sail and the spark from the gunpowder lights one fuse. That one lights the next, and the next, until the man is smoldering, smoking, burning patches of fiery red around a ghost. He steps onto the Dutch ship a monster, gun in one hand, and he may as well have his balls in the other.
The beat of silence is a long one, punctuated only by the waves, and broken by a loud shout. None of their crew speaks Dutch, but they can all recognize a command to aim when they hear one.
Blackbeard’s crew swarms the deck. Explosions rock the two ships and pitch people to their knees. Cannons go off, showering everyone in wooden splinters the length of fingers. Wood catches fire, drenching the deck with smoke. Gunfire echoes through it all, often punctuated by grunts and cries and loud, echoing splashes. Izzy counts in his head. Three. Four. Five. Six. Nothing on the ship is worth this.
There is a shout. It’s just one shout among a storm of them, but it’s the one that Izzy has woven into the very fibers of his being. He’s turned and running before his brain catches up, through bullet fire and clashing of blade on blade, boots hammering hard against a deep red deck. He sees Blackbeard through the smoke, impaled on a cutlass, one hand clawing at an admiral’s face and the other swinging frantically with a dagger. Izzy can’t see his face, shrouded in match fire, but he doesn’t need to. All he needs is the ice cold stab through his guts and the adrenaline clawing up his esophagus, screaming words he won’t remember.
He slams himself into the Dutch admiral. He’s not the biggest man in the world, but he’s got momentum, and he grabs at the blade as the two of them topple to the ground. It slices through his glove, through his flesh, down to the bone, as he drags it out of Blackbeard, who bellows and staggers back, dagger clattering to the ground. Izzy smashes the admiral’s head into the ground when they land, and then again, twice more, for good measure, and then he grabs his dagger from the sheath on his hip and plunges it into the admiral’s throat, dragging it through flesh and sinew. Blood erupts into his lap, all up his torso, pooling under the two of them, the only splash of color among the grays and blacks surrounding him. He can feel it seeping through to his skin, painting his chest, covering his thighs. The stench of iron is thick, strangling, heaving. He cuts at the admiral like a ship through a storm, far beyond what’s necessary, fury lancing his cheeks, his eyes, the epaulets that mean nothing in black waters. He screams in the dead man’s face, rage mixed with energy, despair over how fucking unnecessary this all is, a mournful celebration of the blood that still flows through his own veins.
He throws himself off of the body and rolls over, instantly on his feet, searching for Blackbeard. Blackbeard’s managed to drag himself back to the railing, bleeding heavily from a wound through the middle of his belly that had started dragging toward his ribs before Izzy pulled the sword free. Izzy still can’t see his face under the haze of the slow matches, but he can see his body enough to drop down on one knee, shoulder himself into Blackbeard’s side, drag Blackbeard’s arm around his shoulders and haul him up. Blackbeard groans as blood seeps out through his fingers, stumbling hard as Izzy hurries them both across the plank bridge to their own empty deck. He all but throws Blackbeard against the mast and Blackbeard stumbles against it, holding his belly. The wind whips some of the smoke away and Izzy reaches out, grabs the hat with the slow matches, and hurls it onto the ground. Blackbeard opens his mouth, and then Izzy shuts it for him with a sharp right hook, directly into his jaw, smearing red into the gray.
Blackbeard staggers. His head smacks back against the mast. He catches himself, shakes his head hard, and looks back up at Izzy. His nostrils flare, and he hauls himself up, throws himself forward, and punches Izzy right back. Izzy’s head cracks to the side, sparks bursting in his vision, toppling into some crates. He stumbles, slips to one knee, pushes himself up with shaking arms to see Blackbeard advancing on him. He’s unarmed, dagger lost and pistol empty, but his eyes burn with anger far more than they did with any slow fuse. He reaches for Izzy, but he’s slow with pain and clumsy from blood loss, and Izzy smacks his hand away, pushes himself up, gets an arm across Blackbeard’s chest and slams his back against the mast. Blackbeard scrabbles to push him away, but Izzy is stronger right now, uninjured and full of terror and fury, and he cannot be moved.
“This is fucking deadly. This is fucking suicidal.”
“Fuck you, Hands.”
“Fuck you, Edward. This is self-sabotage. You walked onto their ship and fucking dared them to slaughter you. We’re half a dozen men down, and for what?”
Blackbeard slaps him.
Izzy sucks at his now split lip, adding his own blood of the taste of iron in the air, and he slaps Blackbeard back.
“This is sloppy. You’re running a fucking theater troupe, acting like this–”
“You’re way the fuck out of line, Izzy–”
“There is no fucking line without you! There’s no fucking anything without you!” Izzy moves like he’s going to slap Blackbeard again, but the force is taken out by the way his chest is shaking so badly that he has to lean into him to stay upright. He grips Blackbeard’s jaw, grips his hair tight like he’s proving that the man still exists. He smashes their foreheads together and he holds on for dear life. “You’re not going out like this. I’m not fucking losing you to this– this fucking deranged–”
A rough hand curls into his hair. Izzy’s body tenses, braces for his neck to be wrenched back, to be snapped, to be thrown onto the floor, but Blackbeard just holds on, his grip painful and sharp, pulling at Izzy’s skin. Their foreheads grind together like they’re breaking each other’s bones. Blackbeard’s eyes are coal, burning through Izzy, and yet he still does not let go.
“If you ever strike me like that again, I’ll fucking gut you and hang you by your intestines from the mast,” he says, voice like gravel.
“As long as you have the fucking chance to.”
Blackbeard lets out a sharp breath, shaky the way Izzy’s whole body is, and gives one curt nod.
“Can we get out?”
“Too late. Only way’s through now.”
“Can you do it?”
“Yeah. I can do it. Fucking– stay here.”
Blackbeard snarls, his lip twitching up like he’s about to bite, but he just nods again. His breath smells like his own blood, his own holy communion, his life on display.
More than anything else, that’s what Izzy will drown in.
More screaming, coming from the Dutch ship. Distinctly un-Dutch cursing. Izzy adds to it under his breath. Seven and counting.
“Go,” Blackbeard says. He grips at Izzy’s arm with one blood-soaked hand, bumps their foreheads together once more, and then pushes him back.
Izzy looks back toward the ship. It looks like Hell, burning and bloody. Rivers of red like the Styx passing through landscapes made of bodies. It’s senseless, a steep price to pay for a pack of slow matches and a bad idea. He pulls out his sword and he walks back into the fray.
Izzy Hands is not suicidal. But there are a lot of ways to drown at sea.
They live. Sort of. Casualties are higher than Izzy generally likes, in the double digits. The ship has sustained heavy damage and needs constant babysitting as they chart a course for the nearest port. Their repairs will hold out for a week or so, if they’re lucky. The ship is quiet, sickly so, eye contact a rare commodity as those who are left take care of what can still be done.
The deck wasn’t as empty as they thought when Izzy hauled Blackbeard onto it, or else the smoke wasn’t as thick, because word spreads fast throughout the remaining crew that Izzy Hands punched Blackbeard in the face – twice – and lived to tell the tale. Below deck, Blackbeard touches his swollen jaw and listens and looks up at the ceiling, then down at Izzy, who is seated at his desk with a tide chart held down by several glasses of dark liquor.
“We should deal with that,” Izzy says without looking up.
The loud crack of leather is stark on an otherwise dead silent deck. Some members of the crew have turned away, retreated to other parts of the ship, awash in furious memories of careless admiralty laws on their old merchant ships. Others have clustered together, hanging ten feet back, well out of range, glancing at each other with wide eyes.
Izzy keeps his eyes closed. The gaze of the crew isn’t something he wants to see right now.
“Eleven,” Blackbeard announces loudly to the gathered crowd. He paces around in a slow circle, twisting his wrist, shifting the tail of the whip like a waterfall. The one thing Izzy had asked for is that he not be forced to count.
(They had agreed, sat across the desk from each other, on public flogging, for the biggest impact on the crew. Blackbeard said that stabbing was always a good option, and Izzy pointed out that they all got stabbed all of the time anyway. They named off admirals who were loose with their leather straps, and crew who had fallen under them. Blackbeard still had several whips that used to belong to Calico Jack Rackham, worn with age and maintained badly on the ocean but still mostly serviceable. He was not good at using them, which was helpful. The crew didn’t need to know that.
They wrote a brief speech about integrity and knowing one’s place and that the next person to step out of line would get tied to something heavy and so on and so forth. They settled on fourteen – the number of crewmen they had lost in the raid, as if to imply there was anything Izzy could have done about it. They planned for Izzy to be on the deck around six, when the sun was low, to avoid burn. Blackbeard would come out, unnecessary sword and unnecessary pistol strapped to his hips to cut a more imposing figure, and call them all to order. He would read Izzy his rights and post him up against the very mast where Blackbeard’s blood still stained the wood red.
It would silence the whispers, and it would silence everything else on the ship too.)
Pain streaks across Izzy’s bare back, and his nails dig into the mast as he grits his teeth. For all the show they’re putting on, he still refuses to yell, so he bites his tongue and tastes iron as Blackbeard opens up his skin again and again.
“Twelve,” Blackbeard calls, amid sympathetic hisses from the crew.
(“Are you sure about this?” Blackbeard asked.
Izzy looked up at him then, one eyebrow raised, and set the tide chart aside and knocked back one of the glasses of rum. “Edward, the crew are already upset about the raid and the losses. Rightly so. Their opinion of you at the moment is not high.”
Blackbeard looked away for a moment, like a chastised child. Izzy watched him rub his jaw again, then the back of his neck, staring down at the floor of the cabin.
“I’ll live. Whip wasn’t my father’s implement of choice, anyway. If you’re going to scare them off of talking, you may as well hit them where it hurts.”
Blackbeard nodded slowly. He kept his gaze trained on the ground. He was still rubbing the back of his neck, as if recalling something. Izzy watched him, then got up and moved around the desk to stand in front of him. Blackbeared looked up as if moving through tar. He seemed smaller than usual. Subdued.
“I can hit you again, if it’ll help.”
“I’ll fucking kill you,” Blackbeard whispered.)
“Thirteen!” Blackbeard isn’t great with a whip, but it sure fucking gets the job done. Something runs down Izzy’s back, but he’s not sure if it’s blood or sweat. At this point, it’s probably both. Blood would probably be ideal, leaving faint sprays of droplets like wings along the deck behind him. It would look dramatic, and Izzy has never fought for a cause he didn’t end up bleeding for.
(At six o’clock the next evening, a shadow cut the deck and Blackbeard bellowed, “Israel Hands!” and everything stopped.
There were no whipping posts on any of Blackbeard’s ships. There had never been a need for one. It was left to Izzy to strip off his own shirt and brace his own palms against the mast, just above his head, while Blackbeard carried on about obedience and honor and whatever else he had decided to tack on in the moment. Izzy didn’t bother listening. He rolled his shoulders and let the scars on his back ripple like sails.
The first and only warning crack, designed to scare the crew more than anything, wrapped a fist around his stomach and squeezed. His ribs creaked with the effort of holding his body together. He forced air through the pinprick holes in his lungs. It was only sound. It was only sound.
It was only pain.)
“Fourteen!” This one is the loudest, the flourish, the finale. The crack that the crew will remember, the last thing they see before Blackbeard retreats to his quarters and they can break out in murmurs again. It makes Izzy’s knees want to buckle; it chokes his throat, a mercy so that no sound can escape even if he wanted it to. It rips from shoulder to hip, right across the spine, splitting skin like a hot knife. Izzy presses his forehead into the mast and swallows his breath and remembers when it was Blackbeard’s skull. The scent of iron is still strong here and he swallows it down greedily, ocean salt scouring his lungs raw.
It takes him a moment, but he manages to stagger upright and look over his shoulder. A solid twenty of the crew, maybe more, are all staring at him. When he looks at them, they shrink back, as if his very gaze is frightening. He leans down to pick up his shirt from the deck and his blood dots the wood like a star chart, belying perfect direction, if only one knew how to read it.
The crew slowly backs off, returning to their duties, as Izzy carefully pulls his shirt back on. It sticks to his back immediately like a second skin and he doesn’t bother to unstick it.
That night, after the crew had slunk off to their corners, far more subdued than usual, Izzy makes his way back to the cabin. He lets himself into Blackbeard’s quarters and finds a glass of amber waiting for him next to a thick, heavy-bottomed bottle with a paper label. Bushmills, County Antrim. Whiskey. An Irish import. No doubt liberated from an English ship, some time in the past, and a rare commodity. Izzy sits gingerly at the desk and picks up the glass, swirls it one way and then the other, watches the liquid gold catch the light from the candles.
Blackbeard stands at the window, looking out of it. He says nothing as Izzy sits, as Izzy drinks, as Izzy refills his glass and drinks again. The haze of pain in his back begins to recede into a dull throb, loosening his throat for the first time in hours.
“That went well, then,” Blackbeard says eventually.
“Seems like it, yeah.”
“You took it well.”
Izzy presses his lips together, then takes a deep swig of whiskey.
Blackbeard lets the curtain fall and finally turns back. He’s shed his jacket and holsters and braces, swapped them for a dark linen shirt and trousers and bare feet. He circles around Izzy with soft footsteps and empty hands, but can never shake the way he prowls like a predator on the hunt. He comes to Izzy’s side and drops a hand between his shoulders. Pain shoots through Izzy’s nerve endings, lighting up the lacerations that have barely begun to scab over.
“Hurts?” Blackbeard asks quietly.
“Nothing to write home about.”
“That wasn’t the question. I said it hurts, doesn't it?”
The palm of his hand is heavy on Izzy’s back. Izzy leans into it, leans into this unmoving weight, and flays himself. Blackbeard pushes back, pushes harder, and Izzy’s forearms fall to the desk and brace.
“Hurts,” he agrees softly. The word has trouble coming out for some reason. The alcohol should have loosened his lips, but it just loosens his lungs instead, his breath fast and shallow as Blackbeard feels the welts under his shirt.
“You took it well,” Blackbeard says again from just behind his ear. The words curl around Izzy’s throat like a palm and threaten to strangle him. His nails hook into his own forearms as Blackbeard maps out each slash with his thumb, reading the raised welts a map. He breathes hard, head bowed, and behind him, so quiet that it may have been an accident, he hears Blackbeard breathe, “Fuck, Iz.”
His body throbs all over, the weight of this touch somehow leagues more difficult to bear than the lashes. Everything hurts, everything hurts so badly. Sweat pricks at his temples. The scabs on his back threaten to break under the delicate, barely there pressure of the pad of a thumb. The tension is the worst thing, the stretch and creak of the noose, the heavy air before the drop.
Abruptly, Blackbeard pulls away. Izzy looks up as he turns, vision swimming a bit, and the candlelight catches in Blackbeard’s eyes, making them look wet. His face is again drawn toward the window for a moment, where seafoam slaps wetly at the glass, and then he shakes his head, near-violent. He drags another chair over next to Izzy’s and collapses into it, one hand resting on the wound in his belly, and grabs the whiskey to drink straight from the bottle.
They drink in silence, save for the occasional sharp, hissed breath of pain. They abandon glassware and pass the bottle back and forth, imagining the taste of blood lingering on the glass mouth, tongues dipping in to search it out. Izzy gets drunk, gets fucked, falls back into his old habits and searches out Blackbeard’s gaze. Blackbeard gives it to him readily, eyes locked over the bottle as he hands it over. His pupils seem to have swallowed the irises, the bags rimming them dark, dull and tired and far away. And Izzy tries, he fucking tries, to hear what he heard from his mother, from his crew, from that hot beacon on the upper deck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, years ago, but he can’t understand a fucking thing.
Things quiet down again. The crew seems intimidated by both of them now, Blackbeard for dealing the thrashing and Izzy for being able to take it. It takes weeks for them both to heal, disguised under the need to repair the ship and restock the crew. Blackbeard studies his wound as he sprawls in his chair, prodding at the reddened edges. Izzy sits still, the only way he’s found so far to stop ruining all his shirts.
They work well together. Izzy is practical where Blackbeard is manic. Blackbeard spills out the pieces of a puzzle and Izzy fits them all together, squaring the edges. They lean over maps together, press up against the desk together, roil in the storms that tip the world violently off center. Candles flicker and darken their faces, casting the shadow of one two-backed beast up against the wall. In the dark, it’s impossible to tell where one body ends and the other begins. In battle, it’s impossible to tell whose blood is whose. They are the end that all things are a means to.
(“Do you think that this is all there fucking is?” Blackbeard asks one night, fingertips nearly alight in the flame of a candle on his desk.)
When they agree, the oceans part for them. The elements themselves yield. Their helmsmen are good, now that they’re not dying quite so often. Their cannons and muskets are accurate, and more often than not unnecessary. Izzy’s maneuvers are airtight, Blackbeard’s command accurate to the second. The pockets of the crew hang heavy with loot, almost jovial as they polish blood from their blades. Blackbeard sits with them, rum hanging loose from his fingertips, watching and joking. And Izzy– Izzy listens. He has never forgotten the sound of Blackbeard’s body blocking out the ocean, or the soft slide of a blade from a sheath like rain. He has never lost sight of the back that he swore to protect.
(Izzy looks out at the expanse of ocean, encompassing everything, stretching on and on for eternity, and he wonders what else there could be.)
When they disagree, they fight, tear into each other below decks. The fact that Izzy lives through each one is a blessing he carves on his fingerbones. He counts bruises like rosary beads the day after a raid, when the crew are muttering over their bandages and he helps tie knots in slings and he tells them not to worry. He tells them not to forget what a fucking honor it is to sail under Blackbeard. He tells them to lick their wounds and get on with it.
He does not tell them about Blackbeard standing in his quarters, near motionless, staring out the window at night. He does not tell them about the fights or the piles of deadly half-baked plans that get let go to be swallowed by the ocean before they’ve even finished forming or the calculated millimeters they get away by sometimes. He does not tell them about the way bones arch and twist, the way the inside of a wrist bruises, the way a name echoes like a gunshot in a cavern or the way it tastes.
He does not tell them about the night that goes like this:
They get into an argument, again. Blackbeard paces, frenetic as always, while Izzy leans against the desk. They’ve shouted at each other already, gotten that out of the way, and Izzy rubs at the dark X on the back of his hand while Blackbeard snarls to himself. When it’s like this, the thing that lives in Izzy’s chest is all there is. It’s hollowed him out, clawing at his insides, always hungry for more of him. He gives and he gives and he gives to it, and it swallows greedily and it demands more. He strokes his thumb over the X to soothe it and it growls low, tentacles curling, huddling in the darkest corners of him.
He gets up and stands in the way of Blackbeard’s pacing and Blackbeard walks straight into him. He shoves Izzy back and Izzy catches himself on his back foot. Blackbeard looks at him like he’s just noticed Izzy’s there and he shakes his head. “Fuck off, Izzy.”
“We’re crossing paths with that French ship tomorrow morning. I’ll fuck off once you tell me what we’re doing.”
“Does it even fucking matter?”
“Of course it fucking matters.”
“I’ll just go up, wave a sword around, they’ll piss themselves and we’ll make ‘em carry up all their things.”
“And if they’re armed?”
“They’ll blow you apart.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“You’ll fucking die. I don’t think–”
“I don’t fucking care what you think, Izzy.” A muscle in Blackbeard’s cheek twitches as he looks down at Izzy. It’s not contempt in his face, or anger, or hatred, or any of the other emotions that Izzy was taught the names of. It’s– something. It’s something. It’s something Izzy doesn’t know how to fix.
His hands feel numb as he reaches up, slow and hesitant. His body doesn’t know how to move like this, but he makes it anyway. He takes Blackbeard’s jaw in his palms and he looks him in the eyes. He reaches into the shell of himself for something to say. He reaches back years and years, as far as he can, and he reaches down his throat for the very last piece of himself and pulls out his atrophied heart and offers it up on his tongue. “Please try not to die, Edward.”
But Blackbeard does not say, “I will,” not the way Izzy remembers it. He says, “Hmm,” and he reaches up and he closes his hands around Izzy’s wrists. He grinds their bones together and he doesn’t pull them away and he says, “Wouldn’t that be something.”
The creature in Izzy’s chest will hang him like a noose.