Three weeks in, we start on the horses. They buy us eight, maybe ten days. Then Captain makes us draw chits. Anyone shirks, he volunteers. No one shirks. The black chit puts up a fight, but he's too weak to change our minds. Brassy Bill did a stint swinging a hammer in a slaughterhouse before signing on with us, so he does the thing. Quick, but not neat.
I don't remember what it tastes like. Don't want to.
First time, we were almost civil. Captain even says a few words. We bury the bones at sea, all covered up in honors. That's the first time.
We're down four hands now. Bill doesn't even bother cleaning his mallet anymore, and we're using the bones to lure rats up from the hold.
Three months of limp sails. High, white sun and not a single cloud to block it. We're starving, thirsty, slowly mummifying, dying men. What we aren't is surprised.
The old salts call it withernaut, when the Sea of Bitter Tears goes to glass and her winds fall still, every seven or ten years, always summer. Fisherfolk sense it coming before anyone else, pull their nets up and pack off their families to work the mines for a half a year. Many a huckster and hedge priest is paid well to throw bones and predict it. Every time, some clutch of fools try to beat it.
Like us. Fools, madmen, pirates with a hold full of spoils from the last dozen merchantmen as stupid as we. Except they got to die quickly.
"Boy!" That's what I'm called, at least since the Captain's delerium started. "Water!"
Usually, I'd go running with a cup. Find the Captain sweltering on the rail, spyglass in hand, looking for anything but the featureless sea around us. But we've been out of water for days, and Captain is as likely to take a knife to my throat as he is to confuse me for his dead wife.
So, I find a hole below decks and wait it out. I don't even go topside in the daytime anymore, not since our most recent meal, after which I became the smallest and weakest aboard. Smaller now, after a few days living on roaches.
Somewhere, a fight breaks out. Sounds like Brassy Bill decided not to wait for the next lot to be drawn, and from the noise, he's found a few recruits to help. It's over in a few minutes, not so much a fight as two or three mushy thumps, then a body hitting the deck, then sounds I'd rather forget.
The Captain doesn't notice, or pretends not to.
That night, I expect a mutiny. Captain saves them the trouble. They find him hanging from a yardarm next morning. Brassy Bill says the eulogy: "Cut him down. Gut him."
My stomach growls. I stay put. I keep hidden, spend my nights picking through the leftovers for gristle. To keep my sanity, I count coins. We've got no food or water, but we have gold. Casks of it. Mountains. A Pillar's ransom, but no better than seawater to us, and forgotten by the others, just like me. I stack the coins. Build little forts with them. Arrange them by the Pillar's reign when each was struck, or by metal. Gold, silver, platinum, filthy copper.
One I don't recognize. It's black metal, with writing I can't read and symbols I don't know. I try to clean it, but the black doesn't scrub off.
It's beautiful. I don't know why, but I want to keep it. Surrounded by coins that hold no value out here in the still water, it's suddenly the most precious thing in the world. Where to keep it? I don't have pockets. My clothes are long gone; too hot to wear them. I put the black coin under my tongue and keep it there.
Next night, I poke my head up on deck outside my bolthole. I find a dead seagull. Lucky, no one else has seen it. I take it below decks and make quick work of it. First full belly in weeks.
A day or two later, we're blessed with a short squall. No wind, but about ten good minutes of rain. The others whoop like madmen, their mouths wide open toward the sky.
I find a bucket and put it under some runoff. It's half full by the time the squall leaves us and the sun resumes her reign.
That bucket is now priceless. Brassy Bill catches me with it a couple nights later. No words are spoken; I don't think he's got the spit for it. He comes after me with the Captain's saber. He'd always coveted it.
You know the funny thing? I don't think about the water. I think about protecting my coin. I bite down on it with my back teeth and put up a weak defense with a gaff hook from the hold. One-sided fight; even starving and half-dead, Bill's got a hundred pounds on me easy.
Then the damnedest thing happens. Brassy Bill, who'd spent years off and on at sea and climbed rigging like an ape, manages to trip himself over nothing and split his skull on a bulkhead. He falls dead at my feet before I even know what's happened.
I don't eat him, or even touch him. I grab my bucket and hide. The others come looking for him, find his corpse. They fight over him. He's big, meaty. Probably would keep the four of us fed for a week or more. But they aren't thinking like that.
Ugly fight, mostly teeth and fingernails, until one grabs Bill's saber. Not long before the new owner is the only one left. He uses the saber to start sawing away, shoving meat down his gullet, cut from men he'd sang songs with before we'd put to sea. He gorges himself until he collapses, exhausted, overfed.
I cut his throat with the saber.
Three days later, I'm found by a new steam-galleon on a trial run, flying Protectorate colors. They board, and are promptly horrified the way any civilized man would be at such a scene. I'm shackled and thrown into a brig far more comfortable than the hold I'd been sleeping in for a month. They douse me in water and throw clothes at me before I speak with the Captain.
I should be charged with piracy and murder, then fed to the fathom-spirits right then and there. Instead, coin still under my tongue, I mumble some horse-dung tale about stowing away to escape a drunk father, ship attacked by pirates, taken aboard as prisoner, so on so forth.
They buy it. Every word. Captain dresses me in a uniform, and I'm like his son for the rest of the voyage, starts talking about boarding schools and a proper upbringing. Sounds comfortable, but stifling. I wasn't on a pirate ship by accident, you see. First port of call, I'm gone, and with half the Captain's good silver.
I sold that long ago. Still have the black coin.