"Laurel is a girl's name," was the first thing Jack said. It was the first thing he had thought, and while not the most tactful thing to say to a nine-year-old boy with sandy blonde curls and long eyelashes, on his first day in a new place and looking a damn sight uneasy about it, to Jack's mind it was a perfectly reasonable. Laurel was a girl's name.
Laurel solved the social gaffe by punching Jack in the mouth.
"'Tisn't a girl's name," Laurel informed him, sucking on his knuckle where it had split against a tooth. "It's the name of my father and my father's father, and once crowned the forehead of a god – a boy god – so how do you like that, Jack Common-as-Beans?"
"I'll call you Laurie; it's not so bad," decided Jack."You don't punch like a girl though your aim's off, so I s'pose we can be friends."
"You're off to malign my aim but you can take a punch, so I s'pose we can be friends."
They shook hands.
ii. Heavy Matters
"Begad, it's heavier than a prince!"
"What would you know about princes, you lying dog?"
"Calling me a liar? I'll shave your belly with a–"
"Look smart, Laurie! You're letting your end down!"
"I'm letting no end down – You keep your end up! That was nearly on my foot, you scurvy curr."
"Quit yelling, yob-head; there's nothing to yell about."
"Aye so there is! You don't believe I met a prince."
"I never said that. You never said you'd met one so I could say that."
"So now I can't talk properly?"
"Laurie, you're making no sense."
"Great Poseidon in a hand-me-down neckerchief, Jackie! Did you or did you not think I couldn't know a prince when clear as day I rescued one from having been washed up on the strand. And did I or did I not have to drag him all the way back out to the receding tide much to my poor arms' great distress?"
"You dragged a ship-wreaked prince back out into the sea? You're a rum nutter, is what you are."
"Jackie, it's best to keep hidden your want of brains, or they may throw you overboard in despair, and well ready am I for a change of companionship. It was a selkie prince, wasn't it? With a crown of kelp-bubbles, and eyes changeable as his kingdom. And from his own hand, I received a token of his regard and it is the best thing I own."
"What did he give you? If you actually met a selkie, where's your token?"
"I'll not be showing a soul 'til I have a need. 'Tis private and private it shall remain."
"Ha, a pretty evasion. I'll admit you can spin a tale, but you can't make me believe that a person can just turn a corner and come face to face with a selkie or a witch."
"Well, of course you won't meet a witch; they don't like water much, do they? And here we are surrounded by it."
"Always have an answer for everything, don't you, Laurie?"
"Surely do – sharp to starboard. Captain's coming."
iii. Out of the Deep have I Called Unto Thee
Jack woke in the middle of the night. He felt the tension of the day's work across his shoulders and down his arms. His hands were solid aches, with a special throbbing agony that had been his little finger before Laurie had stomped on it. Laurie said it was an accident, what with there not being much room in a crow's nest particularly when a body decided to sit itself down with its fingers all scattered about. And Jack had forgiven him, not because the brat had grinned that grin of his but because Jack's hand was too crippled to consider beating him into a pulp. And the fact that incapacitating Laurie would have meant more work for him in the end. Exhaustion curled its fingers around his eyeballs.
And yet he was wide awake.
An oval of pearly moonlight shone through the porthole above where they had strung up their hammock, but it fell on Laurie's face not his. Sleep made the brat a subject suitable for a chapel triptych, innocent and serene. The rest of the narrow passage between the captain's cabin and the crew's quarters was dark and quiet, save the creak of timber and weak slaps of waves that Jack hardly heard anymore. Probably one of the guns had shifted with a crunch to the slight listing of the ship in calm waters. Satisfied, Jack settled back in the hammock, nudging Laurie out of the way with a judicial knee. And then he heard it. Or heard it again.
A girl singing.
The song was sweet and enchanting, harmonious and captivating. It was the song of the sea, of the deep, of all that had pulled on the hearts of sailors to lead them to their ships and to the high waves of the sea. It was the song of everything Jack loved, everything he cared for, his own personal freedom in a wave of high, clear notes.
And as suddenly as it started, it stopped again before Jack could haul himself up to the porthole to spy the singer.
"Avast, ye yellow-bellied usurer! Never a soul has drawn blood from me, and never will they neither!"
Knocking Laurie's encroaching sword out of the way of his stomach with an absentminded flick, Jack tried to remember the Islington's course over the past week. They should be somewhere near Saint Croix.
"Ha-ha, yes! And ye'll be thinkin' it's a wonder I can run that fast, and for that, ye sorry swabbie, I'll make ye pay a scarlet ocean of blood!"
Perhaps there was a local bird about, or a very tuneful seagull.
"I almost had ye there, ye scurvy-infested parrot! Why, I once was owning a dog with twice the brains as ye have in yer little finger."
A whale? They sang, didn't they?
"Wake-up, man! Yer supposed to say: Aye, and he must have taught you everything you know."
Or maybe he was simply going mad.
"Jackie, how am I meant to become the most feared pirate of all the known seas if you won't help me learn how to use this cursed thing? Oi, Jackie!"
Jack was knocked from his contemplation by a wooden sword to the side of the head. It wasn't often he lost his temper, but unsettled by confusion and lack of sleep, being assaulted by a lad barely half his side was the proverbial straw to Jack's camel.
Battering the sword from Laurie's hand with one swipe, he backed the smaller boy up against the wheelhouse and threw a quick right into his gut. Laurie doubled over and Jack was suddenly stuck by his smallness and the temptation to bring his knee up into the other boy's face, and while he stood undecided Laurie slammed into his legs and for a wild minute it was all teeth snapping together and hair in fists and the sky spinning flat and blue.
Getting one hand around Laurie's neck, Jack pinned him to the deck and snarled, "Don't touch me, you grimy little guttersnipe; next time I'll kill you."
Of course, he had forgotten Laurie's left hook.
Laurie stood, one hand cradling his throat, and kicked Jack in the ribs before disappearing below deck.
"I'm sorry, Laurie."
"For what, my lord?"
"Don't, Laurie; I feel bad enough." He watched a minute as Laurie fought to bandage his own hand. "Give over, sap-skull, you're making a mull of it."
After a vicious tussle, Jack gained command of Laurie's hand, tugged off the cloth strip, tutted like a mother hen, and set about cleaning the graze.
"Look, you left a splinter in. What were you going to do? Wait 'til you got gangrene and let the sawbones take it out and your hand with it?"
Laurie snatched the damned appendage back. "What the hell do you care, my lord?"
"Stow it, Laurie."
"No, I'll not stow it, if and it please you. I don't want you touching me, I don't want you near me."
"I'm sorry, Laurie, really sorry. I didn't mean to – I don't know why I did it but it's done and I can't do a thing except bandage you up properly, so give over."
Jack was reluctantly allowed to continue his work, and when it was finally done to his satisfaction he said quietly, "I am sorry for hitting you, Laurie."
". . . and?"
"Aye, 'and' – you don't even remember what you said," Laurie accused, chewing his little fingernail with a vengeance, then sniffed.
"I wasn't born in a gutter." His bottom lip pouting and eyelashes spiked with tears, the ten-year-old looked all of about six. "I was born twenty miles south of Castle Clare; to emerald fields and blue skies, not some dirty grey slum. And your da may be some stupid rich merchant but on this ship, out here in the sun and the ocean and the moon and stars and the whole world around us it doesn't make a damn difference. Only excepting it does because you're going to be a captain one day – don't say something stupid, you will – and I don't have the money, I don't, so you don't stomp all over me now for you'll be doing so soon enough anyway."
"It's true; don't naysay it for it will only make you a liar."
"So, get a skill. Make yourself indispensible and no one will stomp on you for fear of losing you."
Jack watched a slow, small grin creep onto Laurie's face.
'I do like the sound of that."
vi. Met by Moonlight
Almost before the voice began singing, Jack was on deck. The sails hung quietly expectant of the wind, like white paper waits for a story. Slack lines spun lazily to the lullaby-rock of the ship at anchor. The stars were bright and the moon was very, very close.
And the song. The song was a sweet sleepy thing too, barely perceptible amongst the night sounds of the open sea, but persistent: a voice that tugged at dreams. Slip into silent slumber, it sang, sleep the slow sleep of sea and salt and starlight. Wile away with the wind the wide, wonderful night, it whispered, while others wander in their worried, wearisome minds. The pacific Pacific sighed with the song of the singer.
A yearning, wide and wonderful, pulled Jack to the railings. He breathed deeply the air and the sky. On the water, the moon dabbled a long portrait of its face, gold as new-minted princess hair.
Jack frowned at the discordant note. Jump? Well, yes, it was a nice night for a swim, he should go wake Laurie.
The song stopped. A fresh breeze Jack hadn't noticed caught and pulled at the lines, pushed a bucket clattering across the deck. The moonlight gleamed silver on the water which was no longer so inviting. Chafing his arms against the chill, Jack slipped back below deck.
vii. Powder Monkey
"You will take off one of your eyebrows, or a finger – I'm hoping it'll be your nose, give you a bit of character, stop you looking so rum pretty."
"Your jealous words cannot touch me, Jackie." Laurie didn't take his eyes off the stream of gunpowder he was pouring down a cannon's snout. Done, he frowned in contemplation then shrugged and tamped the stuff down. "And don't you have some scrubbing that needs doing? Leave the real work to the real men, Jackie-boy."
"What was that, Laurie? I'm trying but all I can hear is the sound of you setting your own pants on fire. Really distracting, it is."
"Now, Jackie, you keep throwing that instance back in my face as if it were something to be ashamed of. If I didn't make a sacrifice to the gun-peskies how was I to become the greatest powder monkey that ever did live? Tell me that."
Rather than scoff and start their normal, comfortable argument, Jack looked out over the sea, and ventured to ask, "Laurie, what do you call it when the sea sings?"
"Eh?" Laurie gave him a look laced in suspicion. "You call it cabin fever finally getting to you."
Jack frowned, bit at his thumbnail, realised what he was doing, scowled at Laurie for infecting him with the dirty habit, and sighed.
"What song?" the smaller boy asked.
"A song of love and desire and the sea and, you know, other things. Freedom."
There was a small, heavy pause.
"Did I ever tell you about my selkie prince, Jackie? He sang a similar same song, only his freedom was protection. But you see, it's not real, Jackie; songs are just pretty sounds. So you save their lives but you don't consent to be their wife."
"Hold wait, he asked you to be his wife?"
The boy blushed painfully red. "Stow it, Ashbury. My hair was longer then." His voice lowered a full octave in embarrassment. "You do see what I'm saying though, right, Jackie?"
"No. Save your cypticness and dire predictions, and tell me what I want to know before I haul you upside down and shake it out of you."
"A siren. When the sea sings of love and desire and freedom, then you call it a siren."
I had two co-writers for this first part, the incomparable sliphod and (unbeknownst to her) FaylinnNorse. Now everyone go read The Compass Rose and leave lovely reviews so Fay will start writing it again.