Ververe 18, 1013
“But, Jack …” Billy was murmuring.
Jack did his best to avoid a sigh. It wasn’t Billy’s fault, he knew, that Billy was so … straight-laced. His mother was a battleaxe, worse than Sorcha on her strictest days. And he didn’t have a father to take the edge off of his mother, like Jack did. Even worse, Billy didn’t have a Cap’n to teach him all those things that parents strove to keep away from the tender ears of their youngsters. It was no wonder that he was still so diffident, so unsure of himself. Especially at the Tricross.
Sometimes, Jack wished he could just drag Billy to Bledavik and show him a real fun time. Here in Albion, boys like Billy were forever worried about stepping on the toes of boys like Jack and yet-higher boys. Oh, a boy like Billy did his best not to show it, and if ever another boy challenged him, he met challenge for challenge and usually won the fistfight that followed. If the other boy had a shred of decency (or pride) in him, then things usually ended there. If he didn’t … and he often didn’t, since most boys with a shred of decency or pride didn’t go after Billy just because they could … well, then Billy paid for his victory.
It wasn’t fair. And it wasn’t like that in Bledavik. What was the point of lording it over other boys because your father had more gold than theirs did? A chance storm could change that. A bit of luck on the other boy’s father could change that. A tangle with the wrong hurricane or other boat, pirate or otherwise, and you might not have a father anymore. You didn’t insult Fortune in Bledavik, because everyone in Bledavik knew that she was a bitch and bit back.
However, if Jack couldn’t drag Billy to Bledavik, then at least he could bring a bit of Bledavik’s free spirit to Billy. So he leaned closer. “Aww, come on, Billy! What’ve we got to lose, huh?”
Billy looked forlornly off at the two girls playing Mah-Jong. “But Gretel’s pa has such a big farm …”
“What’s that got to do with the price of tea in Smina? Your ma is the only midwife in the kingdom!”
“Ain’t the same,” Billy muttered.
“Sure it is. Any fool can keep a bunch of plants from dying in a warm place like this.” At least, Jack hoped that was the case. He’d certainly never had much to do with raising grain and vegetables and all that whatnot. There wasn’t much of a growing season in Bledavik, anyway, and trying to coax life out of the rocky soil was a hard enough living that most of the men and women of Bledavik found less backbreaking ways to earn their living. Like piracy. “But it takes real skill to deliver a baby.”
“Ma says that she don’t do most o’ the work,” Billy muttered. “She says that the mas do it, an’ she jest –”
“Billy!” Jack interrupted. “Doesn’t she bring home good silver coin?”
“Then what does the rest matter?”
It was a straight-up appeal to greed, other people’s greed, to be specific — but in Jack’s experience, it tended to work as well on southlanders as it did on his fellow Bledavites. Billy blinked at it, but after a moment, his complexion began to clear. “I … suppose …”
“And,” Jack added, whispering in his friend’s ear, “I think Mistress Gretel’s been lookin’ in your direction …”
Billy’s eyes lit up. “Truly?”
Jack only grinned. He had, in truth, seen Gretel look in this direction once or twice. What she was looking at … well, that could be anything. But Billy would never get anywhere with women if he didn’t take a chance every now and then. Faint heart never won fair lady, as the Cap’n always said … usually mockingly.
Well, Jack was in this too deep to back down now. “Come on. Let me do the talking — at first. Then you can go win Gretel’s heart.”
Billy looked at the Mah-Jong table, watched the girls playing at it, and gulped. Twice. But in the end he nodded at Jack. “Aye,” he answered. Then, deepening his voice, “Let’s do this.”
“Amen, brother!” With that Jack strutted off, peacock-like, to the table where the girls were playing. He barely waited for Billy to catch up before pulling out the chair next to Gretel’s friend. “Are these seats taken, ladies?”
The friend looked at him with wide, stolid eyes, her dark brows shading them better than a pair of parasols. “N-no …” she began, then looked at her friend.
“No, sir,” replied Gretel, simpering.
“Wonderful! Come on, Billy, have a seat!”
Billy came and sat, taking the seat next to Gretel. Gretel watched him come with wide eyes. Was that a good sign? A bad sign? Billy knew this girl from his school, but Jack would be damned if he knew much more than that. Did she reciprocate his interest already?
Gretel barely spared a second glance on Billy after he sat, though, preferring to watch Jack. “So … we know who Billy is,” she began, tossing one of her red braids over her shoulder. Billy watched the lamplight flicker over it. “But who are you, sir?”
“Nobody important, and certainly no sir,” Jack laughed. “I’m just Jack.”
“Jack who?” asked the black-haired girl, resting her hand on her chin and watching him.
“Jack Andavri,” replied Billy, saving Jack the trouble. “L-ladies,” he added. “I’ll — uh — that is ter say …”
Gretel raised an eyebrow at Billy, one that Jack chose to interpret as encouraging.
“That is — I know everyone here, so — well, ladies, this is Jack Andavri, an’ Jack, this is Mollie Butcher,” the dark-haired girl nodded, “an’ this — this is –” Billy’s voice cracked on the last syllable, making Mollie titter. Billy flushed but went on doggedly. “This is Gretel Bamfield.”
“Me da owns the biggest farm in Avilion, savin’ Sir Lancelot’s lands, o’ course,” Gretel purred.
“An’ me da is a butcher!” added Mollie, apparently not to be outdone.
“That’s nice,” Jack said absently. “Here, ladies, let me shuffle those for you,” he added, taking the tiles and sorting through them.
“That’s nice?” repeated Gretel, the purr turning into a hint of a growl.
Jack looked up with his best “innocent” face — practiced but never quite perfected under Sorcha’s hyper-sensitive gaze — and smiled. “Aye, of course it’s nice. Nice for you, nice for your pa. But I’m never much interested in what girls’ pas do — and neither is Billy, are you, Billy?”
Billy didn’t answer, too busy was he gaping at Jack. Jack knew then that he had to answer for the both of them — again. “We’re more interested in what kind of people the girls are themselves,” he went on. “Like you, Mollie. What’s your favorite thing to do?”
Gretel jumped, taken aback. Jack could see Billy from the corner of his eye staring longingly at Gretel’s pretty face.
But he focused most of his attention on Mollie, because that was what a good friend did. She stared back at him, eyes wide and lips slightly parted as she breathed, loudly, in and out. Her wide, placid face reminded him of nothing so much as a cow — and not in a good way, the way that the ancient Mysimeans used to compare their goddesses’ eyes to those of cows.
He was never sure how that worked, actually — someday, he would need to ask Cherry. She would certainly know.
In the meantime, he had a Mollie to distract.
“… Mollie?” he asked again, when the girl’s breathing without a response had gone on just a bit too long.
“What–oh!” She laughed. “Well, I like to sew. Embroider, really. Pretty things — not just hems for aprons and patches on–” She stopped. “Not that we need to patch our clothes much — except for me little brothers. They wear their elbows right through just putting on their shirts in the mornin’, I swear!
“An’ … an’ …” Mollie ducked her head, blushing, and muttered to the table, “We cuts down most o’ our clothes before we have ter patch ’em. Ye know. We’re not one o’ those families.”
“Uh-huh,” Jack replied, wondering just why she thought he — or anyone else, really — would care whether she had patches in her dresses or not. He glanced at Billy, wondering if he …
And then he saw all the patches on Billy’s clothes, and for a moment, Jack’s eyes filmed over with red.
Just who did this girl think she was, making fun of Billy because his ma couldn’t afford the newest clothes for him? For the Lord’s sake, she was raising Billy all on her own! She was doing the best she could, and even doing well by plenty of measures. Jack had seen their farm, and more importantly, he’d sat in their house — warm and snug — and eaten at their table. Nobody went hungry in that house. Nobody was cold. Nobody had to battle the elements. They had enough coin for some of their wants, too. What more did these girls want out of Billy?
“Like anyone cares about the patches, Mollie,” Gretel replied dismissively, waving her hand. Jack grinned at Billy. And Billy? Billy was beaming and drinking in Gretel with his eyes. “So, Jack, tell us about yerself. Where are ye from? Ye don’t sound from around these parts.”
“I’m from Bledavik.”
“The pirate port?” Mollie squealed.
Jack turned to her — even if she was an annoying little gadfly, he’d keep her busy if that meant leaving Gretel open for Billy. “Well, that’s what they say. But you know what else they say about pirates?”
“They never tell their secrets — and whether Bledavik really is a pirate port is one of them — to pretty girls, unless they’re goin’ to make them walk the plank five minutes later.” He winked.
Mollie gasped — and then she giggled. “Oh me! I thought ye were serious, there, fer a minute!”
“Who says I’m not?” Jack replied, voice low and menacing, with a smile that could be taken for joking or evil.
Mollie’s eyes widened, unsure which way to jump — until Gretel jumped for her. “I do,” she answered. “Say ye’re not serious, I mean.”
Jack’s mouth opened, ready to rely with a playful bit of banter — and then he saw Billy’s face. Damn it, what did he have to do to get Gretel to focus on Billy? Other than maybe kick Billy a few times to get him to talk —
Hey, that’s a good idea! Jack aimed a square kick for Billy’s shin. He yelped and jumped, the tiles bouncing with his movement.
“What was that?” asked Gretel, glaring at Billy.
“Uh … cramp?” He rubbed the back of his neck and tried to smile, tried to look pleasing.
This would not do. Billy would get nowhere with Gretel if he didn’t speak up, grab her attention, be a man. And Jack didn’t know how to teach him to do that.
… Well, maybe there was one way … the Cap’n always did say the best way to teach a man to swim was to toss him in with the sharks and hope he didn’t drown. He said that went double for the sharkiest sharks of them all: women. Jack decided to try that bit of advice, and to that end, pushed his chair back.
“Where are ye goin’?” gasped Mollie.
“Just for a little walk.” Jack grinned at her, his best copy of the Cap’n’s women-pleasing grin. “Care to join me?”
“Ooh!” Mollie squealed and leaped from her chair, content to follow Jack as friskily and loyally as any puppy.
Leaving Gretel alone with Billy. Perfect.
“So, Mollie, you haven’t told me much about yourself,” Jack said, smiling at her.
“Oh, but I’d rather hear about ye! Ye’re likely ter be so much more … interestin’,” she sighed, fluffing her hair first on one side, and then on the other. “Bein’ from so far away an’ all! Ye must have seen lots o’ interestin’ things an’ met lots o’ interestin’ people!”
Well, the only honest answer to that was no to the former question — when one grew up on Bledavik, most of what one saw were snow, rock, and other Bledavites — and yes to the latter (see: other Bledavites). Jack crossed his arms over his chest and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Well, what would you want to know?” he asked.
“Oh, anythin’!” Mollie simpered. “Have ye ever met a pirate?”
“Aye, a couple,” Jack answered, deliberately understating the facts.
“Oooh! What were they like? Where they as …” She leaned closer, batting her eyelashes, “Romantic as all the stories say?”
Jack winced. He knew he had to be keeping Mollie occupied, but damn, she was making it hard! “Well … it depends on what you mean by romantic. None of ’em that I knew were much for givin’ flowers and candies to their sweethearts … but I knew some that were tall, and dark, and swarthy, and had gold teeth …”
Mollie gasped, and Jack knew he had her. So he glanced out of the corner of his eye, wondering what Billy and Gretel were getting up to.
Not much, yet — or so it seemed. At least they had gotten up. And Billy, stumble and stammer though he might, was trying to talk to her. That had to be a good sign, didn’t it? Of course it did.
“… And there was one I knew who used to make all of the pretty girls he met walk the plank, first thing, except for one … with dark hair and wide dark eyes …”
“Ooooooh!” Mollie leaned closer, hands pressed to her breasts, eyes so wide that Jack wondered if she was trying to hear with them as well as with her ears.
Good Lord, this was just too easy. It was like trying to sell a gilded whatnot to a foolish customer, assuring him that thought it was only a quarter the price of real gold, nobody but him would be able to tell. You just had to know which buttons to push. Apparently Jack had found Mollie’s.
He could only hope that Billy would find Gretel’s just as quickly.
She was backing away from him, hands stretched out before her, head ducked to the side. Jack wished he could see her face. Was she just being shy? She didn’t seem shy, and Lord knew that Billy wasn’t the type to be interested in shy girls. But then again, these southlander girls were the oddest girls on the face of the earth. When you were safe in a crowd, those girls would bat their eyes and swish their skirts and flirt with you to no end, but get them alone, and it was all averted gazes and blushes and false modesty. Bledavik girls were so much more straightforward.
“And then what happened?” Mollie asked, leaning closer to Jack.
“With the girl?” Mollie batted her eyelashes. “The one who made the pirate king stop?”
Pirate king? Jack wondered. He’d never said anything about a pirate king. Pirates didn’t have kings. They could barely manage to organize themselves under a captain. Getting captains to bow to the will of another would be like getting the King of Glasonland to bow to the Emperor of Reme, or vice-versa. It just wasn’t going to happen.
But if Mollie wanted to make the man a pirate king, he’d make the man a pirate king. He was already making everything else up. “Well, he took one look into the girl’s eyes, and he was–he was reminded of his lost love, the woman whose memory made him make all the other girls walk the plank. Because after she was taken from him, he swore–”
“Taken! Oh? Did she die?” Mollie gasped.
“Nah, she just ran off with another captain –”
“What? She ran off? What kind o’ girl is this?” Mollie protested.
“A woman like that could never –”
“Billy Thatcher, fer the love o’ Wright, leave me alone!”
Jack froze. So did Mollie. So did, he was pretty sure, everybody else in the Tricross. And then, at once, pulled by some magnetism none could resist, all eyes turned to Gretel and Billy.
“Like I’d be wastin’ me time with the likes o’ ye!” Gretel huffed. “With yer sister the whore an’ yer brother the barkie! Like I’ll be lettin’ ye get yer sticky sap all over me!”
If only the Cap’n was here — he would have thought of some line about sap, and stickiness, and things of Billy’s that Gretel would someday wish she’d have all over her. Something that would shut Gretel up for good and for all. The trouble was that the Cap’n would never say it to Gretel, since he’d see Gretel as a little girl … but if he was here, he could tell Jack, and Jack could say it to Gretel.
Or Billy could — because what Billy was saying now was not likely to help him. At all. “But I ain’t–”
“Oh, like that matters! Barkie brother!” Gretel spat. “I know yer da was one o’ em, too! Ye’ll probably turn inter –”
“Don’t ye say nothin’ about me pa!” Billy roared back, taking a step forward.
Gretel just laughed. “Why, ’cause he’s dead? Like that changes anythin’! Once a barkie, always a barkie! An’ ye — get out o’ me sight, barkie boy, before I tell me da an’ brothers ye’ve been sniffin’ ’round me!”
Gretel stomped off. And Billy stood, shaking, shaken. His jaw was clenched, eyes closed.
Jack left Mollie in the dust, not bothering to listen to her incoherent protests.
“Hey,” he started, “so maybe that didn’t –”
“Shut. Up.” Billy snarled.
Jack’s mouth opened. It closed. He said the first thing that came to mind. “Sorry … sorry, mate.”
Jack swallowed. Billy stood before him, arms crossed over his chest, head bowed. Temple throbbing. Shoulders shaking. Lord, how was he holding himself together?
Jack took a third plunge. “You know what the Cap’n says is the best cure for a broken heart?”
“Me heart ain’t broken.”
“No, Billy, denial is the second best cure for a broken heart,” Jack replied. Billy looked up, jaw falling — and was that a bit of a laugh starting?
If it was, it died before it could finish. So Jack jumped on his chance before the laugh could be replaced by something darker, grimmer. “Frosty walruses, mate! And lots of ’em!”
Even at the time, Jack knew it wouldn’t be much. Hell, it would barely be adequate. But he knew something else, too.
At the moment — at least until Jack could help Billy find a new girl, one who didn’t have a stick lodged halfway up her rear — it would have to do.